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While examining a region where new stars are forming with NASA's Spitzer Space Telescope, astronomers found a surprise — an object that looks like a giant tornado in space. The apparent tornado is shaped by a cosmic jet packing a powerful punch as it plows through clouds of interstellar gas and dust.
The "tornado" is actually a shock front created by a jet of material flowing downward through the field of view. A still-forming star located off the upper edge of the image generates this outflow. The jet slams into neighboring dust clouds at a speed of more than 100 miles per second, heating the dust to incandescence and causing it to glow with infrared light detectable by Spitzer. The triangular shape results from the wake created by the jet's motion, similar to the wake behind a speeding boat.
Image credit: NASA / JPL-Caltech / J. Bally (University of Colorado)
For more information, see the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics and the Spitzer Science Center.