Help! My Stars are Leaking!

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Star clusters are wonderful test beds for theories of stellar formation and evolution. One of the key roles they play is to help astronomers understand the distribution of stellar masses as stars form (in other words, how many high mass stars versus intermediate and low mass stars), known as the Initial Mass Function (IMF). One of the problems is that this is constantly evolving away from the initial distribution as stars die or are ejected from the cluster. As such, understanding these mechanisms is essential for astronomers looking to backtrack from the current population to the IMF.

To assist in this goal, astronomers led by Vasilii Gvaramadze at the University of Bonn in Germany are engaged in a study to search young clusters for stars in the process of being ejected.

In the first of two studies released by the team so far, they studied the cluster associated with the famous Eagle Nebula. This nebula is well known due to the famous “Pillars of Creation” image taken by the aging Hubble Space Telescope which shows towers of dense gas currently undergoing star formation.

Two main methods exist for discovering stars on the lam from their birthplace. The first is to examine stars individually and analyze their motion in the plane of the sky (proper motion) along with their motion towards or away from us (radial velocity) to determine if a given star has sufficient velocity to escape the cluster. While this method can be reliable, it suffers because the clusters are so far away, even though the stars could be moving at hundreds of kilometers per second, it takes long periods of time to detect it.

Instead, the astronomers in these studies search for runaway stars by the effects they have on the local environment. Since young clusters contain large amounts of gas and dust, stars plowing through it will create bow shocks, similar to those a boat makes in the ocean. Taking advantage of this, the team searched the Eagle Nebula cluster for signs of bow shocks from these stars. Searching images from several studies, the team found three such bow shocks. The same method was used in a second study, this time analyzing a lesser known cluster and nebula in Scorpius, NGC 6357. This survey turned up seven bow shocks of stars escaping the region.

In both studies, the team analyzed the spectral types of the stars which would indicate their mass. Simulations of nebulae suggested that the majority of ejected stars are given their initial kick as they have a close pass to the center of a cluster where the density is the highest. Studies of clusters have shown that their centers are often dominated by massive O and B spectral type stars which would mean that such stars would be preferentially ejected. These two studies have helped to confirm that prediction as all of the stars discovered to have bow shocks were massive stars in this range.

While this method is able to find runaway stars, the authors note that it is an incomplete survey. Some stars may have sufficient velocity to escape, but still fall under the local sound speed in the nebula which would prevent them from creating a bow shock. As such, calculations have predicted that roughly 20% of escaping stars should create detectable bow shocks.

Understanding this mechanism is important because it is expected to play the dominant role in the evolution of the mass distribution of clusters early in their life. An alternative method of ejection involves stars in a binary orbit. If one star becomes a supernova, the sudden mass loss suddenly decreases the gravitational force holding the second star in orbit, allowing it to fly away. However, this method requires that a cluster at least be old enough for stars to have evolved to the point they explode as supernova, delaying this mechanism’s importance until at least that point and allowing the gravitational sling-shot effects to dominate early on.

Gas, Not Galaxy Collisions Responsible for Star Formation in Early Universe

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Was the universe a kinder, gentler place in the past that we have thought? The Herschel space observatory has looked back across time with its infrared eyes and has seen that galaxy collisions played only a minor role in triggering star births in the past, even though today the birth of stars always seem to be generated by galaxies crashing into each other. So what was the fuel for star formation in the past?

Simple. Gas.

The more gas a galaxy contained, the more stars were born.

Scientists say this finding overturns a long-held assumption and paints a nobler picture of how galaxies evolve.

Astronomers have known that the rate of star formation peaked in the early Universe, about 10 billion years ago. Back then, some galaxies were forming stars ten or even a hundred times more vigorously than is happening in our Galaxy today.

In the nearby, present-day Universe, such high birth rates are very rare and always seem to be triggered by galaxies colliding with each other. So, astronomers had assumed that this was true throughout history.

GOODS-North is a patch of sky in the northern hemisphere that covers an area of about a third the size of the Full Moon. Credit: ESA/GOODS-Herschel consortium/David Elbaz

But Herschel’s observations of two patches of sky show a different story.

Looking at these regions of the sky, each about a third of the size of the full Moon, Herschel has seen more than a thousand galaxies at a variety of distances from the Earth, spanning 80% of the age of the cosmos.

In analyzing the Herschel data, David Elbaz, from CEA Saclay in France, and his team found that even though some galaxies in the past were creating stars at incredible rates, galaxy collisions played only a minor role in triggering star births. The astronomers were able to compare the amount of infrared light released at different wavelengths by these galaxies, the team has shown that the star birth rate depends on the quantity of gas they contain, not whether they are colliding.

