Stars are born in molecular clouds, massive clouds of hydrogen that can contain millions of stellar masses of material. But how do molecular clouds form? There are different theories and models of that process, but the cloud formation is difficult to observe.
A new study is making some headway, and showing how the process occurs more rapidly than thought.
In infrared, Cygnus-X is a glowing star nursery, and the Herschel space observatory has captured this beautiful new view showing an extremely active region of big-baby stars. It is located about 4,500 light-years from Earth in the constellation of Cygnus, the Swan. The image highlights the unique capabilities of Herschel to probe the birth of large stars and their influence on the surrounding interstellar material.
The bright white areas are where large stars have recently formed out of turbulent clouds, especially evident in the chaotic network of filaments seen in the right-hand portion of the image. The dense knots of gas and dust collapse to form new stars; the bubble-like structures are carved by the enormous radiation emitted by these stars.
In the center of the image, fierce radiation and powerful stellar winds from stars undetected at Herschel’s wavelengths have partly cleared and heated interstellar material, which then glows blue. The threads of compact red objects scattered throughout the image shows where future generations of stars will be born.
Thanks to the incredible infra-red imagery of NASA’s Spitzer Space Telescope, we’re able to take a look into a tortured region of star formation. Infrared light in this image has been color-coded according to wavelength. Light of 3.6 microns is blue, 4.5-micron light is blue-green, 8.0-micron light is green, and 24-micron light is red. The data was taken before the Spitzer mission ran out of its coolant in 2009, and began its “warm” mission. This image reveals one of the most active and tumultuous areas of the Milky Way – Cygnus X. Located some 4,500 light years away, the violent-appearing dust cloud holds thousands of massive stars and even more of moderate size. It is literally “star soup”…
“Spitzer captured the range of activities happening in this violent cloud of stellar birth,” said Joseph Hora of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics in Cambridge, Mass., who presented the results today at the 219th meeting of the American Astronomical Society in Austin, Texas. “We see bubbles carved out by massive stars, pillars of new stars, dark filaments lined with stellar embryos and more.”
According to popular theory, stars are created in regions similar to Cygnus X. As their lives progress, they drift away from each other and it is surmised the Sun once belonged to a stellar association formed in a slightly less extreme environment. In regions like Cygnus X, the dust clouds are characterized with deformations caused by stellar winds and high radiation. The massive stars literally shred the clouds that birth them. This action can stop other stars from forming… and also cause the rise of others.
“One of the questions we want to answer is how such a violent process can lead to both the death and birth of new stars,” said Sean Carey, a team member from NASA’s Spitzer Science Center at the California Institute of Technology, Pasadena, Calif. “We still don’t know exactly how stars form in such disruptive environments.”
Thanks to Spitzer’s infra-red data, scientists are now able to paint a clearer picture of what happens in dusty complexes. It allows astronomers to peer behind the veil where embryonic stars were once hidden – and highlights areas like pillars where forming stars pop out inside their cavities. Another revelation is dark filaments of dust, where embedded stars make their home. It is visions like this that has scientists asking questions… Questions such as how filaments and pillars could be related.
“We have evidence that the massive stars are triggering the birth of new ones in the dark filaments, in addition to the pillars, but we still have more work to do,” said Hora.
Situated about 4,500 light-years away in the constellation of Cygnus is a veritable star factory called Cygnus X… one estimated to have enough “raw materials” to create as many as two million suns. Caught in the womb are stellar clusters and OB associations. Of particular interest is one labeled Cygnus OB2 which is home to 65 of the hottest, largest and meanest O-type stars known – and close to 500 B members. The O boys blast out holes in the dust clouds in intense outflows, disrupting cosmic rays. Now, a study using data from NASA’s Fermi Gamma-ray Space Telescope is showing us this disturbance can be traced back to its source.
Discovered some 60 years ago in radio frequencies, the Cygnus X region has long been of interest, but dust-veiled at optical wavelengths. By employing NASA’s Fermi Gamma-ray Space Telescope, scientists are now able to peer behind the obscuration and take a look at the heart through gamma ray observations. In regions of star formation like Cygnus X, subatomic particles are produced and these cosmic rays shoot across our galaxy at light speed. When they collide with interstellar gas, they scatter – making it impossible to trace them to their point of origin. However, this same collision produces a gamma ray source… one that can be detected and pinpointed.
“The galaxy’s best candidate sites for cosmic-ray acceleration are the rapidly expanding shells of ionized gas and magnetic field associated with supernova explosions.” says the FERMI team. “For stars, mass is destiny, and the most massive ones — known as types O and B — live fast and die young.”
Because these star types aren’t very common, regions like Cygnus X become important star laboratories. Its intense outflows and huge amount of mass fills the prescription for study. Within its hollowed-out walls, stars reside in layers of thin, hot gas enveloped in ribbons of cool, dense gas. It is this specific area in which Fermi’s LAT instrumentation excels – detecting an incredible amount of gamma rays.
“We are seeing young cosmic rays, with energies comparable to those produced by the most powerful particle accelerators on Earth. They have just started their galactic voyage, zig-zagging away from their accelerator and producing gamma rays when striking gas or starlight in the cavities,” said co-author Luigi Tibaldo, a physicist at Padova University and the Italian National Institute of Nuclear Physics.
Clocked at up to 100 billion electron volts by the LAT, these highly accelerated particles are revealing the extreme origin of gamma-ray emission. For example, visible light is only two to three electron volts! But why is Cygnus X so special? It entangles its sources in complex magnetic fields and keeps the majority of them from escaping. All thanks to those high mass stars…
“These shockwaves stir the gas and twist and tangle the magnetic field in a cosmic-scale jacuzzi so the young cosmic rays, freshly ejected from their accelerators, remain trapped in this turmoil until they can leak into quieter interstellar regions, where they can stream more freely,” said co-author Isabelle Grenier, an astrophysicist at Paris Diderot University and the Atomic Energy Commission in Saclay, France.
However, there’s more to the story. The Gamma Cygni supernova remnant is also nearby and may impact the findings as well. At this point, the Fermi team considers it may have created the initial “cocoon” which holds the cosmic rays in place, but they also concede the accelerated particles may have originated through multiple interactions with stellar winds.
“Whether the particles further gain or lose energy inside this cocoon needs to be investigated, but its existence shows that cosmic-ray history is much more eventful than a random walk away from their sources,” Tibaldo added.