Merging White Dwarfs Set Off Supernovae

Composite image of M31. Inset shows central region as seen by Chandra. Credit: NASA/CXC/MPA/ M.Gilfanov & A.Bogdan;

New results from the Chandra X-Ray Observatory suggests that the majority of Type Ia supernovae occur due to the merger of two white dwarfs. This new finding provides a major advance in understanding the type of supernovae that astronomers use to measure the expansion of the Universe, which in turns allows astronomers to study dark energy which is believed to pervade the universe. “It was a major embarrassment that we still didn’t know the conditions and progenitor systems of some the most spectacular explosions in the universe,” said Marat Gilfanov of the Max Planck Institute for Astrophysics, at a press conference with reporters today. Gilfanov is the lead author of the study that appears in the Feb. 18 edition of the journal Nature.

Type Ia supernovae serve as cosmic mile markers to measure expansion of the universe. Because they can be seen at large distances, and they follow a reliable pattern of brightness. However, until now, scientists have been unsure what actually causes the explosions.

Most scientists agree a Type Ia supernova occurs when a white dwarf star — a collapsed remnant of an elderly star — exceeds its weight limit, becomes unstable and explodes. The two leading candidates for what pushes the white dwarf over the edge are the merging of two white dwarfs, or accretion, a process in which the white dwarf pulls material from a sun-like companion star until it exceeds its weight limit.

“Our results suggest the supernovae in the galaxies we studied almost all come from two white dwarfs merging,” said co-author Akos Bogdan, also of Max Planck. “This is probably not what many astronomers would expect.”

The difference between these two scenarios may have implications for how these supernovae can be used as “standard candles” — objects of a known brightness — to track vast cosmic distances. Because white dwarfs can come in a range of masses, the merger of two could result in explosions that vary somewhat in brightness.

Because these two scenarios would generate different amounts of X-ray emission, Gilfanov and Bogdan used Chandra to observe five nearby elliptical galaxies and the central region of the Andromeda galaxy. A Type Ia supernova caused by accreting material produces significant X-ray emission prior to the explosion. A supernova from a merger of two white dwarfs, on the other hand, would create significantly less X-ray emission than the accretion scenario.

The scientists found the observed X-ray emission was a factor of 30 to 50 times smaller than expected from the accretion scenario, effectively ruling it out.

So, for example, the Chandra image above would be about 40 times brighter than observed if Type Ia supernova in the bulge of this galaxy were triggered by material from a normal star falling onto a white dwarf star. Similar results for five elliptical galaxies were found.

This implies that white dwarf mergers dominate in these galaxies.

An open question remains whether these white dwarf mergers are the primary catalyst for Type Ia supernovae in spiral galaxies. Further studies are required to know if supernovae in spiral galaxies are caused by mergers or a mixture of the two processes. Another intriguing consequence of this result is that a pair of white dwarfs is relatively hard to spot, even with the best telescopes.

“To many astrophysicists, the merger scenario seemed to be less likely because too few double-white-dwarf systems appeared to exist,” said Gilfanov. “Now this path to supernovae will have to be investigated in more detail.”

Source: NASA

Twin Tails Tell a Crazy Tale of Star Formation

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Stars forming outside a galaxy? That’s what a new observation with the Chandra X-ray Observatory appears to show. “This system is really crazy because where we’re seeing the star formation is well away from any galaxy,” said Megan from Michgan State University. “Star formation happens primarily in the disks of galaxies. What we’re seeing here is very unexpected.”

The image shows two distinct long tails of gas that are more than 200,000 light years in length and extends well outside any galaxy. The gas tails are located in the southern hemisphere near a constellation called Triangulum Australe, in a giant cluster of galaxies called Abell 3627. It is associated with a galaxy known as ESO 137-001 which is about 219 million light years from our own Milky Way Galaxy.

While a similar type of gas tail are places where stars form, usually this happens within the confines of a galaxy.

“The double tail is very cool – that is, interesting – and ridiculously hard to explain,” said Donahue. “It could be two different sources of gas or something to do with magnetic fields. We just don’t know.”

This gas tail was originally spotted by astronomers three years ago using a multitude of telescopes, including NASA’s Chandra X-ray Observatory and the Southern Astrophysical Research telescope in Chile. The new observations show a second tail, and a fellow galaxy, ESO 137-002, that also has a tail of hot X-ray-emitting gas.

How these newly formed stars came to be in this particular place remains a mystery as well. Astronomers theorize this gas tail might have “pulled” star-making material from nearby gases, creating what some have called “orphan stars.”