They say these observations are unique because Herschel can study a wide range of infrared light and reveal a more complete picture of star birth than ever seen before.

However, their work compliments other recent studies from data from the Spitzer Space Telescope and the Very Large Telescope which found ancient galaxies fed on gas,not collisions

“It’s only in those galaxies that do not already have a lot of gas that collisions are needed to provide the gas and trigger high rates of star formation,” said Elbaz.

Today’s galaxies have used up most of their gaseous raw material after forming stars for more than 10 billion years, so they do rely on collisions to jump-start star formation, but in the past galaxies grew slowly and gently from the gas that they attracted from their surroundings.

This study was part of the GOODS observations with Herschel, the Great Observatories Origins Deep Survey.

Read the team’s paper in Astronomy & Astrophysics: GOODS–Herschel: an infrared main sequence for star-forming galaxies’ by D. Elbaz et al.

Source: ESA

Colorful Cluster of Stars Competes with the Tarantula Nebula

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Who can shine the brightest in the Large Magellanic Cloud? A brilliant cluster of stars, open cluster NGC 2100 shines brightly, competing with the nearby Tarantula Nebula for bragging rights in this image from ESO’s New Technology Telescope (NTT).

Observers perhaps often overlook NGC 2100 because of its close proximity to the impressive Tarantula. The glowing gas of the Tarantula Nebula even tries to steal the limelight in this image — the bright colors here are from the nebula’s outer regions, and is lit up by the hot young stars that lie within the nebula itself.

But back to the star cluster — this brilliant star cluster is around 15 million years old, and located in the Large Magellanic Cloud, a nearby satellite galaxy of the Milky Way. An open cluster has stars that are relatively loosely bound by gravity. These clusters have a lifespan measured in tens or hundreds of millions of years, as they eventually disperse through gravitational interaction with other bodies.

This new picture was created from exposures through several different color filters.The stars are shown in their natural colors, while light from glowing ionized hydrogen (shown here in red) and oxygen (shown in blue) is overlaid.

See more info at the ESO website.

Hubble Movies “Star” Supersonic Jets

[/caption]Don’t you know that you are a shooting star… Thanks to the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope, an international team of scientists led by astronomer Patrick Hartigan of Rice University in Houston, USA, has done something pretty incredible. Using photos and information gathered from the last 14 years of observations, they’ve sewn together an unprecedented look at young jets ejected from three stars. Be prepared to be “blown” away…

The time-lapse sequence of “moving pictures” offers us an opportunity to witness activity that takes place over several years in just a few seconds. Active jets can remain volatile for periods of up to 100,000 years and these movies reveal details never seen – like knots of gas brightening and dimming – and collisions between fast-moving and slow-moving material. These insights allow scientists to form a clearer picture of stellar birth.

“For the first time we can actually observe how these jets interact with their surroundings by watching these time-lapse movies,” said Hartigan. “Those interactions tell us how young stars influence the environments out of which they form. With movies like these, we can now compare observations of jets with those produced by computer simulations and laboratory experiments to see which aspects of the interactions we understand and which we don’t understand.”

As a star forms in its collapsing cloud of cold gas, it gushes out streams of material in short bursts, pushing out from its poles at speeds of up to about 600,000 miles an hour. As the star ages, it spins material and its gravity attracts even more, creating a disc which may eventually become protoplanetary. The fast moving jets may be restricted by the neophyte star’s magnetic fields and could cease when the material runs out. However, by looking at this supposition in action, new questions arise. It would appear that the dust and gas move at different speeds.

“The bulk motion of the jet is about 300 kilometers per second,” Hartigan said. “That’s really fast, but it’s kind of like watching a stock car race; if all the cars are going the same speed, it’s fairly boring. The interesting stuff happens when things are jumbling around, blowing past one another or slamming into slower moving parts and causing shockwaves.”

But the “action” doesn’t stop there. In viewing these sequential shockwaves, the team was at a loss to understand the dynamics behind the collisions. By enlisting the aid of colleagues familiar with the physics of nuclear explosions, they quickly discovered a recognizable pattern.

“The fluid dynamicists immediately picked up on an aspect of the physics that astronomers typically overlook, and that led to a different interpretation for some of the features we were seeing,” Hartigan explained. “The scientists from each discipline bring their own unique perspectives to the project, and having that range of expertise has proved invaluable for learning about this critical phase of stellar evolution.”

