Press Releases 2005

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eso0510 — Science Release

Young and Exotic Stellar Zoo — ESO's Telescopes Uncover Super Star Cluster in the Milky Way

22 March 2005: Super star clusters are groups of hundreds of thousands of very young stars packed into an unbelievably small volume. They represent the most extreme environments in which stars and planets can form. Until now, super star clusters were only known to exist very far away, mostly in pairs or groups of interacting galaxies. Now, however, a team of European astronomers [1] have used ESO's telescopes to uncover such a monster object within our own Galaxy, the Milky Way, almost, but not quite, in our own backyard! The newly found massive structure is hidden behind a large cloud of dust and gas and this is why it took so long to unveil its true nature. It is known as "Westerlund 1" and is a thousand times closer than any other super star cluster known so far. It is close enough that astronomers may now probe its structure in some detail. Westerlund 1 contains hundreds of very massive stars, some shining with a brilliance of almost one million suns and some two-thousand times larger than the Sun (as large as the orbit of Saturn)! Indeed, if the Sun were located at the heart of this remarkable cluster, our sky would be full of hundreds of stars as bright as the full Moon. Westerlund 1 is a most unique natural laboratory for the study of extreme stellar physics, helping astronomers to find out how the most massive stars in our Galaxy live and die. From their observations, the astronomers conclude that this extreme cluster most probably contains no less than 100,000 times the mass of the Sun, and all of its stars are located within a region less than 6 light-years across. Westerlund 1 thus appears to be the most massive compact young cluster yet identified in the Milky Way Galaxy.
eso0509 — Science Release

A Tale of Two Populations — VLT FLAMES Finds Hints of Helium-Richest Stars Ever Seen

15 March 2005: On the basis of stellar spectra totalling more than 200 hours of effective exposure time with the 8.2-m VLT Kueyen telescope at Paranal (Chile), a team of astronomers [1] has made a surprising discovery about the stars in the giant southern globular cluster Omega Centauri. It has been known for some time that, contrary to other clusters of this type, this stellar cluster harbours two different populations of stars that still burn hydrogen in their centres. One population, accounting for one quarter of its stars, is bluer than the other. Using the FLAMES multi-object spectrograph that is particularly well suited to this kind of work, the astronomers found that the bluer stars contain more heavy elements than those of the redder population. This was exactly opposite to the expectation and they are led to the conclusion that the bluer stars have an overabundance of the light element helium of more than 50%. They are in fact the most helium rich stars ever found. But why is this so? The team suggests that this puzzle may be explained in the following way. First, a great burst of star formation took place during which all the stars of the red population were produced. As other normal stars, these stars transformed their hydrogen into helium by nuclear burning. Some of them, with masses of 10-12 times the mass of the Sun, soon thereafter exploded as supernovae, thereby enriching the interstellar medium in the globular cluster with helium. Next, the blue population stars formed from this helium-rich medium. This unexpected discovery provides important new insights into the way stars may form in larger stellar systems.
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