Astronomers Spot 'Christmas Tree' Nebula

Astronomers using NASA's Spitzer Space Telescope have discovered a perfectly decorated Christmas tree 2,500 light years from earth.

Scientists at the University of Arizona's Steward Observatory said the remarkable star cluster gives them the first glimpse of newborn stars acting just as predicted — patterned geometrically and spaced according to density, temperature and gravity.

"If you look at the very young stars in the cluster and the spacing between them, it isn't random spacing," said Erick T. Young, an astronomer at the Steward Observatory. "They're all about the same distance apart."

The stars are less than 100,000 years old and located in a nebula in the Monoceros, or Unicorn, constellation. The constellation is visible in the winter sky to the east of Orion.

The images captured by the space telescope reinforce the basic theory that the gravity and density of the dust and gas cloud are determining factors in the formation of stars.

"This is the first really good demonstration that the theory works on something like a star cluster," Young said.

The observations reinforce British astronomer James Jeans' early 1900s gravitational collapse theory and could yield clues to the formation of the solar system.

"We believe this process of forming stars in a cluster was exactly the same thing that happened with our very own sun 4½ billion years ago," Young said. "It tells us a lot about the history of our own solar system."

The "Christmas Tree Cluster" is about 1 to 3 million years old and too young for planets to have formed.

The observations were made a year ago but have just been published in the Astronomical Journal after a year of research.

The scientists used images collected with a University of Arizona-built infrared camera and another device on the NASA craft developed by the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory to construct the images.