Hartigan began using Hubble to collect still frames of stellar jets in 1994 and his findings are so complex he has employed the aid of experts in fluid dynamics from Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico, the UK Atomic Weapons Establishment, and General Atomics in San Diego, California, as well as computer specialists from the University of Rochester in New York. The Hubble sequence movies have been such a scientific success that Hartigan’s team is now conducting laboratory experiments at the Omega Laser facility in New York to understand how supersonic jets interact with their environment.

“Our collaboration has exploited not just large laser facilities such as Omega, but also computer simulations that were developed for research into nuclear fusion,” explains Paula Rosen of the UK Atomic Weapons Establishment, a co-author of the research. “Using these experimental methods has enabled us to identify aspects of the physics that the astronomers overlooked — it is exciting to know that what we do in the laboratory here on Earth can shed light on complex phenomena in stellar jets over a thousand light-years away. In future, even larger lasers, like the National Ignition Facility at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California, will be able explore the nuclear processes that take place within stars.”

And all the world will love you just as long… as long as you are… a shooting star!

Original Story Source and Video Presentation: Hubble News. For further reading, Rice University News.

WISE Discovers Some Really “Cool” Stars!

[/caption]What would you say if I told you there are stars with a temperature close to that of a human body? Before you have me committed, there really is such a thing. These “cool” stars belong to the brown dwarf family and are termed Y dwarfs. For over ten years astronomers have been hunting for these dark little beasties with no success. Now infrared data from NASA’s Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer (WISE) has turned up six of them – and they’re less than 40 light years away!

“WISE scanned the entire sky for these and other objects, and was able to spot their feeble light with its highly sensitive infrared vision,” said Jon Morse, Astrophysics Division director at NASA Headquarters in Washington. “They are 5,000 times brighter at the longer infrared wavelengths WISE observed from space than those observable from the ground.”

Often referred to as “failed stars”, the Y-class suns are simply too low mass to ignite the fusion process which makes other stars shine in visible light. As they age, they fade away – their only signature is what can be spotted in infrared. The brown dwarfs are of great interest to astronomers because we can gain a better understanding as to stellar natures and how planetary atmospheres form and evolve. Because they are alone in space, it’s much easier to study these Jupiter-like suns… without being blinded by a parent star.

“Brown dwarfs are like planets in some ways, but they are in isolation,” said astronomer Daniel Stern, co-author of the Spitzer paper at JPL. “This makes them exciting for astronomers — they are the perfect laboratories to study bodies with planetary masses.”

The WISE mission has been extremely productive – turning up more than 100 brown dwarf candidates. Scientists are hopeful that even more will emerge as huge amounts of data are processed from the most advanced survey of the sky at infrared wavelengths to date. Just imagine how much information was gathered from January 2010 to February 2011 as the telescope scanned the entire sky about 1.5 times! One of the Y dwarfs, called WISE 1828+2650, is the record holder for the coldest brown dwarf, with an estimated atmospheric temperature cooler than room temperature, or less than about 80 degrees Fahrenheit (25 degrees Celsius).

“The brown dwarfs we were turning up before this discovery were more like the temperature of your oven,” said Davy Kirkpatrick, a WISE science team member at the Infrared Processing and Analysis Center at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, Calif. “With the discovery of Y dwarfs, we’ve moved out of the kitchen and into the cooler parts of the house.”

Kirkpatrick is the lead author of a paper appearing in the Astrophysical Journal Supplement Series, describing the 100 confirmed brown dwarfs. Michael Cushing, a WISE team member at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, is lead author of a paper describing the Y dwarfs in the Astrophysical Journal.

“Finding brown dwarfs near our Sun is like discovering there’s a hidden house on your block that you didn’t know about,” Cushing said. “It’s thrilling to me to know we’ve got neighbors out there yet to be discovered. With WISE, we may even find a brown dwarf closer to us than our closest known star.”

Given the nature of the Y-class stars, positively identifying these special brown dwarfs wasn’t an easy task. For that, the WISE team employed the aid of the Spitzer Space Telescope to refine the hunt. From there the team used the most powerful telescopes on Earth – NASA Infrared Telescope Facility atop Mauna Kea, Hawaii; Caltech’s Palomar Observatory near San Diego; the W.M. Keck Observatory atop Mauna Kea, Hawaii; and the Magellan Telescopes at Las Campanas Observatory, Chile, and others – to look for signs of methane, water and even ammonia. For the very coldest of the new Y dwarfs, the team used NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope. Their final answer came when changes in spectra indicated a low temperature atmosphere – and a Y-class signature.

