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Baby Stars
By Steven Ehrenberg

The Christmas Tree Cluster
The Christmas Tree Cluster, in the new photo from NASA's Spitzer Space Telescope. The newly revealed stars appear as pink and red specks toward the center of the image.
(Photo: NASA/JPL-Caltech/P.S. Teixeira)
Wednesday, December 28—Astronomers at the University of Arizona snapped a spectacular close-up image of newborn stars. The photo was published this week in the Astronomical Journal, and gives scientists a glimpse of how young stars behave.

The stars are located in the Unicorn constellation, or pattern of stars, near Orion. (You can see Orion in the winter's night sky—just look for three bright stars close together in a line.) They're part of what scientists are calling the "Christmas Tree Cluster," a glowing cloud of space dust that looks a little like a holiday pine.

Stars form inside clusters. "We believe this process of forming stars in a cluster was exactly the same thing that happened with our own sun," said Erick T. Young, an astronomer at Arizona's Steward Observatory. "It tells us a lot about the history of our own solar system."

Astronomers estimate that our solar system is about 4 1/2 billion years old, while the Christmas Tree Cluster is "only" 1 to 3 billion years old.

Normally, the Christmas Tree Cluster looks like a haze of gas and dust. Astronomers peeked through the fog using the Spitzer Space Telescope, which is very sensitive to heat. Stars are much hotter than gas and dust, so the telescope captured the pink baby stars behind the cluster's blanket.

"That was a wonderful holiday surprise for us!" said Paula Teixera, the lead author of the study. She and her team plan to use the photograph to learn more about star birth.

The stars are 2,500 light years away from Earth. A light year is the distance traveled by light in one year—about 6 trillion miles.