Study Solves Mystery of How Massive Stars Form

by Nancy Atkinson on January 15, 2009

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Volume renderings of the density field in a region of the simulation at 55,000 years of evolution. The left panel shows a polar view, and the right panel shows an equatorial view. The fingers feeding the equatorial disk are clearly visible.  Images by Krumholz et al

Volume renderings of the density field in a region of the simulation at 55,000 years of evolution. The left panel shows a polar view, and the right panel shows an equatorial view. The fingers feeding the equatorial disk are clearly visible. Images by Krumholz et al



For a long time, scientists have understood that stars form when interstellar matter inside giant clouds of molecular hydrogen undergoes gravitational collapse. But massive stars–up to 120 times the mass of the Sun—generate strong radiation and stellar winds. How do they maintain the clouds of gas and dust that feed their growth without blowing it all away? The problem, however, turns out to be less mysterious than it once seemed. A study published this week in the journal Science shows how the growth of a massive star can proceed despite outward-flowing radiation pressure that exceeds the gravitational force pulling material inward.

The new findings also explain why massive stars tend to occur in binary or multiple star systems, said lead author Mark Krumholz, an assistant professor of astronomy and astrophysics at the University of California, Santa Cruz. Co-authors are Richard Klein, Christopher McKee, and Stella Offner of UC Berkeley, and Andrew Cunningham of Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory.

Radiation pressure is the force exerted by electromagnetic radiation on the surfaces it strikes. This effect is negligible for ordinary light, but it becomes significant in the interiors of stars due to the intensity of the radiation. In massive stars, radiation pressure is the dominant force counteracting gravity to prevent the further collapse of the star.

“When you apply the radiation pressure from a massive star to the dusty interstellar gas around it, which is much more opaque than the star’s internal gas, it should explode the gas cloud,” Krumholz said. Earlier studies suggested that radiation pressure would blow away the raw materials of star formation before a star could grow much larger than about 20 times the mass of the Sun. Yet astronomers observe stars much more massive than that.

Computer simulation of the formation of a massive star yielded these snapshots showing stages in the process over time. Panels on the left represent a polar view (the axis of rotation is perpendicular to the plane of the image), and panels on the right represent an equatorial view. Plus signs indicate projected positions of stars. Colors represent density. Images by Krumholz et al.

Computer simulation of the formation of a massive star yielded these snapshots showing stages in the process over time. Panels on the left represent a polar view (the axis of rotation is perpendicular to the plane of the image), and panels on the right represent an equatorial view. Plus signs indicate projected positions of stars. Colors represent density. Images by Krumholz et al.


The research team has spent years developing complex computer codes for simulating the processes of star formation. Combined with advances in computer technology, their latest software (called ORION) enabled them to run a detailed three-dimensional simulation of the collapse of an enormous interstellar gas cloud to form a massive star. The project required months of computing time at the San Diego Supercomputer Center.

The simulation showed that as the dusty gas collapses onto the growing core of a massive star, with radiation pressure pushing outward and gravity pulling material in, instabilities develop that result in channels where radiation blows out through the cloud into interstellar space, while gas continues falling inward through other channels.

“You can see fingers of gas falling in and radiation leaking out between those fingers of gas,” Krumholz said. “This shows that you don’t need any exotic mechanisms; massive stars can form through accretion processes just like low-mass stars.”

Watch movie simulation of star formation.

The rotation of the gas cloud as it collapses leads to the formation of a disk of material feeding onto the growing “protostar.” The disk is gravitationally unstable, however, causing it to clump and form a series of small secondary stars, most of which end up colliding with the central protostar. In the simulation, one secondary star became massive enough to break away and acquire its own disk, growing into a massive companion star. A third small star formed and was ejected into a wide orbit before falling back in and merging with the primary star.

When the researchers stopped the simulation, after allowing it to evolve for 57,000 years of simulated time, the two stars had masses of 41.5 and 29.2 times the mass of the Sun and were circling each other in a fairly wide orbit.

“What formed in the simulation is a common configuration for massive stars,” Krumholz said. “I think we can now consider the mystery of how massive stars are able to form to be solved. The age of supercomputers and the ability to simulate the process in three dimensions made the solution possible.”

Source: UC Santa Cruz

About 

Nancy Atkinson is Universe Today's Senior Editor. She also works with Astronomy Cast, and is a NASA/JPL Solar System Ambassador.

Astrofiend January 15, 2009 at 7:45 PM

Very nice work indeed. Obviously this needs to be explored further, but it looks as if they may have gained the crucial insight…

gMan January 15, 2009 at 10:06 PM

The video is very interesting, and you can see how it fits a lot of the visual data that we see around us, especially when massive stars feed off the gas from the smaller companion. I think what is interesting in the study is that they pointed out things tended to all fall to one point, but circled towards it, and that caused instability which bread companion stars.

This really fits well to a galactic evolution. Now you can have an smb form easily in the middle if stars can channel energys in columns within. I am sure a ton of the mass comes from stars like the 3rd star in the simulation that was tossed out then eaten up, but point is, you colapse towards one point, become instable along the way, and then collapse around the central point as well.

pantzov January 16, 2009 at 5:18 AM

i love how the solution turned out to be so simple. sits well.

Giz January 16, 2009 at 5:45 AM

A very beautiful result. I love it!

Taz January 16, 2009 at 9:48 AM

I wonder if the same mechanism is at work in black holes.

If it is, there might be a navigable channel between the two vortices. This would enable a probe to enter. Data could be returned by injecting a transmitter into the ejecting vortex.
That would be thousands of years in our future, if it’s doable at all.

Imo January 18, 2009 at 8:40 PM

Simply awesome.

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