“WISE is looking everywhere, so the coolest brown dwarfs are going to pop up all around us,” said Peter Eisenhardt, the WISE project scientist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, California, and lead author of a recent paper in the Astronomical Journal on the Spitzer discoveries. “We might even find a cool brown dwarf that is closer to us than Proxima Centauri, the closest known star.”

How cool is that?!

Original Story Source: JPL News Release.

New Kids On The Block – The Brown Dwarfs

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When it comes to being close to “home”, there are not a lot of stars out there in our general neighborhood. Proxima Centauri is 4.2 light years away and Rigil Kentaurus is 4.3. There’s Barnard’s Star, Wolf 359, Lalande 21185, Luyten 726-8A and B and big, bright Sirius A and B. But what about a celestial neighbor that’s not quite so prominent? Try a pair of newly discovered brown dwarfs.

Scientists from the Leibniz Institute for Astrophysics Potsdam (AIP) using the NASA satellite WISE (Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer) have discovered this unlikely duo just 15 and 18 light years from our solar system. “We have used the preliminary data release from WISE, selected bright candidates with colours typical of late-T dwarfs, tried to match them with faint 2MASS and SDSS objects, to determine their proper motions, and to follow-up them spectroscopically.” says RD Scholz, et al.

Named WISE J0254+0223 and WISE J1741+2553, the pair drew attention to themselves by their very disparity – one very bright in infrared and the other very faint in optical light. Even more attractive was the speed at which they’re moving – the proper motion changing drastically between observations. “The very large proper motions are a first hint that these objects should be very close to the Sun. Both objects are only detected in the SDSS z-band which is typical of nearby late-T dwarfs.” says Scholz.

Because the pair were optically visible at the time of the discovery, the team employed the Large Binocular Telescope (LBT) in Arizona to determine their spectral type and home in more accurately on their distance. They wanted to know more about the coolest representatives of T-type brown dwarf – the ultra-cool ones. Better known as failed stars because they lacked the mass to ignite nuclear fusion, the duo required study because their magnitude decreases sharply with time. Because they fade so quickly, there’s a strong possibility of a brown dwarf being much closer than we realize.

Like maybe next door…

Original News Source: Leibniz Institute for Astrophysics Potsdam News. For further reading: Cornell University Library – Two very nearby (d ~ 5 pc) ultracool brown dwarfs detected by their large proper motions from WISE, 2MASS, and SDSS data.

Ancient Galaxies Fed On Gas, Not Collisions

[/caption]The traditional picture of galaxy growth is not pretty. In fact, it’s a kind of cosmic cannibalism: two galaxies are caught in ominous tango, eventually melding together in a fiery collision, thus spurring on an intense but short-lived bout of star formation. Now, new research suggests that most galaxies in the early Universe increased their stellar populations in a considerably less violent way, simply by burning through their own gas over long periods of time.

The research was conducted by a group of astronomers at NASA’s Spitzer Science Center in Pasadena, California. The team used the Spitzer Space Telescope to peer at 70 distant galaxies that flourished when the Universe was only 1-2 billion years old. The spectra of 70% of these galaxies showed an abundance of H alpha, an excited form of hydrogen gas that is prevalent in busy star-forming regions. Today, only one out of every thousand galaxies carries such an abundance of H alpha; in fact, the team estimates that star formation in the early Universe outpaced that of today by a factor of 100!

This split view shows how a normal spiral galaxy around our local universe (left) might have looked back in the distant universe, when astronomers think galaxies would have been filled with larger populations of hot, bright stars (right). Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/STScI

Not only did these early galaxies crank out stars much faster than their modern-day counterparts, but they created much larger stars as well. By grazing on their own stores of gas, galaxies from this epoch routinely formed stars up to 100 solar masses in size.

These impressive bouts of star formation occurred over the course of hundreds of millions of years. The extremely long time scales involved suggest that while they probably played a minor role, galaxy mergers were not the main precursor to star formation in the Universe’s younger years. “This type of galactic cannibalism was rare,” said Ranga-Ram Chary, a member of the team. “Instead, we are seeing evidence for a mechanism of galaxy growth in which a typical galaxy fed itself through a steady stream of gas, making stars at a much faster rate than previously thought.” Even on cosmic scales, it would seem that slow and steady really does win the race.

Source: JPL

Star Forming Density – How Low Can You Go?

