WASHINGTON, March 19, 2013 /PRNewswire-USNewswire/ -- Astronomers have found some of the youngest stars ever seen thanks to the Herschel space observatory, a European Space Agency mission with important NASA contributions. (Logo: http://photos.prnewswire.com/prnh/20081007/38461LOGO) Observations from NASA's Spitzer Space Telescope and the Atacama Pathfinder Experiment (APEX) telescope in Chile, a collaboration involving the Max Planck Institute for Radio Astronomy in Germany, the Onsala Space Observatory in Sweden, and the European Southern Observatory in Germany, contributed to the findings. Dense envelopes of gas and dust surround the fledging stars known as protostars, making their detection difficult. The 15 newly observed protostars turned up by surprise in a survey of the biggest site of star formation near our solar system, located in the constellation Orion. The discovery gives scientists a peek into one of the earliest and least understood phases of star formation. "Herschel has revealed the largest ensemble of such young stars in a single star-forming region," said Amelia Stutz, lead author of a paper to be published in The Astrophysical Journal and a postdoctoral researcher at the Max Planck Institute for Astronomy in Heidelberg, Germany. "With these results, we are getting closer to witnessing the moment when a star begins to form." Stars spring to life from the gravitational collapse of massive clouds of gas and dust. This changeover from stray, cool gas to the ball of super-hot plasma we call a star is relatively quick by cosmic standards, lasting only a few hundred thousand years. Finding protostars in their earliest, most short-lived and dimmest stages poses a challenge. Astronomers long had investigated the stellar nursery in the Orion Molecular Cloud Complex, a vast collection of star-forming clouds, but had not seen the newly identified protostars until Herschel observed the region.