“This system continues to surprise us as we get better observations of it,” Donahue said.

Donahue was part of an international team of astronomers who published a paper on the twin tails in Astrophysical Journal.

Paper: Spectacular X-Ray Tails and Intracluster Star Formation

source: MSU

Chandra Stares Deep into the Heart of Sagittarius A*

Caption: Latest Chandra image of Sgr A*. Credits: X-ray: NASA/CXC/MIT/F. Baganoff, R. Shcherbakov et al.

How long can you stare at an object? This Chandra image of the supermassive black hole at the center of the Milky Way Galaxy, known as Sagittarius A* (or Sgr A* for short)Sgr A* and the surrounding region is based on data from a series of observations lasting a total of about one million seconds, or almost two weeks. Such a deep observation has given scientists an unprecedented view of the nearby supernova remnant, known as Sgr A East, and the lobes of hot gas extending for a dozen light years on either side of the black hole. These lobes provide evidence for powerful eruptions occurring several times over the last ten thousand years. But this image also provides evidence that Sgr A* isn’t a very good eater.

Astronomers have known this for quite some time. The fuel for this black hole comes from powerful winds blown off dozens of massive young stars that are concentrated nearby. These stars are located a relatively large distance away from Sgr A*, where the gravity of the black hole is weak, and so their high-velocity winds are difficult for the black hole to capture and swallow. Scientists have previously calculated that Sgr A* should consume only about 1 percent of the fuel carried in the winds.

However, it now appears that Sgr A* consumes even less than expected — ingesting only about one percent of that one percent. Why does it consume so little? The answer may be found in a new theoretical model developed using data from a very deep exposure made by NASA’s Chandra X-ray Observatory. This model considers the flow of energy between two regions around the black hole: an inner region that is close to the so-called event horizon (the boundary beyond which even light cannot escape), and an outer region that includes the black hole’s fuel source — the young stars — extending up to a million times farther out. Collisions between particles in the hot inner region transfer energy to particles in the cooler outer region via a process called conduction. This, in turn, provides additional outward pressure that makes nearly all of the gas in the outer region flow away from the black hole. The model appears to explain well the extended shape of hot gas detected around Sgr A* in X-rays as well as features seen in other wavelengths.

The image also contains several mysterious X-ray filaments, some of which may be huge magnetic structures interacting with streams of energetic electrons produced by rapidly spinning neutron stars. Such features are known as pulsar wind nebulas.

The new model of Sgr A* was presented at the 215th meeting of the American Astronomical Society in January 2009 by Roman Shcherbakov and Robert Penna of Harvard University and Frederick K. Baganoff of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Source: NASA

Stellar Destruction Could Be from Intermediate Black Hole

NGC 1399, an elliptical galaxy about 65 million light years from Earth. Credit: NASA, Chandra

A dense stellar remnant has been ripped apart by a black hole a thousand times as massive as the Sun. If confirmed, this discovery would be a cosmic double play: it would be strong evidence for an intermediate mass black hole — which has been a hotly debated topic — and would mark the first time such a black hole has been caught tearing a star apart. Scientists believe a mysterious intense X-ray emission, called an “ultraluminous X-ray source” or ULX is responsible for the destruction. “Astronomers have made cases for stars being torn apart by supermassive black holes in the centers of galaxies before, but this is the first good evidence for such an event in a globular cluster,” said Jimmy Irwin of the University of Alabama, who led the study.

The new results come from the Chandra X-ray Observatory and the Magellan telescope, and were announced at the 215th American Astronomical Society meeting today.

The scenario is based on Chandra observations, which revealed the ULX in a dense cluster of old stars, and optical observations that showed a peculiar mix of elements associated with the X-ray emission. Taken together, a case can be made that the X-ray emission is produced by debris from a disrupted white dwarf star that is heated as it falls towards a massive black hole. The optical emission comes from debris further out that is illuminated by these X-rays.

The intensity of the X-ray emission places the source in the category, meaning that it is more luminous than any known stellar X-ray source, but less luminous than the bright X-ray sources (active galactic nuclei) associated with supermassive black holes in the nuclei of galaxies. The nature of ULXs is a mystery, but one suggestion is that some ULXs are black holes with masses between about a hundred and several thousand times that of the Sun, a range intermediate between stellar-mass black holes and supermassive black holes located in the nuclei of galaxies.