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The general picture of star formation envisions stars emerging in clusters, having condensed from cores of gas under self gravity after having passed a critical density threshold. Perhaps the cloud was pushed over the threshold by the shockwave of a supernova or the tidal twisting of a nearby object. How it happens isn’t important since the methods are likely to be many and diverse. What is important is understanding what that threshold is so we may know when it is reached. It is generally referred to as the Jeans mass and observations have generally been well in line with densities predicted by this formulation. However, over the past several years, astronomers have discovered some objects amongst a new class that form in regions and densities not readily explained by the Jeans mass criterion.

The first of this new class, named IRAM 04191, was discovered in 1999 in the Taurus molecular cloud. This object, originally discovered in the radio portion of the spectrum with the Very Large Array, was a tiny forming protostar. The discoverers announced that the object was undergoing gravitational collapse, still disassociating the molecular hydrogen in the cloud from which it formed. While this object fit the traditional picture of star formation it was unique in that it was exceptionally dim. As more of these were discovered, it established a new class of objects that are now being called Very Low Luminosity Objects or VeLLOs.

The launch of the Spitzer infrared telescope allowed for the discovery of more objects. The first one from this telescope was discovered in 2004 and named L1014-IRS. Others have included L1521F-IRS, L328-IRS, and L1148-IRS. These objects are not yet well understood but have the general characteristics of having less than a tenth of the mass of the sun, seem to be accreting heavily (as indicated by outflows), and be only on the order of tens of thousands of years old.

Among these, L1148-IRS has been an oddity. While still low in overall light output, this object was relatively bright in the infrared when compared to other VeLLOs. Studies of the object and its surrounding gas suggested that the object was forming in an unusually empty region, one in which the usual scenario doesn’t seem to fit. A new paper by the original discoverers of this object, suggest that there may be some peculiarities that may be related to this puzzle. In particular, the region doesn’t seem to be collapsing uniformly. Different portions appear to be collapsing at different rates.

Regardless of how this protostar came to collapse, L1148-IRS is an unusual case and expected to form a very low mass star or brown dwarf. Since there are so few VeLLOs, the formation of such early stages of star formation, especially for low mass stars is not well understood and future detection of similar objects will likely greatly contribute to the understanding of low-mass objects in relative isolation.

Slowing Down Stars

Forming Star's Magnetic Field Interacting With Disc Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/R. Hurt (SSC).

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One of the long standing challenges in stellar astronomy, is explaining why stars rotate so slowly. Given their large masses, as they collapsed to form, they should spin up to the point of flying apart, preventing them from ever reaching the point that they could ignite fusion. To explain this rotational braking, astronomers have invoked an interaction between the forming star’s magnetic field, and forming accretion disc. This interaction would slow the star allowing for further collapse to take place. This explanation is now over 40 years old, but how has it held up as it has aged?

One of the greatest challenges to testing this theory is for it to make predictions that are directly testable. Until very recently, astronomers were unable to directly observe circumstellar discs around newly formed stars. In order to get around this, astronomers have used statistical surveys, looking for the presence of these discs indirectly. Since dust discs will be warmed by the forming star, systems with these discs will have extra emission in the infrared portion of the spectra. According to the magnetic braking theory, young stars with discs should rotate more slowly than those without. This prediction was confirmed in 1993 by a team of astronomers led by Suzan Edwards at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. Numerous other studies confirmed these general findings but added a further layer to the picture; stars are slowed by their discs to a period of ~8 days, but as the discs dissipate, the stars continue to collapse, spinning up to a period of 1-2 days.

Another interesting finding from these studies is that the effects seem to be most pronounced for stars of higher mass. When similar studies were conducted on young stars in the Orion and Eagle nebulae, researchers found that there was no sharp distinction between stars with or without disks for low mass stars. Findings such as these have caused astronomers to begin questioning how universal the magnetic disc braking is.

One of the other pieces of information with which astronomers could work was the realization around 1970 that there was a sharp divide in rotational speeds between high mass stars and lower mass ones at around the F spectral class. This phenomenon had been anticipated nearly a decade earlier when Evry Schatzman proposed that the stellar wind would interact with the star’s own magnetic field to create drag. Since these later spectral class stars tended to have more active magnetic fields, the braking effect would be more important for these stars.

Thus astronomers now had two effects which could serve to slow rotation rates of stars. Given the firm theoretical and observational evidence for each, they were both likely “right”, so the question became which was dominant in which circumstance. This question is one with which astronomers are still struggling.

