For years, astronomers have puzzled over a massive star lodged deep in the Milky Way that shows conflicting signs of being extremely old and extremely young.

Researchers initially classified the star as elderly, perhaps a red supergiant. But a new study by a NASA-led team of researchers suggests that the object, labeled IRAS 19312+1950, might be something quite different – a protostar, a star still in the making.

“Astronomers recognized this object as noteworthy around the year 2000 and have been trying ever since to decide how far along its development is,” said Martin Cordiner, an astrochemist working at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland. He is the lead author of a paper in the Astrophysical Journal describing the team’s findings, from observations made using NASA’s Spitzer Space Telescope and ESA’s Herschel Space Observatory.

Located more than 12,000 light-years from Earth, the object first stood out as peculiar when it was observed at particular radio frequencies. Several teams of astronomers studied it using ground-based telescopes and concluded that it is an oxygen-rich star about 10 times as massive as the sun. The question was: What kind of star?

Some researchers favor the idea that the star is evolved – past the peak of its life cycle and on the decline. For most of their lives, stars obtain their energy by fusing hydrogen in their cores, as the sun does now. But older stars have used up most of their hydrogen and must rely on heavier fuels that don’t last as long, leading to rapid deterioration.

Two early clues – intense radio sources called masers – suggested the star was old. In astronomy, masers occur when the molecules in certain kinds of gases get revved up and emit a lot of radiation over a very limited range of frequencies. The result is a powerful radio beacon – the microwave equivalent of a laser.

One maser observed with IRAS 19312+1950 is almost exclusively associated with late-stage stars. This is the silicon oxide maser, produced by molecules made of one silicon atom and one oxygen atom. Researchers don’t know why this maser is nearly always restricted to elderly stars, but of thousands of known silicon oxide masers, only a few exceptions to this rule have been noted.

Also spotted with the star was a hydroxyl maser, produced by molecules comprised of one oxygen atom and one hydrogen atom. Hydroxyl masers can occur in various kinds of astronomical objects, but when one occurs with an elderly star, the radio signal has a distinctive pattern – it’s especially strong at a frequency of 1612 megahertz. That’s the pattern researchers found in this case.

Even so, the object didn’t entirely fit with evolved stars. Especially puzzling was the smorgasbord of chemicals found in the large cloud of material surrounding the star. A chemical-rich cloud like this is typical of the regions where new stars are born, but no such stellar nursery had been identified near this star.

Scientists initially proposed that the object was an old star surrounded by a surprising cloud typical of the kind that usually accompanies young stars. Another idea was that the observations might somehow be capturing two objects: a very old star and an embryonic cloud of star-making material in the same field.

Cordiner and his colleagues began to reconsider the object, conducting observations using ESA’s Herschel Space Observatory and analyzing data gathered earlier with NASA’s Spitzer Space Telescope. Both telescopes operate at infrared wavelengths, which gave the team new insight into the gases, dust and ices in the cloud surrounding the star.

The additional information leads Cordiner and colleagues to think the star is in a very early stage of formation. The object is much brighter than it first appeared, they say, emitting about 20,000 times the energy of our sun. The team found large quantities of ices made from water and carbon dioxide in the cloud around the object. These ices are located on dust grains relatively close to the star, and all this dust and ice blocks out starlight making the star seem dimmer than it really is.

In addition, the dense cloud around the object appears to be collapsing, which happens when a growing star pulls in material. In contrast, the material around an evolved star is expanding and is in the process of escaping to the interstellar medium. The entire envelope of material has an estimated mass of 500 to 700 suns, which is much more than could have been produced by an elderly or dying star.

“We think the star is probably in an embryonic stage, getting near the end of its accretion stage – the period when it pulls in new material to fuel its growth,” said Cordiner.

