Distant Stellar Nurseries: This Time, in High Definition

This article is a guest post by Anna Ho, who is currently doing research on stars in the Milky Way through a one-year Fulbright Scholarship at the Max Planck Institute for Astronomy (MPIA) in Heidelberg, Germany.

In the Milky Way, an average of seven new stars are born every year. In the distant galaxy GN20, an astonishing average of 1,850 new stars are born every year. “How,” you might ask, indignant on behalf of our galactic home, “does GN20 manage 1,850 new stars in the time it takes the Milky Way to pull off one?”

To answer this, we would ideally take a detailed look at the stellar nurseries in GN20, and a detailed look at the stellar nurseries in the Milky Way, and see what makes the former so much more productive than the latter.

But GN20 is simply too far away for a detailed look.

This galaxy is so distant that its light took twelve billion years to reach our telescopes. For reference, Earth itself is only 4.5 billion years old and the universe itself is thought to be about 14 billion years old. Since light takes time to travel, looking out across space means looking back across time, so GN20 is not only a distant, but also a very ancient, galaxy. And, until recently, astronomers’ vision of these distant, ancient galaxies has been blurry.

Consider what happens when you try to load a video with a slow Internet connection, or when you download a low-resolution picture and then stretch it. The image is pixelated. What was once a person’s face becomes a few squares: a couple of brown squares for hair, a couple of pink squares for the face. The low-definition picture makes it impossible to see details: the eyes, the nose, the facial expression.

A face has many details and a galaxy has many varied stellar nurseries. But poor resolution, a result simply of the fact that ancient galaxies like GN20 are separated from our telescopes by vast cosmic distances, has forced astronomers to blur together all of this rich information into a single point.

The situation is completely different here at home in the Milky Way. Astronomers have been able to peer deep into stellar nurseries and witness stellar birth in stunning detail. In 2006, the Hubble Space Telescope took this unprecedentedly detailed action shot of stellar birth at the heart of the Orion Nebula, one of the Milky Way’s most famous stellar nurseries:

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A detailed close-up of stellar birth. Credit: NASA,ESA, M. Robberto (Space Telescope Science Institute/ESA) and the Hubble Space Telescope Orion Treasury Project Team

There are over 3,000 stars in this image: The glowing dots are newborn stars that have recently emerged from their cocoons. Stellar cocoons are made of gas: thousands of these gas cocoons sit nestled in immense cosmic nurseries, which are rich with gas and dust. The central region of that Hubble image, encased by what looks like a bubble, is so clear and bright because the massive stars within have blown away the dust and gas they were forged from. Majestic stellar nurseries are scattered all over the Milky Way, and astronomers have been very successful at uncloaking them in order to understand how stars are made.

Observing nurseries both here at home and in relatively nearby galaxies has enabled astronomers to make great leaps in understanding stellar birth in general: and, in particular, what makes one nursery, or one star formation region, “better” at building stars than another. The answer seems to be: how much gas there is in a particular region. More gas, faster rate of star birth. This relationship between the density of gas and the rate of stellar birth is called the Kennicutt-Schmidt Law. In 1959, the Dutch astronomer Maarten Schmidt raised the question of how exactly increasing gas density influences star birth, and forty years later, in an illustration of how scientific dialogues can span decades, his American colleague Robert Kennicutt used data from 97 galaxies to answer him.

Understanding the Kennicutt-Schmidt Law is crucial for determining how stars form and even how galaxies evolve. One fundamental question is whether there is one rule that governs all galaxies, or whether one rule governs our galactic neighborhood, but a different rule governs distant galaxies. In particular, a family of distant galaxies known as “starburst galaxies” seems to contain particularly productive nurseries. Dissecting these distant, highly efficient stellar factories would mean probing galaxies as they used to be, back near the beginning of the universe.

Enter GN20. GN20 is one of the brightest, most productive of these starburst galaxies. Previously a pixelated dot in astronomers’ images, GN20 has become an example of a transformation in technological capability.

