Astronomers Find Dozens of Massive Stars Fleeing the Milky Way

This is Zeta Ophiuchi, a runaway star observed by Spitzer. The star is creating a bow shock as it travels through an interstellar dust cloud. A new study found dozens of new runaway stars in the Milky Way. Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

The Milky Way can’t hold onto all of its stars. Some of them get ejected into intergalactic space and spend their lives on an uncertain journey. A team of astronomers took a closer look at the most massive of these runaway stars to see what they could find out how they get ejected.

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Cygnus X – A Cosmic-ray Cocoon

Cygnus X hosts many young stellar groupings, including the OB2 and OB9 associations and the cluster NGC 6910. The combined outflows and ultraviolet radiation from the region's numerous massive stars have heated and pushed gas away from the clusters, producing cavities of hot, lower-density gas. In this 8-micron infrared image, ridges of denser gas mark the boundaries of the cavities. Bright spots within these ridges show where stars are forming today. Credit: NASA/IPAC/MSX


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.

Original Story Source: NASA Fermi News.