Clumps of strange yellow balls have been showing up in several images captured by NASA’s Spitzer Space Telescope, and a group of volunteers were the first to spot them after combing through thousands of photos.
These amateur astronomers were helping out with NASA’s web-based Milky Way Project which relies on volunteers to help make sense of tens of thousands of photos. The project focuses on a patch of space called W33 about 13,000 light-years away where newborn stars are bursting into existence.
The volunteers started chatting about mysterious yellow balls that showed up in several photos and Spitzer scientists took notice. They are quite unique:
They think the yellow balls could be a new stage of massive star formation.
However, these yellow balls aren’t actually yellow — they just appear that way because Spitzer snaps photos in infrared.
There are also green bubbles with red centres surrounding the yellow balls. The green rings are halos of organic molecules blasted outward by bursts of radiation and stellar winds from the new stars. The red center is dust heated by the star. Volunteers had already spotted about 5,000 of the green and red balls, but the yellow balls are a new discovery.
Areas where green and red overlap appear yellow in infrared light. Astronomers realised that the yellow balls are patches where the green organic material overlaps with the red dust because stellar winds haven’t pushed the organic material out into a halo yet. Astronomers think the yellow balls are the missing link between the birth of a star and the green and red bubbles they produce.
The yellow balls look small in the picture, but they’re actually several hundred times the size of our solar system, and volunteers have spotted over 900 of them so far.
Astronomers are now calculating the distribution of the yellow balls in the star-forming stretch of galaxy called W33. It looks like most of the yellow balls appear right on the rim of the green and red bubbles. This could mean that the bubbles being blown by young stars are triggering the births of even more stars, a process called “triggered star formation.”
The Milk Way Project is one of several on the Zooniverse website that relies on volunteers to make sense of scientific data.
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