A child looks into space and the Milky way. Long exposure photograph from an astronomical observatory site. A child looks into space and the Milky way. Long exposure photograph from an astronomical observatory site. Scientists recently discovered a cluster of stars in a nearby galaxy that is 1 billion times brighter than our sun. (Photo: MarcelClemens/Shutterstock)

'Stunned' scientists discover star cluster

Discovery points to a phenomenon astronomers thought hadn't been happening for billions of years.

The universe is massive, mysterious and always changing. Scientists are discovering new stars, particles, gases and galaxies all the time. But one discovery, in particular, has thrown some scientists' previous perceptions out of orbit.

A group of astronomers from the University of California Los Angeles and Tel Aviv University in Israel recently discovered a formation of more than 1 million stars in a hot, dusty cloud of molecular gases in a tiny, nearby galaxy. The significance of this finding, researchers said, is that it's evidence of a phenomenon scientists thought hadn't been happening for billions of years.

"Extreme and extraordinary things are happening right in our very own astronomical neighborhood," said Professor Sara Beck, co-author of the research and a professor in the Department of Astronomy and Astrophysics at Tel Aviv University. "In astrophysics we assume that, unless proven otherwise, basic processes are the same everywhere. But here we're witnessing globular cluster formation – a process which we assumed was 'turned off' in our galaxy 10 billion years ago – occurring today in a nearby galaxy."

Cloud D is a hot, dusty cloud of stars in a dwarf galaxy. An international team of astronomers discovered a hot, dusty cloud of stars in a nearby galaxy. (Photo: American Friends of Tel Aviv University)

Beck explained that the newfound galaxy, dubbed "Cloud D" by her team of researchers, is not an isolated find, but rather the culmination of years of investigation, starting with the detection of a faint radio signal in 1996. Since then, she and her team have been diving into extreme star formation, figuring out why certain clusters were forming, the significance of their locations, and how far back they can be traced.

She said the stars found in Cloud D are similar to those found in our own Milky Way, but with one big difference – age. While those Milky Way clusters are the oldest stars in the galaxy, the cluster found in Cloud D is less than 5 million years old – practically infants by astronomy standards.

Another amazing find, she said, was how bright these stars are. The cluster is 1 billion times brighter than our sun, but it's obscured by its own hot gases and dust. The star cluster contains more than 7,000 massive "O" stars, which are the most brilliant stars in existence.

For the study, Beck collaborated with Professor Jean Turner, chairwoman of UCLA's Department of Physics and Astronomy, who led the research team at a Submillimeter Array on Hawaii's Mauna Kea. Their research was published recently in the journal Nature.

Turner said she had been searching for such a gas cloud for years, but the anomalies of the finding left her "stunned."

“We are seeing the dust that the stars have created. Normally when we look at a star cluster, the stars long ago dispersed all their gas and dust, but in this cluster, we see the dust," she said.

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