WISE Discovers Some Really “Cool” Stars!

This artist's conception illustrates what a "Y dwarf" might look like. Y dwarfs are the coldest star-like bodies known. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

[/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

False-colour images of the two brown dwarf discoveries WISE J0254+0223 and WISE J1741+2553. (Credit: AIP, NASA/IPAC Infrared Science Archive)

[/caption]

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

The Sombrero Galaxy. Credit: ESO/P. Barthe

[/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?

Star formation in the Eagle Nebula

[/caption]

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

[/caption]

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

The Rho Ophiuchi cloud complex - within which cloud L1688 is the most active star-forming location. Credit NASA.

[/caption]

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.

Dust in the Wind

WISE image of the "Elephant Trunk" nebula. NASA/JPL-Caltech/WISE Team.

[/caption]

The stellar wind, that is! This beautiful image, taken by NASA’s Wide-Field Infrared Explorer (WISE) shows a vast ring of interstellar dust and gas being forced outwards by the wind and radiation from a massive star.

The star, HR8281, is located in the center of the image, the topmost star in a small triangular formation of blue stars to the upper left of the tip of a bright elongated structure – the end of the “elephant trunk” that gives the nebula its name. The star may not look like much, but HR8281’s powerful stellar wind is what’s sculpting the huge cloud of dust into the beautiful shapes seen in this infrared image.

Located 2,450 light-years from Earth, the Elephant’s Trunk Nebula spans 100 light-years. The “trunk” itself is about 30 light-years long. (That’s about, oh… 180 trillion miles!)

Structures like this are common in nebulae. They are formed when the stellar wind – the outpouring of ultraviolet radiation and charged particles that are constantly streaming off stars – blows away the gas and dust near a star, leaving only the densest areas. It’s basically erosion on a massive interstellar scale.

The tip of the "trunk" and the triangle of stars, the topmost of which is HR8281.

It’s not just a destructive process, though. Within those dense areas new stars can form… in fact, in the bright tip of the trunk above a small dark spot can be seen. That’s an area that’s been cleared by the creation of a new star. When a baby star “ignites” and its nuclear fusion factory turns on, its stellar wind clears away the dust and gas in the cloud it was formed from. Nebulae aren’t just pretty clouds in space… they’re stellar nurseries!

The red-colored stars in this image are other newborn stars, still wrapped in their dusty “cocoons”.

The colors used in this image represent specific wavelengths of infrared light. Blue and cyan (blue-green) represent light emitted at wavelengths of 3.4 and 4.6 microns, which is predominantly from stars. Green and red represent light from 12 and 22 microns, respectively, which is mostly emitted by dust.

Read more about this image on the WISE site here.

Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/WISE Team

A White-Hot Relationship

Artist's impression of white dwarf binary pair CSS 41177. Image: Andrew Taylor.

 

[/caption]

Two stars have been discovered locked in a mutually-destructive embrace, a relationship that will end with both losing their individual identities as they spiral increasingly closer, eventually becoming a single hot body that is destined to quickly fizzle out.

No, we’re not talking about the cover of a Hollywood tabloid, these are two white dwarf stars 1,140 light-years away in the constellation Leo, and they are the second such pair of their kind ever to be discovered.

Astronomers at the University of Warwick in the UK have identified a binary pair of white dwarf stars named CSS 41177 that circle each other closely in an eclipsing orbit. What’s particularly unique about this pair is that both stars seem to have been stripped down to their helium layers – a feature that points at an unusually destructive history for both.

White dwarfs typically form from larger stars that have burned through their hydrogen and helium, leaving behind hot, dense cores composed of carbon and oxygen – after going through a bloated red giant phase, that is. But when stars are very close to each other, such as in the case of binary pairs, the expanding hydrogen shell from the larger one undergoing its red giant phase is stripped away by its smaller companion, which absorbs the material. Without the compression and heat from the hydrogen layer the first star cannot fuse its helium into heavier elements and is left as a helium white dwarf.

When the time comes for the smaller star to expand into a red giant, its outer layers are likewise torn away by the first star. But the first star cannot use that hydrogen, and so both are left as helium white dwarfs. The unused hydrogen is ultimately lost to the system.

It’s a case of a destructive codependent relationship on a stellar scale.

The white dwarf stars in CSS 41177 will eventually merge together in about a billion years, gaining enough mass in the process to begin fusing their combined helium, thus becoming a single star called a hot subdwarf. This period could last another 100 million years.

This discovery was made using data gathered from the Liverpool Telescope in the Canary Islands and the Gemini Telescope on Hawaii. The paper was accepted for publication in the Astrophysical Journal and is entitled A deeply eclipsing detached double helium white dwarf binary. (Authors: S. G. Parsons, T. R. Marsh, B. T. Gaensicke, A. J. Drake, D. Koester.)

Read more on SpaceRef.com.

The image above was created by Andrew Taylor, a.k.a. digital_drew. He specializes in starry-night landscapes as seen from speculative planets orbiting familiar stars in our galaxy and was kind enough to provide me with this custom binary pair image. Check out his photostream for more!

