eso0304 — Science Release
Isolated Star-Forming Cloud Discovered in Intracluster Space
16 January 2003: At a distance of some 50 million light-years, the Virgo Cluster is the nearest galaxy cluster. It is located in the zodiacal constellation of the same name (The Virgin) and is a large and dense assembly of hundreds of galaxies. The "intracluster" space between the Virgo galaxies is permeated by hot X-ray emitting gas and, as has become clear recently, by a sparse "intracluster population of stars". So far, stars have been observed to form in the luminous parts of galaxies. The most massive young stars are often visible indirectly by the strong emission from surrounding cocoons of hot gas, which is heated by the intense radiation from the embedded stars. These "HII regions" (pronounced "Eitch-Two" and so named because of their content of ionized hydrogen) may be very bright and they often trace the beautiful spiral arms seen in disk galaxies like our own Milky Way. New observations by the Japanese 8-m Subaru telescope and the ESO Very Large Telescope (VLT) have now shown that massive stars can also form in isolation, far from the luminous parts of galaxies . During a most productive co-operation between astronomers working at these two world-class telescopes, a compact HII region has been discovered at the very boundary between the outer halo of a Virgo cluster galaxy and Virgo intracluster space. This cloud is illuminated and heated by a few hot and massive young stars. The estimated total mass of the stars in the cloud is only a few hundred times that of the Sun. Such an object is rare at the present epoch. However, there may have been more in the past, at which time they were perhaps responsible for the formation of a fraction of the intracluster stellar population in clusters of galaxies. Massive stars in such isolated HII regions will explode as supernovae at the end of their short lives, and enrich the intracluster medium with heavy elements. Observations of two other Virgo cluster galaxies, Messier 86 and Messier 84, indicate the presence of other isolated HII regions, thus suggesting that isolated star formation may occur more generally in galaxies. If so, this process may provide a natural explanation to the current riddle why some young stars are found high up in the halo of our own Milky Way galaxy, far from the star-forming clouds in the main plane.