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Hubble finds that 2's company, 3's a crowd for young stars

Top: Gas jets from young star group extend 12 light-years. Bottom: Solo star is on left edge of white blob. Binary stars appear as red point of light below. Between them lies a dark horizontal bar, the torus. (Click for larger version)

GREENBELT, Maryland (CNN) -- Three young stars have been kicked out of their cosmic nursery, perhaps for engaging in a gravitational brawl, according to Hubble Space Telescope scientists, who released images of the trio on Wednesday.

Two of the newborns remain in a tightly knit binary star system orbit, but the third left their company altogether, said Hubble researchers. Observations of the three could shed light on what determines the masses of stars.

Scientists combined recent Hubble infrared and visible images with ground-based radio observations to study the stars, located some 1,400 light-years away near a giant torus, or doughnut-shaped cloud of dust and gas that served as their nursery.

Newborn stars generally linger in the middle of such stellar birthing grounds, using stores of proto-stellar material for fuel. But in this case, two reside below the center and off to one side of the torus, while the third is off to the other side, far above the ring.

The trio could have engaged in a gravitational skirmish several thousand years ago, which flung two in one direction as a binary pair and the third in the other direction as a solitary star, Hubble scientists said in a statement.


Astronomers need to make more observations of the motions of the newborns to determine the cause of their unusual configuration.

The Hubble observatory cannot see the binary stars because of their close proximity, within 5 billion miles (8 billion km) of each other. But using radio observations from the Very Large Array in New Mexico, scientists detected separate stars by distinguishing two sets of giant cosmic jets; each of the binary stars ejects streams of gas and dust in opposite directions.

The observation could shed light on what determines stellar mass. Outside the torus, for example, the three stars can no longer grow, unable to use the rich supply of proto-stellar fuel.

The binary stars likely have small fuel reservoirs that allow both to produce jets, but "the remarkable jet activity should begin to fizzle out" as they become depleted, Hubble scientists said.

NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, helps coordinate operations for the Hubble Space Telescope, a project between NASA and the European Space Agency.

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