Evidence from NASA's Chandra X-ray Observatory and the Magellan telescopes suggest a star has been torn apart by an intermediate-mass black hole in a globular cluster. Credit: NASA, Chandra

This ULX is in a globular cluster, NGC 1399, an elliptical galaxy about 65 million light-years from Earth that is a very old and crowded conglomeration of stars. Astronomers have suspected that globular clusters could contain intermediate-mass black holes, but conclusive evidence for this has been elusive.

Irwin and his colleagues obtained optical spectra of the object using the Magellan I and II telescopes in Las Campanas, Chile. These data reveal emission from gas rich in oxygen and nitrogen but no hydrogen, a rare set of signals from globular clusters. The physical conditions deduced from the spectra suggest that the gas is orbiting a black hole of at least 1,000 solar masses. The abundant amount of oxygen and absence of hydrogen indicate that the destroyed star was a white dwarf, the end phase of a solar-type star that has burned its hydrogen leaving a high concentration of oxygen. The nitrogen seen in the optical spectrum remains an enigma.

“We think these unusual signatures can be explained by a white dwarf that strayed too close to a black hole and was torn apart by the extreme tidal forces,” said coauthor Joel Bregman of the University of Michigan.

Theoretical work suggests that the tidal disruption-induced X-ray emission could stay bright for more than a century, but it should fade with time. So far, the team has observed there has been a 35% decline in X-ray emission from 2000 to 2008.

Irwin said at today’s press conference that a new survey just getting started will look for more globular clusters with x-ray sources.

Sources: Chandra, AAS Meeting

Shapes Reveal Supernovae History

These two supernova remnants are part of a new study from NASA’s Chandra X-ray Observatory that shows how the shape of the remnant is connected to the way the progenitor star exploded. Credit: NASA/CXC/UCSC/L. Lopez et al.)

At a very early age, children learn how to classify objects according to their shape. Now, new research suggests studying the shape of the aftermath of supernovas may allow astronomers to do the same. Images of supernova remnants taken by the Chandra X-ray Observatory shows that the symmetry of the debris from exploded stars, or lack thereof, reveals how the star exploded. This is an important discovery because it shows that the remnants retain information about how the star exploded even though hundreds or thousands of years have passed.

“It’s almost like the supernova remnants have a ‘memory’ of the original explosion,” said Laura Lopez of the University of California at Santa Cruz, who led the study. “This is the first time anyone has systematically compared the shape of these remnants in X-rays in this way.”

Astronomers sort supernovas into several categories, or “types”, based on properties observed days after the explosion and which reflect very different physical mechanisms that cause stars to explode. But, since observed remnants of supernovas are leftover from explosions that occurred long ago, other methods are needed to accurately classify the original supernovas.

Lopez and colleagues focused on the relatively young supernova remnants that exhibited strong X-ray emission from silicon ejected by the explosion so as to rule out the effects of interstellar matter surrounding the explosion. Their analysis showed that the X-ray images of the ejecta can be used to identify the way the star exploded. The team studied 17 supernova remnants both in the Milky Way galaxy and a neighboring galaxy, the Large Magellanic Cloud.

Chandra X-ray Image of SNR 0548-70.4  (Credit: NASA/CXC/UCSC/L. Lopez et al.)
Chandra X-ray Image of SNR 0548-70.4 (Credit: NASA/CXC/UCSC/L. Lopez et al.)

For each of these remnants there is independent information about the type of supernova involved, based not on the shape of the remnant but, for example, on the elements observed in it. The researchers found that one type of supernova explosion – the so-called Type Ia – left behind relatively symmetric, circular remnants. This type of supernova is thought to be caused by a thermonuclear explosion of a white dwarf, and is often used by astronomers as “standard candles” for measuring cosmic distances.

On the other hand, the remnants tied to the “core-collapse” supernova explosions were distinctly more asymmetric. This type of supernova occurs when a very massive, young star collapses onto itself and then explodes.

“If we can link supernova remnants with the type of explosion”, said co-author Enrico Ramirez-Ruiz, also of University of California, Santa Cruz, “then we can use that information in theoretical models to really help us nail down the details of how the supernovas went off.”

Models of core-collapse supernovas must include a way to reproduce the asymmetries measured in this work and models of Type Ia supernovas must produce the symmetric, circular remnants that have been observed.

Out of the 17 supernova remnants sampled, ten were classified as the core-collapse variety, while the remaining seven of them were classified as Type Ia. One of these, a remnant known as SNR 0548-70.4, was a bit of an “oddball”. This one was considered a Type Ia based on its chemical abundances, but Lopez finds it has the asymmetry of a core-collapse remnant.