In December 2014, an international team of astronomers led by Dr. Jacqueline Hodge of the National Radio Astronomy Observatory in the USA, and comprising astronomers from Germany, the United Kingdom, France, and Austria, were able to construct an unprecedentedly detailed picture of the stellar nurseries in GN20. Their results were published earlier this year.

The key is a technique called interferometry: observing one object with many telescopes, and combining the information from all the telescopes to construct one detailed image. Dr. Hodge’s team used some of the most sophisticated interferometers in the world: the Karl G. Jansky Very Large Array (VLA) in the New Mexico desert, and the Plateau de Bure Interferometer (PdBI) at 2550 meters (8370 feet) above sea level in the French Alps.

With data from these interferometers as well as the Hubble Space Telescope, they turned what used to be one dot into the following composite image:

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GN20 in unprecedented detail (false color image). The 10 kpc (10,000 parsec) scale corresponds to 32,600 light-years. Image credit: Jacqueline Hodge et al. 2015

This is a false color image, and each color stands for a different component of the galaxy. Blue is ultraviolet light, captured by the Hubble Space Telescope. Green is cold molecular gas, imaged by the VLA. And red is warm dust, heated by the star formation it is shrouding, detected by the PdBI.

Unbundling one pixel into many enabled the team to determine that the nurseries in a starburst galaxy like GN20 are fundamentally different from those in a “normal” galaxy like the Milky Way. Given the same amount of gas, GN20 can churn out orders of magnitude more stars than the Milky Way can. It doesn’t simply have more raw material: it is more efficient at fashioning stars out of it.

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Some of the 66 radio antennas of ALMA, which can be linked to act like a much larger telescope. Image credit: ALMA (ESO/NAOJ/NRAO)/B. Tafreshi (twanight.org)

This kind of study is currently unique to the extreme case of GN20. However, it will be more common with the new generation of interferometers, such as the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA).

Located 5000 meters (16000 feet) high up in the Chilean Andes, ALMA is poised to transform astronomers’ understanding of stellar birth. State-of-the-art telescopes are enabling astronomers to do the kind of detailed science with distant galaxies – ancient galaxies from the early universe – that was once thought to be possible only for our local neighborhood. This is crucial in the scientific quest for universal physical laws, as astronomers are able to test their theories beyond our neighborhood, out across space and back through time.

Old Equations Shed New Light on Quasars

There’s nothing more out of this world than quasi-stellar objects or more simply – quasars. These are the most powerful and among the most distant objects in the Universe. At their center is a black hole with the mass of a million or more Suns. And these powerhouses are fairly compact – about the size of our Solar System. Understanding how they came to be and how — or if — they evolve into the galaxies that surround us today are some of the big questions driving astronomers.

Now, a new paper by Yue Shen and Luis C. Ho – “The diversity of quasars unified by accretion and orientation” in the journal Nature confirms the importance of a mathematical derivation by the famous astrophysicist Sir Arthur Eddington during the first half of the 20th Century, in understanding not just stars but the properties of quasars, too. Ironically, Eddington did not believe black holes existed, but now his derivation, the Eddington Luminosity, can be used more reliably to determine important properties of quasars across vast stretches of space and time.

A quasar is recognized as an accreting (meaning- matter falling upon) super massive black hole at the center of an “active galaxy”. Most known quasars exist at distances that place them very early in the Universe; the most distant is at 13.9 billion light years, a mere 770 million years after the Big Bang. Somehow, quasars and the nascent galaxies surrounding them evolved into the galaxies present in the Universe today.  At their extreme distances, they are point-like, indistinguishable from a star except that the spectra of their light differ greatly from a star’s. Some would be as bright as our Sun if they were placed 33 light years away meaning that  they are over a trillion times more luminous than our star.

