Quirks & Quarks

The mystery of the missing runaway star

Scientists finally know the last piece of the puzzle of the multi-star system that broke up in the Orion Nebula 540 years ago.
Orion Nebula ( NASA, ESA, M. Robberto,Hubble Space Telescope Orion Treasury Project Team)

About 540 years ago, a stellar battle was being waged in the Orion Nebula. To put this in historical context, this is after Constantinople fell to the Ottomans, but before Christopher Columbus set sail for the Americas.

The Orion Nebula, where this skirmish happened, is what's known as a "stellar nursery." It's about 1300 light years away and it's called a nursery because it's where new stars are born. And 540 years ago, a multi-star system broke apart, ejecting a couple of projectile "runaway stars."

This three-frame illustration shows how a grouping of stars can break apart, flinging the members into space. (Credits: NASA, ESA, and Z. Levy (STScI))

Over the years, astronomers have been able to account for a couple of them, but one piece of the puzzle has been missing, until now. Dr. Kevin Luhman a professor of astronomy at Penn State University in State College, Pennsylvania - is the latest detective on the case. He just happened to be going over some Hubble Space Telescope data looking for something totally unrelated when he found the answer.

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