“We do have one mysterious object, but we think that is probably a Type Ia with an unusual orientation to our line of sight,” said Lopez. “But we’ll definitely be looking at that one again.”

While the supernova remnants in the Lopez sample were taken from the Milky Way and its close neighbor, it is possible this technique could be extended to remnants at even greater distances. For example, large, bright supernova remnants in the galaxy M33 could be included in future studies to determine the types of supernova that generated them.

The paper describing these results appeared in the November 20 issue of The Astrophysical Journal Letters.

Source: Chandra

Galaxy Cluster Far, Far Away Smashes Distance Record

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A galaxy cluster located about 10.2 billion light years from Earth has been discovered by combining data from NASA’s Chandra X-ray Observatory with optical and infrared telescopes. The cluster, JKCS041, is the most distant galaxy cluster yet observed, and we see it as when the Universe was only about a quarter of its present age. The cluster’s distance beats the previous record holder by about a billion light years.

Galaxy clusters are the largest gravitationally bound objects in the Universe. Finding such a large structure at this very early epoch can reveal important information about how the Universe evolved at this crucial stage.

JKCS041 is at the brink of when scientists think galaxy clusters can exist in the early Universe based on how long it should take for them to assemble. Therefore, studying its characteristics – such as composition, mass, and temperature – will reveal more about how the Universe took shape.

“This object is close to the distance limit expected for a galaxy cluster,” said Stefano Andreon of the National Institute for Astrophysics (INAF) in Milan, Italy. “We don’t think gravity can work fast enough to make galaxy clusters much earlier.”

JKCS041 was originally detected in 2006 in a survey from the United Kingdom Infrared Telescope (UKIRT). The distance to the cluster was then determined from optical and infrared observations from UKIRT, the Canada-France-Hawaii telescope in Hawaii and NASA’s Spitzer Space Telescope. Infrared observations are important because the optical light from the galaxies at large distances is shifted into infrared wavelengths because of the expansion of the universe.

The Chandra data were the final – but crucial – piece of evidence as they showed that JKCS041 was, indeed, a genuine galaxy cluster. The extended X-ray emission seen by Chandra shows that hot gas has been detected between the galaxies, as expected for a true galaxy cluster rather than one that has been caught in the act of forming.

Also, without the X-ray observations, the possibility remained that this object could have been a blend of different groups of galaxies along the line of sight, or a filament, a long stream of galaxies and gas, viewed front on. The mass and temperature of the hot gas detected estimated from the Chandra observations rule out both of those alternatives.

The extent and shape of the X-ray emission, along with the lack of a central radio source argue against the possibility that the X-ray emission is caused by scattering of cosmic microwave background light by particles emitting radio waves.

It is not yet possible, with the detection of just one extremely distant galaxy cluster, to test cosmological models, but searches are underway to find other galaxy clusters at extreme distances.

“This discovery is exciting because it is like finding a Tyrannosaurus Rex fossil that is much older than any other known,” said co-author Ben Maughan, from the University of Bristol in the United Kingdom. “One fossil might just fit in with our understanding of dinosaurs, but if you found many more, you would have to start rethinking how dinosaurs evolved. The same is true for galaxy clusters and our understanding of cosmology.”

The previous record holder for a galaxy cluster was 9.2 billion light years away, XMMXCS J2215.9-1738, discovered by ESA’s XMM-Newton in 2006. This broke the previous distance record by only about 0.1 billion light years, while JKCS041 surpasses XMMXCS J2215.9 by about ten times that.

“What’s exciting about this discovery is the astrophysics that can be done with detailed follow-up studies,” said Andreon.

Among the questions scientists hope to address by further studying JKCS041 are: What is the build-up of elements (such as iron) like in such a young object? Are there signs that the cluster is still forming? Do the temperature and X-ray brightness of such a distant cluster relate to its mass in the same simple way as they do for nearby clusters?

Source: EurekAlert

New Chandra Deep X-ray Image of the Galactic Center

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Chandra has done it again in creating some of the most visually stunning images of our Universe. This time, Chandra’s X-ray eyes show a dramatic new vista of the center of the Milky Way galaxy. This mosaic from 88 different images exposes new levels of the complexity and intrigue in the Galactic center, providing a look at stellar evolution, from bright young stars to black holes, in a crowded, hostile environment dominated by a central, supermassive black hole.