An artists illustration of the central engine of a Quasar. These "Quasi-stellar Objects" QSOs are now recognized as the super massive black holes at the center of emerging galaxies in the early Universe. (Photo Credit: NASA)
An artists illustration of the central engine of a quasar. These “Quasi-stellar Objects” QSOs are now recognized as the super massive black holes at the center of emerging galaxies in the early Universe. (Photo Credit: NASA)

The Eddington luminosity  defines the maximum luminosity that a star can exhibit that is in equilibrium; specifically, hydrostatic equilibrium. Extremely massive stars and black holes can exceed this limit but stars, to remain stable for long periods, are in hydrostatic equilibrium between their inward forces – gravity – and the outward electromagnetic forces. Such is the case of our star, the Sun, otherwise it would collapse or expand which in either case, would not have provided the stable source of light that has nourished life on Earth for billions of years.

Generally, scientific models often start simple, such as Bohr’s model of the hydrogen atom, and later observations can reveal intricacies that require more complex theory to explain, such as Quantum Mechanics for the atom. The Eddington luminosity and ratio could be compared to knowing the thermal efficiency and compression ratio of an internal combustion engine; by knowing such values, other properties follow.

Several other factors regarding the Eddington Luminosity are now known which are necessary to define the “modified Eddington luminosity” used today.

The new paper in Nature shows how the Eddington Luminosity helps understand the driving force behind the main sequence of quasars, and Shen and Ho call their work the missing definitive proof that quantifies the correlation of a quasar properties to a quasar’s Eddington ratio.

They used archival observational data to uncover the relationship between the strength of the optical Iron [Fe] and Oxygen[O III] emissions – strongly tied to the physical properties of the quasar’s central engine – a super-massive black hole, and the Eddington ratio. Their work provides the confidence and the correlations needed to move forward in our understanding of quasars and their relationship to the evolution of galaxies in the early Universe and up to our present epoch.

Astronomers have been studying quasars for a little over 50 years. Beginning in 1960, quasar discoveries began to accumulate but only through radio telescope observations. Then, a very accurate radio telescope measurement of Quasar 3C 273 was completed using a Lunar occultation. With this in hand, Dr. Maarten Schmidt of California Institute of Technology was able to identify the object in visible light using the 200 inch Palomar Telescope. Reviewing the strange spectral lines in its light, Schmidt reached the right conclusion that quasar spectra exhibit an extreme redshift and it was due to cosmological effects. The cosmological redshift of quasars meant that they are at a great distance from us in space and time. It also spelled the demise of the Steady-State theory of the Universe and gave further support to an expanding Universe that emanated from a singularity – the Big Bang.

Dr. Maarten Schmidt, Caltech University, with Donald Lynden-Bell, were the first recipients of the Kavli Prize in Astrophysics, “for their seminal contributions to understanding the nature of quasars”. While in high school, this author had the privilege to meet Dr. Schmidt at the Los Angeles Museum of Natural History after his presentation to a group of students. (Photo Credit: Caltech)
Dr. Maarten Schmidt, Caltech, with Donald Lynden-Bell, were the first recipients of the Kavli Prize in Astrophysics, “for their seminal contributions to understanding the nature of quasars”. While in high school, this author had the privilege to meet Dr. Schmidt at the Los Angeles Museum of Natural History after his presentation to a group of students. (Photo Credit: Caltech)

The researchers, Yue Shen and Luis C. Ho are from the Institute for Astronomy and Astrophysics at Peking University working with the Carnegie Observatories, Pasadena, California.

References and further reading:

“The diversity of quasars unified by accretion and orientation”, Yue Shen, Luis C. Ho, Sept 11, 2014, Nature

“What is a Quasar?”, Universe Today, Fraser Cain, August 12, 2013

“Interview with Maarten Schmidt”, Caltech Oral Histories, 1999

“Fifty Years of Quasars, a Symposium in honor of Maarten Schmidt”, Caltech, Sept 9, 2013