Normal Stars & Star Clusters

The Enduring Stellar Lifecycle in 30 Doradus

Image of 30 Doradus in X-ray and infrared light
30 Doradus
Credit: X-ray: NASA/CXC/Penn State Univ./L. Townsley et al.; IR: NASA/ESA/CSA/STScI/JWST ERO Production Team

The largest and brightest region of star formation in the Local Group of galaxies, including the Milky Way, is called 30 Doradus (or, informally, the Tarantula Nebula). Located in the Large Magellanic Cloud, a small neighbor galaxy to the Milky Way, 30 Doradus has long been studied by astronomers who want to better understand how stars like the Sun are born and evolve.

NASA’s Chandra X-ray Observatory has frequently looked at 30 Doradus over the lifetime of the mission, often under the direction of Dr. Leisa Townsley who passed away in the summer of 2022. These data will continue to be collected and analyzed, providing opportunities for scientists both now and in the future to learn more about star formation and its related processes.

This new composite image combines the X-ray data from Chandra observations of 30 Doradus with an infrared image from NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope that was released in the fall of 2022. The X-rays (royal blue and purple) reveal gas that has been heated to millions of degrees by shock waves — similar to sonic booms from airplanes — generated by the winds from massive stars. The Chandra data also identify the remains of supernova explosions, which will ultimately send important elements such as oxygen and carbon into space where they will become part of the next generation of stars.

The Enduring and Engaging Legacy of Leisa Townsley

Collage of images made possible through the work of Leisa Townsley
Credit: NASA/CXC/Leisa Townsley

When Dr. Leisa Townsley passed away this summer, the scientific community lost a brilliant researcher, teacher, and mentor. She was all of those things, but we wanted to feature some of the pivotal and critical ways that she helped the Chandra X-ray Observatory, specifically our Communications and Public Engagement work.

Chandra was launched into space in 1999 and with the beginning of its successful operations, a new era in high-energy astrophysics was born. For certain deep space objects that emitted enough X-ray photons, Chandra brought, for the first time, the ability to create richly detailed, high-resolution images. These X-ray images, however, were different in many ways from the images of its previously-launched sister Great Observatory, the Hubble Space Telescope.

Establishing a visual identity for Chandra, both on its own and in collaboration with other telescopes that study different kinds of light, including Hubble, was no small challenge. Our Chandra group was responsible for finding the best way to show X-ray data, which often looks completely different from optical data. Would traditional techniques used for visible light data be suitable to process X-ray data? Would new processes and tactics need to be developed to make X-ray data more accessible, easier to understand and process?

Chandra Sees Stellar X-rays Exceeding Safety Limits

Image of NGC 3293
NGC 3293
Credit: X-ray: NASA/CXC/Penn State Univ./K. Getman et al.; Infrared: ESA/NASA JPL-Caltech/Herschel Space Observatory/JPL/IPAC; NASA JPL-Caltech/SSC/Spitzer Space Telescope; Optical: MPG/ESO/G. Beccari;

Astronomers have made the most extensive study yet of how magnetically active stars are when they are young. This gives scientists a window into how X-rays from stars like the Sun, but billions of years younger, could partially or completely evaporate the atmospheres of planets orbiting them.

Many stars begin their lives in “open clusters,” loosely packed groups of stars with up to a few thousand members, all formed roughly at the same time. This makes open clusters valuable for astronomers investigating the evolution of stars and planets, because they allow the study of many stars of similar ages forged in the same environment.

A team of astronomers led by Konstantin Getman of Penn State University studied a sample of over 6,000 stars in 10 different open clusters with ages between 7 million and 25 million years. One of the goals of this study was to learn how the magnetic activity levels of stars like our Sun change during the first tens of millions of years after they form. Getman and his colleagues used NASA’s Chandra X-ray Observatory for this study because stars that have more activity linked to magnetic fields are brighter in X-rays.