Permeating the region is a diffuse haze of X-ray light from gas that has been heated to millions of degrees by winds from massive young stars – which appear to form more frequently here than elsewhere in the Galaxy – explosions of dying stars, and outflows powered by the supermassive black hole – known as Sagittarius A* (Sgr A*). Data from Chandra and other X-ray telescopes suggest that giant X-ray flares from this black hole occurred about 50 and about 300 years earlier.

See this link for an animation that provides greater detail of the galactic center.

The area around Sgr A* also contains several mysterious X-ray filaments. Some of these likely represent huge magnetic structures interacting with streams of very energetic electrons produced by rapidly spinning neutron stars or perhaps by a gigantic analog of a solar flare.

Scattered throughout the region are thousands of point-like X-ray sources. These are produced by normal stars feeding material onto the compact, dense remains of stars that have reached the end of their evolutionary trail – white dwarfs, neutron stars and black holes.

Because X-rays penetrate the gas and dust that blocks optical light coming from the center of the galaxy, Chandra is a powerful tool for studying the Galactic Center. This image combines low energy X-rays (colored red), intermediate energy X-rays (green) and high energy X-rays (blue).

The image is being released at the beginning of the “Chandra’s First Decade of Discovery” symposium being held in Boston, Mass. This four-day conference will celebrate the great science Chandra has uncovered in its first ten years of operations. To help commemorate this event, several of the astronauts who were onboard the Space Shuttle Columbia – including Commander Eileen Collins – that launched Chandra on July 23, 1999, will be in attendance.

Source: Chandra

After Loss of Lunar Orbiter, India Looks to Mars Mission

India Moon Mission

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After giving up on re-establishing contact with the Chandrayaan-1 lunar orbiter, Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO) Chairman G. Madhavan Nair announced the space agency hopes to launch its first mission to Mars sometime between 2013 and 2015. Nair said the termination of Chandrayaan-1, although sad, is not a setback and India will move ahead with its plans for the Chandrayaan-2 mission to land an unmanned rover on the moon’s surface to prospect for chemicals, and in four to six years launch a robotic mission to Mars.


“We have given a call for proposal to different scientific communities,” Nair told reporters. “Depending on the type of experiments they propose, we will be able to plan the mission. The mission is at conceptual stage and will be taken up after Chandrayaan-2.”

On the decision to quickly pull the plug on Chandrayaan-1, Nair said, “There was no possibility of retrieving it. (But) it was a great success. We could collect a large volume of data, including more than 70,000 images of the moon. In that sense, 95 percent of the objective was completed.”

Contact with Chandrayaan-1 may have been lost because its antenna rotated out of direct contact with Earth, ISRO officials said. Earlier this year, the spacecraft lost both its primary and back-up star sensors, which use the positions of stars to orient the spacecraft.

The loss of Chandrayaan-1 comes less than a week after the spacecraft’s orbit was adjusted to team up with NASA’s Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter for a Bi-static radar experiment. During the maneuver, Chandrayaan-1 fired its radar beam into Erlanger Crater on the moon’s north pole. Both spacecraft listened for echoes that might indicate the presence of water ice – a precious resource for future lunar explorers. The results of that experiment have not yet been released.

Chandrayaan-1 craft was designed to orbit the moon for two years, but lasted 315 days. It will take about 1,000 days until it crashes to the lunar surface and is being tracked by the U.S. and Russia, ISRO said.

The Chandrayaan I had 11 payloads, including a terrain-mapping camera designed to create a three-dimensional atlas of the moon. It is also carrying mapping instruments for the European Space Agency, radiation-measuring equipment for the Bulgarian Academy of Sciences and two devices for NASA, including the radar instrument to assess mineral composition and look for ice deposits. India launched its first rocket in 1963 and first satellite in 1975. The country’s satellite program is one of the largest communication systems in the world.

Sources: New Scientist, Xinhuanet

LRO, Chandrayaan-1 Team Up For Unique Search for Water Ice

NASA’s Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter and India’s Chandrayaan-1 will team up on August 20 to perform a Bi-Static radar experiment to search for water ice in a crater on the Moon’s north pole. Both spacecraft will be in close proximity approximately 200 km above the lunar surface, and both are equipped with radar instruments. The two instruments will look at the same location from different angles, with Chandrayaan-1’s radar transmitting a signal which will be reflected off the interior of Erlanger crater, and then be picked up by LRO. Scientists will compare the signal that bounces straight back to Chandrayaan with the signal that bounces at a slight angle to LRO to garner unique information, particularly about any water ice that may be present inside the crater.

