A Star in the Making

by Fraser Cain on June 17, 2005

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Examples of Bok globules. Image credit: SAAO. Click to enlarge.
Our Sun has been around for almost five billion years. Throughout most of its history the Sun has pretty much appeared the way it does today – a vast sphere of radiant gas and dust lit to incandescence by heat liberated through hydrogen fusion near its core. But before our Sun took form, matter had to be drawn together from the interstellar medium (ISM) and compacted in a small enough region of space to pass a critical balance between further condensation and stability. For this to occur, a delicate balance between outwardly exerted internal pressure and inward moving gravitational influence had to be overcome.

In 1947, Harvard observational astronomer Bart Jan Bok announced the result of years of study of an important subset of cold gases and dust often associated with extended nebulosity. Bok suggested that certain isolated and distinct globules obscuring background light in space were in fact evidence of an important preliminary stage in the formation of protostellar disks leading to the birth of stars such as our sun.

Subsequent to Bok’s announcement, many physical models emerged to explain how Bok globules could come to form stars. Typically, such models begin with the notion that matter comes together in regions of space where the interstellar medium is especially dense (in the form of nebulosity), cold, and subject to radiation pressure from neighboring stars. At some point enough matter may condense into a small enough region that gravitation overcomes gas pressure and the balance tips in favor of star formation.

According to the paper “Near Infrared Imaging Survey of Bok Globules: Density Structure”, published June 10, 2005 Ryo Kandori and a team of fourteen other investigators “suggest that a nearly critical Bonner-Ebert sphere characterizes the critical density of starless globules.”

The concept of a Bonner-Ebert sphere originates with the idea that a balance of forces can exist within an idealized cloud of gas and dust. Such a sphere is held to have a constant internal density while maintaining equilibrium between the expansionary pressure caused by gases of a given temperature and density and the gravitational influence of its total mass assisted by any gas or radiation pressure exerted from neighboring stars. This critical state relates to the diameter of the sphere, its total mass, and the amount of pressure generated by latent heat within it.

Most astronomers have assumed that the Bonner-Ebert model – or some variation thereof – would ultimately prove accurate in describing the point when a particular Bok globule crosses the line to become a protostellar disk. Today, Ryo Kandori et al have gathered enough evidence from a variety of Bok globules to strongly suggest that this notion is correct.

The team started by selecting ten Bok globules for observation based on small apparent size, near-circular shape, distance from neighboring nebulosity, proximity to the Earth (less than 1700 LYs away), and accessibility to near-infrared and radio wave collecting instruments located in both the northern and southern hemispheres. From a list of nearly 250 such globules, only those meeting the above criteria were included. Among those selected only one showed evidence of a protostellar disk. This one disk took the form of a point source of infrared light detected during an all-sky survey performed by IRAS (Infrared Astronomy Satellite – a joint project of the US, UK, and Netherlands). All ten globules were located in star and nebulosity rich regions of the Milky Way.

Once candidate Bok globules were selected, the team subjected each of them to a battery of observations designed to determine their mass, density, temperature, size, and if possible, the amount of pressure applied on them by the ISM and neighboring starlight. One important consideration was to get a sense if there were any variations in density throughout the globule. The presence of uniform pressure is particularly important when it comes to determining which of a variety of theoretical models best mapped against the constitution of the modules themselves.

Using a ground-based instrument (the 1.4 meter IRSF at the South African Astronomical Observatory) in 2002 and 2003, near-infrared light in three different bands (J, H, & K) was collected from each globule to magnitude 17 plus. The images were then integrated and compared to light originating from the background star region. This data was subjected to several analysis methods to allow the team to derive the density of gas and dust across each globule down to the level of resolution supported by seeing conditions (roughly one arc second). That work basically determined that each globule showed a uniform density gradient based on its projected three-dimensional distribution. The Bonner-Ebert sphere model looked like a very good match.

The team also observed each globule using the 45 meter radio telescope of the Nobeyama Radio Observatory in Minamisaku, Nagano, Japan. The idea here was to collect specific radio frequencies associated with excited N2H+ and C18O. By looking at the amount of blur in these frequencies the team was able to determine the internal temperature of each globule which, along with the density of the gas, can be used to approximate the gas pressure internal to each globule.

After gathering the data, subjecting it to analysis, and quantifying the results, the team “found that more then half of the starless globules (7 out of 11 sources) are located near the (Bonner-Ebert) critical state. Thus we suggest that a nearly critical Bonner-Ebert sphere characterizes the typical density structure of starless globules.” In addition the team determined that three Bok globules (Coalsack II, CB87 & Lynds 498) are stable and clearly not in process of star formation, four (Barnard 66, Lynds 495, CB 161 & CB 184) are poised near the stable Bonner-Ebert state but tending toward star formation based on that model. Finally the remaining six (FeSt 1-457, Barnard 335, CB 188, CB 131, CB 134) are clearly moving toward gravitation collapse. Those six “stars in the making” include globules CB 188 and Barnard 335 already known to possess protostellar disks.

On any relatively cloudless day it doesn’t take much in the way of instrumentation to prove that one very unique and important ‘Bok globule’ existing some 5 billion years ago did manage to tip the scales and become a star in the making. Our Sun is firey proof that matter – once adequately condensed – can begin a process that leads to some extraordinary new possibilities.

Written by Jeff Barbour

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Fraser Cain is the publisher of Universe Today. He's also the co-host of Astronomy Cast with Dr. Pamela Gay.

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