Massive, Young Star Bursts Into View

Infrared image of the Cat's Paw Nebula with inset showing high-mass protostar pre- and post-outburst
The Cat’s Paw Nebula (NGC 6334), imaged here by NASA’s Spitzer Space Telescope using the IRAC instrument, is a star-forming region of the Milky Way galaxy. The dark filament running through the middle of the nebula is a particularly dense region of gas and dust. The inset shows the region of a newly visible high-mass protostar with pre- and post-outburst luminosity imaged by the Cerro Tololo Inter-American Observatory and NASA’s Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy, respectively. Credits: Cat’s Paw Nebula: NASA/JPL-Caltech; Left inset: De Buizer et al. 2000; Right inset: Hunter et al. 2021

A young, high-mass star recently burst into view in a corner of the Cat’s Paw Nebula, a star-forming region of the Milky Way galaxy. The nascent star was previously invisible, hidden by tons of obscuring gas and dust. Now, it is the brightest source of infrared light in the entire cluster of young stars, and shines with the light of 50,000 Suns. NASA’s telescope on an airplane, the Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy, or SOFIA, studied the star’s outburst – the brightest and longest-lasting of its kind ever observed.

The observations helped determine the cause of the flare. Stars form via gradual, continuous accretion, or accumulation of matter drawn in by gravity from a surrounding disk. But this steady process is occasionally interrupted as a massive clump from the disk falls onto the forming star, causing a tremendous outburst of energy. That energy is mainly in the form of infrared light, which SOFIA can observe. This image by NASA’s retired Spitzer Space Telescope shows the location within the nebula of the newly visible, high-mass protostar. The inset compares its pre- and post-outburst luminosity. The latter was detected by SOFIA and shows it is 16 times brighter than before. The new findings also confirm that the way high-mass stars are born is comparable to the formation of low-mass stars, like our Sun.

SOFIA is a joint project of NASA and the German Space Agency at DLR. DLR provides the telescope, scheduled aircraft maintenance, and other support for the mission. NASA’s Ames Research Center in California’s Silicon Valley manages the SOFIA program, science, and mission operations in cooperation with the Universities Space Research Association, headquartered in Columbia, Maryland, and the German SOFIA Institute at the University of Stuttgart. The aircraft is maintained and operated by NASA’s Armstrong Flight Research Center Building 703, in Palmdale, California.