Also supporting the idea of a young star are the very fast wind speeds measured in two jets of gas streaming away from opposite poles of the star. Such jets of material, known as a bipolar outflow, can be seen emanating from young or old stars. However, fast, narrowly focused jets are rarely observed in evolved stars. In this case, the team measured winds at the breakneck speed of at least 200,000 miles per hour (90 kilometers per second) – a common characteristic of a protostar.
Still, the researchers acknowledge that the object is not a typical protostar. For reasons they can’t explain yet, the star has spectacular features of both a very young and a very old star.

“No matter how one looks at this object, it’s fascinating, and it has something new to tell us about the life cycles of stars,” said Steven Charnley, a Goddard astrochemist and co-author of the paper.

NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, manages the Spitzer Space Telescope mission, whose science operations are conducted at the Spitzer Science Center. Spacecraft operations are based at Lockheed Martin Space Systems Company, Littleton, Colorado.

Herschel is an ESA space observatory with science instruments provided by European-led principal investigator consortia and with important participation from NASA.

IMAGE….An age-defying star called IRAS 19312+1950 exhibits features characteristic of a very young star and a very old star. The object stands out as extremely bright inside a large, chemically rich cloud of material, as shown in this image from NASA’s Spitzer Space Telescope. IRAS 19312+1950 is the bright red star in the center of this image.

A NASA-led team of scientists thinks the star – which is about 10 times as massive as our sun and emits about 20,000 times as much energy – is a newly forming protostar. That was a big surprise, because the region had not been known as a stellar nursery before. But the presence of a nearby interstellar bubble, which indicates the presence of a recently formed massive star, also supports this idea.

JPL manages the Spitzer Space Telescope mission for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate, Washington. Science operations are conducted at the Spitzer Science Center at Caltech in Pasadena, California. Spacecraft operations are based at Lockheed Martin Space Systems Company, Littleton, Colorado. Data are archived at the Infrared Science Archive housed at the Infrared Processing and Analysis Center at Caltech. Caltech manages JPL for NASA.

For more information about the Spitzer mission, visit http://www.nasa.gov/spitzer and http://spitzer.caltech.edu.

Solar Eruptions - A Coronal Mass Ejection 

The swirling inner layers of our sun cause charged particles to generate magnetic fields. As charges accumulate on the surface, magnetic field lines readjust themselves and release huge quantities of matter and electromagnetic radiation into space. This particular Mass Ejection is traveling at over 900 miles per second and has an energy level equivalent to 160,000,000,000 megatons of TNT. 

Credit: NASA/Solar Dynamics Observatory/Goddard Spaceflight Center


Goddard Space Flight Center has published a beautiful photo gallery commemorating Hubble’s 25th anniversary. Goddard installed the telescope’s instruments as well as performed final pre-launch checkouts before being shipped towards NASA’s Kennedy Space Center for launch.

In the first and third images above, Hubble is seen undergoing testing at Goddard. The first photo is Hubble in the Vertical Assembly and Test Area and the second is Hubble undergoing final assembly at Lockheed Martin’s Sunnyvale, California plant.

For more on Hubble’s 25th anniversary, click here.


Happy #NationalAviationDay!

Today’s post was written by Grace DiAgostino, Student Trainee at the National Archives at Philadelphia.

In honor of National Aviation Day, this post features photographs from the Office Records of the Scout Launch Vehicle (NAID: 616672), a series from our substantial NASA holdings. The Solid Controlled Orbital Utility Test, otherwise known as Scout, Launch Vehicle Program began in 1957 after the Soviet Union launched Sputnik, the first artificial Earth satellite. The launch of Sputnik ignited the Space Race, during which the United States and the Soviet Union competed to conquer the next frontier— outer space.  To gain a lead on the USSR, the United States initiated the Scout Launch Vehicle Program to produce an inexpensive, reliable, versatile, solid fuel launch vehicle for smaller payloads.

The first stage of the Scout Program began in 1957 and consisted of development and design at the Langley Airfield Research Center. Scout, an acronym for Solid Controlled Orbital Utility Test, is a four-stage solid fuel satellite system capable of launching a 385-pound satellite into a 500-mile orbit, and the rocket consists of four stages: Algol, Castor, Antares, and Altair. The goal of the Scout Project was to produce a relatively inexpensive, reliable, solid fuel vehicle that could be used to launch small satellites into orbit around Earth. Scout was the first orbital launch vehicle to be entirely composed of solid fuel stages.

