By exploiting the exquisite image quality of the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope and comparing two observations made 10 years apart, astronomers have for the first time managed to measure the tiny motions of several hundred young stars within the central cluster of the star-forming region NGC 3603. The team was surprised to find that the stars are moving in ways that are at odds with the current understanding of how such clusters evolve. The stars in the cluster have not “settled down” as expected.
With a mass of more than 10,000 suns packed into a volume with a diameter of a mere 3 light-years, the massive young star cluster in the nebula NGC 3603 is one of the most compact stellar clusters in the Milky Way and an ideal place to test theories for their formation.
A team of astronomers from the Max Planck Institute for Astronomy (MPIA) in Heidelberg and the University of Cologne led by Wolfgang Brandner (MPIA) wanted to track the movement of the cluster’s many stars. Such a study could reveal whether the stars were in the process of drifting apart or about to settle down.
The cluster, formally known as the NGC 3603 Young Cluster, is about 20,000 light-years from the Sun, which makes these measurements extraordinarily difficult. It is necessary to compare images that were made years or even decades apart. The telescope and camera used must give very sharp images and be extremely stable over long periods.
Brandner and his colleagues realized that the Hubble Space Telescope was the best for the job. They found good data in the archives for the NGC 3603 cluster from a July 1997 observing run with the Wide Field Planetary Camera 2 (WFPC2), and then made their own follow-up observations in September 2007 using the same camera and the same set of filters as in the original observations. It then took the team 2 years of very careful analysis to extract reliable estimates for the motions of stars in the images.
“Our measurements have a precision of 27 millionths of an arcsecond per year,” said Boyke Rochau (MPIA). “This tiny angle corresponds to the apparent thickness of a human hair seen from a distance of 800 kilometers (500 miles).”
In this laborious way, they were able to measure the precise speeds of more than 800 stars. About 50 were identified as foreground stars that are unrelated to the cluster, but more than 700 cluster stars of different masses and surface temperatures remained. The results for the motion of these cluster stars were surprising — this massive star cluster has not yet settled down. Instead, the stars’ velocities were independent of their mass and still reflect conditions from the time the cluster was formed, approximately 1 million years ago.
Stars are born when a gigantic cloud of gas and dust collapses. In cases such as the star-forming region NGC 3603, where the cloud is unusually massive and compact, the process is particularly quick and intense. Most of the cloud’s matter ends up concentrated inside hot young stars, and the cluster keeps much of its initial gravitational attraction. In the long term, such massive compact star clusters may lead to the development of the huge balls of stars known as globular clusters whose tightly packed stars remain held together by gravity for billions of years.
“This is the first time we have been able to measure precise stellar motions in such a compact young star cluster,” said Wolfgang Brandner.
“This is key information for astronomers trying to understand how such clusters are formed, and how they evolve,” said team member Andrea Stolte from the University of Cologne.