The Carina Nebula could help answer questions about the birth of our own Sun, utilizing new analysis of photographs taken of the body.

Rice University astronomers conducted a study examining the brilliant nebula in infrared light.

The Carina Nebula, also known as NGC 3372, or The Grand Nebula, is a star-forming region, located about 7,500 light years away from Earth. The object spans 100 light years from one side to the other, and it is easily visible to the naked eye to observers in the southern hemisphere, appearing as a bright patch of light in the Milky Way band. By comparison, the Orion Nebula, a favorite target for amateur astronomers in the northern hemisphere, is only about 20 percent of the size of the Carina Nebula.

Stars are typically formed in regions where atoms of hydrogen are in clouds dense enough for the formation of hydrogen gas, consisting of two atoms in each molecule.

"The Carina Nebula is an ideal place to observe how this happens because there are dozens of examples of forming stars at various stages of development," Patrick Hartigan, a professor of astronomy and physics at Rice University, said.

Thousands of stars with masses close to that of our own Sun are contained within the stellar birthplace, accompanied by around 70 known O-type stars. These massive stellar bodies, each containing between 15 and 150 times as much material as our companion star, are short-lived, being destroyed in supernova explosions after average lifespans around 10 million years. These events, along with a powerful solar wind, can spread gas and dust, including heavy elements, out to space, having a significant impact on the composition and behavior of gas clouds within star-forming regions. This behavior, occurring in the Eagle Nebula, is seen in a well-known image taken by the Hubble Space Telescope, called "The Pillars of Creation."

Astronomers believe creation of similar pillars could play a vital role in the formation of solar systems, such as our own family of planets. Thick pillars likely form on the edge of nebulae, which grow thinner over the course of time. Around one million years after the start of the process, the developing star, often with a gas cloud that will form planets, finally breaks free of the cloud.

Infrared detectors at the National Optical Astronomy Observatory in Arizona were utilized to peer inside the clouds of the nebula, in order to examine the role played by O-type stars in the formation of new stellar systems.

Astronomers traditionally believed that solar winds from supermassive stars helped to compress matter into new star formation. This new examination shows that effect is limited, and does not play as much of a role in the creation of stars like our Sun.

Examination of the Carina Nebula was detailed in The Astronomical Journal.

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