Hubble Space Telescope spots Star Trek’s Doomsday Machine

Astronomers scanning a section of space in the constellation Cygnus snapped this vibrant picture of what they say looks like a massive space caterpillar, but is really a distant star in the process of forming.

This protostar, named IRAS 20324+4057, is in the yellow/white 'head' of the caterpillar. The 10 trillion kilometre-long blue/grey 'tail' of gas streaming off towards the left-hand side of the picture is being blown in that direction by the collective solar wind and radiation hundreds of massive bright stars that are part of what's called the Cygnus OB2 association (located off to the right). You can see a really nice video 'zoom in' on the Hubble site (click here).

It's difficult to tell exactly how big IRAS 20324+4057 when it's finally 'born'. Depending on how much gas it can cling to (what with the constant pressure from Cygnus OB2 robbing it of as much as possible), it could end up being a 'light-weight' star, smaller than our Sun, or it could become a 'heavy-weight', up to ten times that size. Given that the light from the protostar traveled around 4,500 light years to reach us, it may have already ignited, but it will be some time before we get to see that happen.

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Although the astronomers who photographed IRAS 20324+4057 conjure up the image of a giant space caterpillar, that wasn't my first thought when I saw it:

Given that this episode aired in 1967 and astronomers apparently didn't spot this protostar until 2006, this could be a case of 'life imitating art'... if the 'life' hadn't come into existence thousands of years before the 'art' was ever thought up.

(Image courtesy: NASA, ESA, and Z. Levay (STScI/AURA). Video courtesy: Paramount/YouTube)

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