Astronomers See Stellar Self-Control in Action

X-ray and Infrared image of RCW 36
RCW 36
Credit: X-ray: NASA/CXC/Ames Research Center/L. Bonne et al.; Infrared: ESA/NASA.JPL-Caltech/Herschel Space Observatory/JPL/IPAC

Many factors can limit the size of a group, including external ones that members have no control over. Astronomers have found that groups of stars in certain environments, however, can regulate themselves.

A new study has revealed stars in a cluster having “self-control,” meaning that they allow only a limited number of stars to grow before the biggest and brightest members expel most of the gas from the system. This process should drastically slow down the birth of new stars, which would better align with astronomers’ predictions for how quickly stars form in clusters.

This study combines data from several telescopes including NASA's Chandra X-ray Observatory, NASA's now-retired Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy (SOFIA), the APEX (the Atacama Pathfinder EXperiment) telescope, and ESA’s (European Space Agency’s) retired Herschel telescope.

Planets Can Be Anti-Aging Formula for Stars

Hot Jupiters
Hot Jupiters
Credit: Illustration: NASA/CXC/M.Weiss. X-ray: NASA/CXC/Potsdam Univ./N. Ilic et al.

An artist’s illustration shows a gas giant planet (lower right) closely orbiting its host star (left), with another star in the distance (upper right). The two stars are themselves in orbit with each other. As explained in our latest press release, a team of scientists used NASA’s Chandra X-ray Observatory and ESA’s XMM-Newton to test whether such exoplanets (known as “hot Jupiters”) affect their host star in comparison to the star that does not have one. The results show that these exoplanets can make their host star act younger than it is by causing the star to spin more quickly than it would without such a planet.

The double-star (or “binary”) system in the illustration is one of dozens that astronomers studied using Chandra and XMM-Newton to look for the effects of hot Jupiters on their host stars. A hot Jupiter can potentially influence its host star by tidal forces, causing the star to spin more quickly than if it did not have such a planet. This more rapid rotation can make the host star more active and produce more X-rays, making it appear younger than it really is.

Embracing a Rejected Star

Image of Zeta Ophiuchi
Zeta Ophiuchi
Credit: X-ray: NASA/CXC/Dublin Inst. Advanced Studies/S. Green et al.; Infrared: NASA/JPL/Spitzer

Zeta Ophiuchi is a star with a complicated past, having likely been ejected from its birthplace by a powerful stellar explosion. A new look by NASA's Chandra X-ray Observatory helps tell more of the story of this runaway star.

Located about 440 light-years from Earth, Zeta Ophiuchi is a hot star that is 20 times more massive than the Sun. Previous observations have provided evidence that Zeta Ophiuchi was once in close orbit with another star, before being ejected at about 100,000 miles per hour when this companion was destroyed in a supernova explosion over a million years ago. Previously released infrared data from NASA's now-retired Spitzer Space Telescope, seen in this new composite image, reveals a spectacular shock wave (red and green) that was formed by matter blowing away from the star's surface and slamming into gas in its path. Data from Chandra shows a bubble of X-ray emission (blue) located around the star, produced by gas that has been heated by the effects of the shock wave to tens of millions of degrees.

Eta Carinae: Visualization Explores A Massive Star's Great Eruption


More videos and information
Video Credit: J. Olmsted, D. Player, L. Hustak, A. Pagan, J. DePasquale, G. Bacon, F. Summers (STScI), R. Hurt (Caltech/IPAC), NASA, ESA; Music: "Sleepy Frieda", Maarten Schellekens, CC BY-NC 4.0;
Image Credit: A. Fujii, J. Morse (BoldlyGo Inst), N. Smith (U Arizona), Hubble SM4 ERO Team, NASA, ESA, STScI, JPL-Caltech, CXC, ESO, NOAO, AURA, NSF


Eta Carinae, or Eta Car, is famous for a brilliant and unusual outburst, called the "Great Eruption", observed in the 1840s. This visualization presents the story of that event and examines the resulting multiwavelength emissions and three-dimensional structures surrounding Eta Car today.

