Ghostly Young Nebula Catches Star Formation

Jun 9, 2021 | Daily Space, Nebulae, Star Forming Region

Ghostly Young Nebula Catches Star Formation
IMAGE: Composite image of the nebula RCW 120. The ring-shaped clouds around the nebula were detected by the Spitzer Space Telescope. SOFIA measured the glowing gas shown in red and blue to study the nebula’s expansion speed and determine its age. The blue gas represents gas expanding in the direction toward Earth and the red away from Earth. The expansion is triggering the birth of stellar neighbors at breakneck speeds – and revealing the nebula is younger than previously believed. CREDIT: NASA/JPL-Caltech/SOFIA

The word nebula gets used for a lot of different systems with a lot of different formation histories and future behaviors. From the nebulae that surround dying stars, we now jump to the glowing gases that form new stars. 

The SOFIA airborne observatory recently turned its infrared detectors toward a nebula cataloged as RCW120. While its name is ugly, this horse show of glowing gas has a ghostly beauty. Only 150,000 years ago, this was just a dark cloud, but one day something happened that started star formation. Those first stars lit up, and their winds pushed out against surrounding gas, triggering it to collapse and form stars which then lit up and continued this process in a stellar feedback loop. 

Today, this nebula is expanding at 15 km/s as stellar winds push out, and new rings of stars are triggered to form. This kind of formation hasn’t been seen before, and according to the study lead author: The nebula is giving us a window into what star formation may have been like in the early universe. We can’t go back to study the early universe, so we depend on observations like these to understand how the universe transformed from the Big Bang to the universe we see today. 

This work appears in Science Advances, and we will link to a high-resolution image of this system on our website,

More Information

USRA press release

Stellar feedback and triggered star formation in the prototypical bubble RCW 120,” Matteo Luisi et al., 2021 April 9, Science Advances


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