Westerlund 2 Star Cluster Shows Luster Through Lens of Hubble Space Telescope

Westerlund Star Cluster through the Hubble - Courtesy NASA

Astronomers who use NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope find planets have difficulty forming in what it calls the “rough-and-tumble” central section of the crowded star cluster Westerlund 2.¬† NASA has released the¬†latest depiction of the Westerlund 2 cluster.

Located 20,000 light years away, Westerlund 2 makes a of good study of stellar evolutionary processes because of its close proximity, it is considered a young cluster, and has a large stellar population.

NASA says it’s a “brilliant tapestry of young stars flaring to life that resembles a glittering fireworks display in the featured image here from the Hubble Space Telescope.

The sparkling centerpiece of this fireworks show is a giant cluster of thousands of stars called Westerlund 2. The cluster resides in a raucous stellar breeding ground known as Gum 29, located 20,000 light-years away from Earth in the constellation Carina.

Hubble’s Wide Field Camera 3 pierced through the dusty veil shrouding the stellar nursery in near-infrared light, giving astronomers a clear view of the nebula and the dense concentration of stars in the central cluster. The cluster measures between six light-years and 13 light-years across.

NASA said a three-year Hubble study of stars in Westerlund 2 revealed that the precursors to planet-forming disks encircling stars near the cluster’s center are mysteriously devoid of large, dense clouds of dust that in a few million years could become planets.

However, the observations show that stars on the cluster’s periphery do have the immense planet-forming dust clouds embedded in their disks. Researchers think our solar system followed this recipe when it formed 4.6 billion years ago.

So why do some stars in Westerlund 2 have a difficult time forming planets while others do not? It seems that planet formation depends on location, location, location, NASA said. The most massive and brightest stars in the cluster congregate in the core, which is verified by observations of other star-forming regions. The cluster’s center contains at least 30 extremely massive stars, some weighing up to 80 times the mass of the Sun.

Their blistering ultraviolet radiation and hurricane-like stellar winds of charged particles blowtorch disks around neighboring lower-mass stars, dispersing the giant dust clouds.