To help answer the question, astronomers will need to gather a better understanding of how much each effect is at work in individual stars instead of simply large population surveys, but doing so is tricky. The main method employed to examine disc locking is to examine whether the inner edge of the disc is similar to the radius at which an object in a Keplarian orbit would have a similar angular velocity to the star. If so, it would imply that the star is fully locked with the disc’s inner edge. However, measuring these two values is easier said than done. To compare the values, astronomers must construct thousands of potential star/disc models against which to compare the observations.

In one recent paper astronomers used this technique on IC 348, a young open cluster. Their analysis showed that ~70% of stars were magnetically locked with the disc. However, the remaining 30% were suspected to have inner disc radii beyond the reach of the magnetic field and thus, unavailable for disc braking. However, these results are somewhat ambiguous. While the strong number of stars tied to their discs does support the disc braking as an important component of the rotational evolution of the stars, it does not distinguish whether it is presently a dominant feature. As previously stated, many of the stars could be in the process of evaporating the discs, allowing the star to again spin-up. It is also not clear if the 30% of stars without evidence of disc locking were locked in the past.

Research like this is only one piece to a larger puzzle. Although the details of it aren’t fully fleshed out, it is readily apparent that these magnetic braking effects, both with discs and stellar winds, play a significant effect on slowing the angular speed of stars. This runs completely contrary to the frequent Creationist claim that “[t]here is no know [sic] mechanical process which could accomplinsh [sic] this transfer of momentum”.

Astronomy Without A Telescope – Star Seeds

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Molecular clouds are called so because they have sufficient density to support the formation of molecules, most commonly H2 molecules. Their density also makes them ideal sites for new star formation – and if star formation is prevalent in a molecular cloud, we tend to give it the less formal title of stellar nursery.

Traditionally, star formation has been difficult to study as it takes place within thick clouds of dust. However, observation of far-infrared and sub-millimetre radiation coming out of molecular clouds allows data to be collected about prestellar objects, even if they can’t be directly visualized. Such data are drawn from spectroscopic analysis – where spectral lines of carbon monoxide are particularly useful in determining the temperature, density and dynamics of prestellar objects.

Far-infrared and sub-millimetre radiation can be absorbed by water vapor in Earth’s atmosphere, making astronomy at these wavelengths difficult to achieve from sea level – but relatively easy from low humidity, high altitude locations such as Mauna Kea Observatory in Hawaii.

Simpson et al undertook a sub-millimeter study of the molecular cloud L1688 in Ophiuchus, particularly looking for protostellar cores with blue asymmetric double (BAD) peaks – which signal that a core is undergoing the first stages of gravitational collapse to form a protostar. A BAD peak is identified through Doppler-based estimates of gas velocity gradients across an object. All this clever stuff is done via the James Clerk Maxwell Telescope in Mauna Kea, using ACSIS and HARP – the Auto-Correlation Spectral Imaging System and the Heterodyne Array Receiver Programme.

A sample of protostellar cores from cloud L1688 in Ophiuchus. Cores with signature blue asymmetric double (BAD) peaks, indicating gas infall due to gravitational collapse, are all on the right side of the Jeans Instability line. This plot enables the likely evolutionary path of protostellar cores to be estimated. Credit: Simpson et al.

The physics of star formation are not completely understood. But, presumably due to a combination of electrostatic forces and turbulence within a molecular cloud, molecules begin to aggregate into clumps which perhaps merge with adjacent clumps until there is a collection of material substantial enough to generate self-gravity.

From this point, a hydrostatic equilibrium is established between gravity and the gas pressure of the prestellar object – although as more matter is accreted, self-gravity increases. Objects can be sustained within the Bonnor-Ebert mass range – where more massive objects in this range are smaller and denser (High Pressure in the diagram). But as mass continues to climb, the Jeans Instability Limit is reached where gas pressure can no longer withstand gravitational collapse and matter ‘infalls’ to create a dense, hot protostellar core.

When the core’s temperature reaches 2000 Kelvin, H2 and other molecules dissociate to form a hot plasma. The core is not yet hot enough to drive fusion but it does radiate its heat – establishing a new hydrostatic equilibrium between outward thermal radiation and inward gravitational pull. At this point the object is now officially a protostar.

Being now a substantial center of mass, the protostar is likely to draw a circumstellar accretion disk around it. As it accretes more material and the core’s density increases further, deuterium fusion commences first – followed by hydrogen fusion, at which point a main sequence star is born.

Further reading: Simpson et al The initial conditions of isolated star formation – X. A suggested evolutionary diagram for prestellar cores.