This cosmic caterpillar might someday look just like our Sun

This new image from Hubble depicts a proto-star, a knotted clump of gas and dust that stretches well over a light-year in length. Located some 4,500 light-years from Earth, this future star is desperately trying to gain as much mass as possible — all while older, bigger stars blast it with ultraviolet radiation, which is eroding away its crucial raw material.

The proto-star is still eons away from coalescing into a star, so it's still very much an open question what sort of star it might eventually become. A mass comparable to that of our Sun is probably a low-end estimate, which would reflect harsh interference from its stellar neighbors. Here's how NASA explains the potential fates of this would-be star, along with just what is behind all this cosmic uncertainty:

The culprits are 65 of the hottest, brightest known stars, classified as O-type stars, located 15 light-years away from the knot, towards the right edge of the image. These stars, along with 500 less bright, but still highly luminous B-type stars make up what is called the Cygnus OB2 association. Collectively, the association is thought to have a mass more than 30,000 times that of our sun.

The caterpillar-shaped knot, called IRAS 20324+4057, is a protostar in a very early evolutionary stage. It is still in the process of collecting material from an envelope of gas surrounding it. However, that envelope is being eroded by the radiation from Cygnus OB2. Protostars in this region should eventually become young stars with final masses about one to ten times that of our sun, but if the eroding radiation from the nearby bright stars destroys the gas envelope before the protostars finish collecting mass, their final masses may be reduced.

For more, check out the NASA site.

Image credit: NASA, ESA, and the Hubble Heritage Team (STScI/AURA)