Keep reading

Full Disk Image of Earth Captured August 26, 2011 by NASA Goddard Photo and Video on Flickr.

Hurricane Irene can be seen on the U.S. East Coast.

Update: This satellite movie, released earlier today (August 27) by NASA, shows Hurricane Irene moving through the Bahamas and making landfall at Cape Lookout, North Carolina at around 8 a.m. EDT today.

NASA Begins Launch Preparations for the First U.S. Asteroid Sampling Mission by NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center on Flickr.

NASA’s first spacecraft designed to return a piece of an asteroid to Earth arrived Friday, May 20, at the agency’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida, and has begun final preparations in advance of its September launch.

The Origins, Spectral Interpretation, Resource Identification, Security – Regolith Explorer (OSIRIS-REx) spacecraft will undergo final testing and fueling prior to being moved to its launch pad. The mission has a 34-day launch period beginning on Sept. 8.

After launch, the OSIRIS-REx spacecraft will travel to the near-Earth asteroid Bennu and retrieve at least 60 grams (2.1 ounces) of pristine surface material and return it to Earth for study. Scientists expect that Bennu may hold clues to the origin of the solar system and the source of the water and organic molecules that may have made their way to Earth.

To read the full article, click here.

Made with Flickr

JWST mirror taking shape

by European Space Agency
This photograph shows the James Webb Space Telescope mirror taking shape, with 12 of the 18 mirror segments that make up the primary mirror installed. The first of the hexagonal-shaped mirror segments was installed on 22 November 2015, and since then a team of scientists and engineers have worked tirelessly to install the remaining mirror segments onto the telescope structure in the large cleanroom at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland. The twelfth mirror was installed on 2 January 2016. The individual segments are placed on the telescope’s backplane using a robotic arm, guided by engineers. Each mirror segment measures just over 1.3 metres across and weighs approximately 40 kilograms. After being pieced together, the 18 primary mirror segments will work together as one large 6.5-metre mirror. The primary mirror will unfold and adjust to shape after launch using actuators on the back of each segment. The mirror segments are made of ultra-lightweight beryllium chosen for its thermal and mechanical properties at cryogenic temperatures. Since JWST will search for infrared light from the first stars and galaxies in the early Universe, the mirrors need to be cold, below -220 degrees C, to minimise any glow from the mirror itself. A thin gold film, chosen for its ability to reflect infrared light, coats each mirror. During the installation process, the mirrors are protected with black covers, as can be seen in this picture. The mirrors were built by Ball Aerospace & Technologies Corp., Boulder, Colorado. Ball is the principal subcontractor to Northrop Grumman for the optical technology and lightweight mirror system. The installation of the mirrors onto the telescope structure is performed by Harris Corporation of Rochester, New York. Harris Corporation leads integration and testing for the telescope. The James Webb Space is an international project led by NASA with its partners, ESA and the Canadian Space Agency. Credit: NASA/C. Gunn

In this image, a Goddard Space Flight Center photographer is assembling a camera system inside the dynamic test chamber at the Center’s test and evaluation facilities. Thorough testing in facilities that simulate the space environment has become a hallmark at Goddard. After spending years on a single project, no scientist or engineer wants to lose a key instrument or an entire satellite because of a faulty component or electrical connection. As a result, developing thorough test and evaluation facilities and procedures has always remained a high priority.

Spotlight on Webb Telescope test

Dressed in a clean room suit, NASA photographer Desiree Stover shines a light on the Space Environment Simulator’s Integration Frame inside the thermal vacuum chamber at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md. Shortly after, the chamber was closed up and engineers used this frame to enclose and help cryogenic (cold) test the heart of the James Webb Space Telescope, the Integrated Science Instrument Module.

Image source: NASA