Massive stars are known to have major outbursts. Eta Car, one of the most massive stars known, expelled about 10% of its mass in the Great Eruption, creating a small nebula, called the Homunculus Nebula, around it. Images taken in different wavelengths of light reveal different structures, each providing more information about the outbursts of Eta Car.

For this visualization, astronomers and artists have used NASA observations to model both the close-up and wide views of this massive and eruptive star. The Hubble Space Telescope and the Chandra X-ray Observatory have observed the nested layers of gas and dust around Eta Car using visible, ultraviolet, and X-ray light, as well as in the Hydrogen alpha emission line. The Spitzer Space Telescope provides a larger view of the Carina Nebula, along with Eta Car's dominant position within this star-forming region.

X-ray Screams From Toddler Suns

Image of Dr. Konstantin Getman in front of a lake with woods in the background.
Konstantin Getman

We are very happy to welcome Dr. Konstantin Getman as our guest blogger, who is also the first author of the studies featured in our latest press release. He received an honor master's degree in astronomy at Moscow State University in 1994 and his Ph.D. degree in physics and mathematics at Pushkov Institute of Terrestrial Magnetism, Ionosphere and Radiowave Propagation of the Russian Academy of Sciences (IZMIRAN) in 1999. Since 2001, he has been at the Pennsylvania State University where he is currently a research professor. His research is focused on star formation and stellar activity, about which he authored and co-authored 80 peer-reviewed publications.

The Sun is covered with magnetic field lines like an animal is covered with fur. These twisted and sheared lines store a lot of “free” energy. When solar magnetic lines of opposite polarity come close to each other, they interact, change their topology, and release free energy, causing powerful and eruptive events, that scientists call “flares”. These flare processes include acceleration of charged particles in the Sun’s upper atmosphere (called the corona), emission of large amounts of radiation in various energy bands (such as radio, microwave, optical, and X-ray), and launching of streams of plasma and magnetic field into space (called coronal mass ejections, or CMEs).

A Cosmic Amethyst in a Dying Star

Image of IC 4593
IC 4593
Credit: X-ray: NASA/CXC/Columbia Univ./A. Johnson et al.; Optical: NASA/STScI

On Earth, amethysts can form when gas bubbles in lava cool under the right conditions. In space, a dying star with a mass similar to the Sun is capable of producing a structure on par with the appeal of these beautiful gems.

As stars like the Sun run through their fuel, they cast off their outer layers and the core of the star shrinks. Using NASA's Chandra X-ray Observatory, astronomers have found a bubble of ultra-hot gas at the center of one of these expiring stars, a planetary nebula in our galaxy called IC 4593. At a distance of about 7,800 light years from Earth, IC 4593 is the most distant planetary nebula yet detected with Chandra.

This new image of IC 4593 has X-rays from Chandra in purple, invoking similarities to amethysts found in geodes around the globe. The bubble detected by Chandra is from gas that has been heated to over a million degrees. These high temperatures were likely generated by material that blew away from the shrunken core of the star and crashed into gas that had previously been ejected by the star.

Assessing The Habitability of Planets Around Old Red Dwarfs

Image of Barnard's Star
Barnard's Star (GJ 699)
Credit: X-ray light curve: NASA/CXC/University of Colorado/K. France et al.;
Illustration: NASA/CXC/M. Weiss

A new study using data from NASA's Chandra X-ray Observatory and Hubble Space Telescope gives new insight into an important question: how habitable are planets that orbit the most common type of stars in the Galaxy? The target of the new study, as reported in our press release, is Barnard's Star, which is one of the closest stars to Earth at a distance of just 6 light years. Barnard's Star is a red dwarf, a small star that slowly burns through its fuel supply and can last much longer than medium-sized stars like our Sun. It is about 10 billion years old, making it twice the age of the Sun.

The authors used Barnard's Star as a case study to learn how flares from an old red dwarf might affect any planets orbiting it. This artist's illustration depicts an old red dwarf like Barnard's Star (right) and an orbiting, rocky planet (left).

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