Both spacecraft are equipped with a NASA Miniature Radio Frequency (RF) instrument that functions as a Synthetic Aperture Radar (SAR), known as Mini-SAR on Chandrayaan 1 and Mini-RF on LRO.

“The advantage of a Bi-Static experiment is that you’re looking at echoes that are being reflected off the Moon at an angle other than zero,” said Paul Spudis,principal investigator for Chandrayaan-1’s Mini-SAR,discussing the mission on The Space Show. “Mono-static radar sends a pulse, and you are looking in the same phase or incident angle. But with Bi-Static, you can look at it from a different angle. The significance of that is ice has a very unique bi-static response.”

Erlanger Crater from the Lunar Orbiter. Credit: NASA
Erlanger Crater from the Lunar Orbiter. Credit: NASA

Stewart Nozette, Mini-RF principal investigator from the Universities Space Research Association’s Lunar and Planetary Institute, said, “An extraordinary effort was made by the whole NASA team working with ISRO to make this happen”

While this coordination sounds easy, this experiment is extremely challenging because both spacecraft are traveling at about 1.6 km per second and will be looking at an area on the ground about 18 km across. Due to the extreme speeds and the small point of interest, NASA and ISRO need to obtain and share information about the location and pointing of both spacecraft. The Bi-Static experiment requires extensive tracking by ground stations of NASA’s Deep Space Network, the Applied Physics Laboratory, and ISRO.

Even with the considerable planning and coordination between the U.S. and India the two instrument beams may not overlap, or may miss the desired location. Even without hitting the exact location Scientists may still be able to use the Bi-Static information to further knowledge already received from both instruments.

“The international coordination and cooperation between the two agencies for this experiment is an excellent opportunity to demonstrate future cooperation between NASA and ISRO, “says Jason Crusan, program executive for the Mini-RF program, from NASA’s Space Operations Mission Directorate, Washington, D.C.

Trigger-Happy Star Formation in Cepheus B

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Combining data from the Chandra X-Ray Observatory and the Spitizer Space Telescope allowed astronomers to create this gorgeous new image of Cepheus B. Besides being incredible eye candy, the new image also provides fresh insight into how some stars are born. The research shows that radiation from massive stars may trigger the formation of many more stars than previously thought.

While astronomers have long understood that stars and planets form from the collapse of a cloud of gas, the question of the main causes of this process has remained open.

“Astronomers have generally believed that it’s somewhat rare for stars and planets to be triggered into formation by radiation from massive stars,” said Konstantin Getman of Penn State University, and lead author of the study. “Our new result shows this belief is likely to be wrong.”

Chandra image of Cepheus B.  Credit: NASA/Chandra team
Chandra image of Cepheus B. Credit: NASA/Chandra team

The new study suggests that star formation in the region of study in this image, Cepheus B, is mainly triggered by radiation from one bright, massive star outside the molecular cloud. According to theoretical models, radiation from this star would drive a compression wave into the cloud triggering star formation in the interior, while evaporating the cloud’s outer layers. The Chandra-Spitzer analysis revealed slightly older stars outside the cloud while the youngest stars with the most protoplanetary disks congregate in the cloud interior — exactly what is predicted from the triggered star formation scenario.

“We essentially see a wave of star and planet formation that is rippling through this cloud,” said co-author Eric Feigelson, also of Penn State. “Outside the cloud, the stars probably have newly born planets while inside the cloud the planets are still gestating.”

Cepheus B is a cloud of mainly cool molecular hydrogen located about 2,400 light years from the Earth. There are hundreds of very young stars inside and around the cloud — ranging from a few millions years old outside the cloud to less than a million in the interior — making it an important testing ground for star formation.

Previous observations of Cepheus B had shown a rim of ionized gas around the molecular cloud and facing the massive star. However, the wave of star formation — an additional crucial feature to identifying the source of the star formation — had not previously been seen. “We can even clock how quickly this wave is traveling and it’s going about 2,000 miles per hour,” said Getman.

The star that is the catalyst for the star formation in Cepheus B, is about 20 times as massive as the Sun, or at least five times weightier than any of the other stars in Cepheus B.

The Chandra and Spitzer data also suggest that multiple episodes of star and planet formation have occurred in Cepheus B over millions of years and that most of the material in the cloud has likely already been evaporated or transformed into stars.

“It seems like this nearby cloud has already made most of its stars and its fertility will soon wane,” said Feigelson. “It’s clear that we can learn a lot about stellar nurseries by combining data from these two Great Observatories.”

A paper describing these results was published in the July 10 issue of the Astrophysical Journal.

Source: Chandra