Revealing A Hybrid Star Cluster

NGC 6791 - The full Hubble Advanced Camera for Surveys field (top right) is full of stars estimated to be 8 billion years old. Bottom right: The blue circles identify hotter dwarfs that are 4 billion years old. The red circles identify cooler dwarfs that are 6 billion years old. - Credit: NASA, ESA, and L. Bedin (STScI)

[/caption]

Almost a century ago, astronomers Shapley and Melotte began classifying star clusters. This rough, initial go-around took in the apparent number of stars and the compactness of the field – along with color. By 1927, these “classes” were again divided to include both open and globular clusters. But there are some that simply defy definition.

According to Johns Hopkins astronomer Imants Platais, there is one case which has puzzled astronomers for decades: a well-known, seemingly open star cluster in the constellation of Lyra, named NGC 6791.

“This cluster is about twice the age of the sun and is unusually metal rich (at least twice the Sun’s metallicity),” said Platais, of the Henry A. Rowland Department of Physics and Astronomy’s Center for Astrophysical Sciences. “A couple of decades ago, it was also found that NGC 6791 contains a handful of very hot but somewhat dim stars, called hot subdwarfs. The presence of such stars in an open cluster is rare, though not unique.”

Why are these hot subdwarfs an anomaly? The facts about star clusters as we know them are that globular clusters are notoriously metal poor, while open clusters are metal rich. “The massive stars that create much of the metals live for only a short time, and when they die, they spit out or eject the metals they have created.” says the team. “The expelled metals become part of the raw material out of which the next stars are formed. Thus, there is a relationship between the age of a star and how much metal it contains: old stars have a lower metallicity than do younger ones. Less massive stars live longer than higher mass stars, so low mass stars from early generations still survive today and are studied extensively.”

A team led by Platais and Kyle Cudworth from The University of Chicago’s Yerkes Observatory set out to solve the mystery of NGC 6791 by taking a census of its stars. Their findings revealed several luminous stars in the horizontal branch of the HR diagram… Stars that would normally be found in globular clusters. The hot subdwarfs were confirmed to be genuine cluster members, but they now “appear to be simply the bluest horizontal branch stars”. What’s wrong with this picture? NGC 6791 contains simultaneously both red and very blue horizontal branch stars – making it both old and metal rich. Quite simply put, studying star clusters is key to understanding stellar evolution – unless the cluster starts breaking the rules.

“Star clusters are the building blocks of galaxies and we believe that all stars, including our own sun, are born in clusters. NGC 6791 is a real oddball among about 2,000 known open and globular star clusters in the Milky Way and as such provides a new challenge and a new opportunity, to our understanding of how stars form and evolve,” said Platais, who presented this work last week at the 218th meeting of the American Astronomical Society in Boston.

So… what about star clusters in other galaxies? Three hybrids have been discovered (2005) in the Andromeda Galaxy – M31WFS C1, M31WFS C2, and M31WFS C3. They have the same basic population and metallicity of a globular cluster, but they’re expanded hundreds of light years across and are equally less dense. Are they extended? Or perhaps a dwarf spheroidal galaxy? They don’t exist (as far as we know) in the Milky Way, but there’s always a possibility these hybrid clusters may call other galaxies home.

Until then, we’ll just keep learning.

Original Story Source: John Hopkins University.

Old Star Clusters Shed New Light on Starbirth

NGC 3603 - Credit: NASA, ESA, R. O'Connell (University of Virginia), F. Paresce (National Institute for Astrophysics, Bologna, Italy), E. Young (Universities Space Research Association/Ames Research Center), the WFC3 Science Oversight Committee, and the Hubble Heritage Team (STScI/AURA)

[/caption]

Hovering about the galactic plane and locked in the embrace of a spiral galaxy’s arms, open star clusters usually contain up to a few hundred members and generally span around thirty light years across. Most are young, up to a few tens of millions of years old – with a few rare exceptions as old as a few billion years. We understand that over time the members of a galactic cluster slowly drift apart to form loose associations. But what we don’t understand is exactly how their stars formed.

“The net effect of this is that their stars eventually become redistributed throughout the Galaxy,” said Nathan Leigh, a PhD student at McMaster University and lead author for a study being presented this week at the CASCA 2011 meeting in Ontario, Canada. “This is how we think most of the stars in the Milky Way came to be found in their currently observed locations.”

One of the reasons we’re not able to probe deeply into the construction and evolution of galactic clusters is because they are typically hidden by a dense veil of gas and dust. Beautiful to look at… But nearly impossible to cut through in visible light. This means we can’t directly observe the process of starbirth. To help understand this process, astronomers have combined their observations of star clusters so old they date back to the beginning of the Universe itself . And, thanks to modern computing, they are also able to generate state-of-the-art simulations for stellar evolution.

“Unfortunately, most star clusters take so long to dissolve that we cannot actually see it happening. But we now understand how this process occurs, and we can look for its signatures by examining the current appearances of clusters,” said Nathan Leigh. “We have gone about this by matching up the clusters we make with our simulations to the ones we actually observe. This tells us about the conditions at the time of their formation.”

These simulations have given Leigh and collaborators the stimulus they needed to re-trace the histories of real star clusters, giving us new clues about formation. To complete their studies, they relied upon highly sophisticated observations recently taken with the Hubble Space Telescope.

“Remarkably, we are finding that all star clusters more or less share a common history, extending all the way back to their births,” said Leigh. “This came as a big surprise to us since it suggests that the problem could be much simpler than we originally thought. Our understanding of not only how stars form, but also the history of our Galaxy, just took a much bigger step forward than we were expecting.”

Source: Canadian Astronomical Society.