Over the last few years, astronomers have observed distant solar systems in their early stages of growth. ALMA (Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array) has captured images of young stars and their disks of material. And in those disks, they’ve spotted the tell-tale gaps that signal the presence of growing young planets.
As they ramped up their efforts, astronomers were eventually able to spot the young planets themselves. All those observations helped confirm our understanding of how young solar systems form.
But more recent research adds another level of detail to the nebular hypothesis, which guides our understanding of solar system formation.
According to the Nebula Hypothesis, stars and their systems of planets form from giant clouds of dust and gas. After undergoing gravitational collapse at the center (which creates the star), the remaining matter then forms an accretion disk in orbit around it. Over time, this matter is fed to the star – allowing it to become more massive – and also leads to the creation of a system of planets.
And until this week, the Nebula Hypothesis was just that. Given the distance involved, and the fact that the formation of star systems takes billions of years, being able to witness the process at various stages is quite difficult. But thanks to the efforts of team of researchers from the U.S. and Taiwan, astronomers have now captured the first clear image of a young star surrounded by an accretion disk.
The protostellar system in question is known as HH 212, a young star system (40,000 years old) located in the Orion constellation, roughly 1300 light-years from Earth. This star system is noted for its powerful bipolar jet – i.e. the continuous flows of ionized gas from its poles – which is believed to cause it to accrete matter more efficiently. Due to its age and its position relative to Earth, this protostar system has been a popular target for astronomers in the past.
Basically, the fact that it is still in an early phase of formation (and the fact that it can be viewed edge-on) make the star system ideal for studying the evolution of low-mass stars. However, previous searches had a maximum resolution of 200 AU, which meant astronomers were only able to get a hint of a small dusty disk. This disk appeared as a flattened envelope, spiraling towards the protostar at the center.
But with ALMA’s resolution (8 AU, or 25 times higher), the research team was not only able to detect the accretion disk, but also able to spatially resolve its dust emissions at submillimeter wavelength. As Chin-Fei Lee – a research fellow at the Academia Sinica Institute of Astronomy and Astrophysics (ASIAA) in Taiwan and the lead author on the paper – said in an ALMA press release:
“It is so amazing to see such a detailed structure of a very young accretion disk. For many years, astronomers have been searching for accretion disks in the earliest phase of star formation, to determine their structure, how they are formed, and how the accretion process takes place. Now using the ALMA with its full power of resolution, we not only detect an accretion disk but also resolve it, especially its vertical structure, in detail.”
What they observed was a disk that has a radius of roughly 60 astronomical units, which is slightly greater than the distance from the Sun and the outer edge of the Kuiper Belt (50 AU). They also noted that the disk was compromised of silicate minerals, iron and other interstellar matter, and consisted of a prominent equatorial dark layer that was sandwiched between two brighter layers.
This contrast between light and dark sections was due to relatively low temperatures and high optical depth near the central plane of the disk. Meanwhile, the layers above and below the central plane showed greater absorption in both the optical and near-infrared light wavelengths. Because of this layered appearance, the research team described it as looking like “a hamburger”.
These observations are exciting news for the astronomical community, and not just because they are a first. In addition, they also represent a new opportunity to study small disks around the youngest protostars. And with the kinds of high-resolution imaging made possibly by ALMA and other next-generation telescopes, astronomers will be able to place new and stronger constraints on theories pertaining to disk formation.
As Zhi-Yun Li from University of Virginia (the co-author on the study) put it:
“In the earliest phase of star formation, there are theoretical difficulties in producing such a disk, because magnetic fields can slow down the rotation of collapsing material, preventing such a disk from forming around a very young protostar. This new finding implies that the retarding effect of magnetic fields in disk formation may not be as efficient as we thought before.”
A chance to watch stars and planetary systems in their earliest phase of formation and a chance to test our theories about how it’s all done? Definitely not something that happens every day!
And be sure to enjoy this video of the observation, courtesy of ALMA and narrated by Dr. Lee:
Even though it comprises over 99% of the mass of the Solar System (with Jupiter taking up most of the rest) our Sun is, in terms of the entire Milky Way, a fairly average star. There are lots of less massive stars than the Sun out there in the galaxy, as well as some real stellar monsters… and based on new observations from the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array, there’s about to be one more.
Early science observations with ALMA have provided astronomers with the best view yet of a monster star in the process of forming within a dark cloud of dust and gas. Located 11,000 light-years away, Spitzer Dark Cloud 335.579-0.292 is a stellar womb containing over 500 times the mass of the Sun — and it’s still growing. Inside this cloud is an embryonic star hungrily feeding on inwardly-flowing material, and when it’s born it’s expected to be at least 100 times the mass of our Sun… a true stellar monster.
The star-forming region is the largest ever found in our galaxy.
“The remarkable observations from ALMA allowed us to get the first really in-depth look at what was going on within this cloud,” said Nicolas Peretto of CEA/AIM Paris-Saclay, France, and Cardiff University, UK. “We wanted to see how monster stars form and grow, and we certainly achieved our aim! One of the sources we have found is an absolute giant — the largest protostellar core ever spotted in the Milky Way.”
SDC 335.579-0.292 had already been identified with NASA’s Spitzer and ESA’s Herschel space telescopes, but it took the unique sensitivity of ALMA to observe in detail both the amount of dust present and the motion of the gas within the dark cloud, revealing the massive embryonic star inside.
“Not only are these stars rare, but their birth is extremely rapid and their childhood is short, so finding such a massive object so early in its evolution is a spectacular result.”
– Team member Gary Fuller, University of Manchester, UK
The image above, a combination of data acquired by both Spitzer and ALMA (see below for separate images) shows tendrils of infalling material flowing toward a bright center where the huge protostar is located. These observations show how such massive stars form — through a steady collapse of the entire cloud, rather than through fragmented clustering.
“Even though we already believed that the region was a good candidate for being a massive star-forming cloud, we were not expecting to find such a massive embryonic star at its center,” said Peretto. “This object is expected to form a star that is up to 100 times more massive than the Sun. Only about one in ten thousand of all the stars in the Milky Way reach that kind of mass!”
(Although, with at least 200 billion stars in the galaxy, that means there are still 20 million such giants roaming around out there!)
Much like any living being, stars go through a natural cycle. This begins with birth, extends through a lifespan characterized by change and growth, and ends in death. Of course, we’re talking about stars here, and the way they’re born, live and die is completely different from any life form we are familiar with.
For one, the timescales are entirely different, lasting on the order of billions of years. Also, the changes they go through during their lifespan are entirely different too. And when they die, the consequences are, shall we say, much more visible? Let’s take a look at the life cycle of stars.
Stars start out as vast clouds of cold molecular gas. The gas cloud could be floating in a galaxy for millions of years, but then some event causes it to begin collapsing down under its own gravity. For example when galaxies collide, regions of cold gas are given the kick they need to start collapsing. It can also happen when the shockwave of a nearby supernova passes through a region.
As it collapses, the interstellar cloud breaks up into smaller and smaller pieces, and each one of these collapses inward on itself. Each of these pieces will become a star. As the cloud collapses, the gravitational energy causes it to heat up, and the conservation of momentum from all the individual particles causes it to spin.
As the stellar material pulls tighter and tighter together, it heats up pushing against further gravitational collapse. At this point, the object is known as a protostar. Surrounding the protostar is a circumstellar disk of additional material. Some of this continues to spiral inward, layering additional mass onto the star. The rest will remain in place and eventually form a planetary system.
Depending on the stars mass, the protostar phase of stellar evolution will be short compared to its overall life span. For those that have one Solar Mass (i.e the same mass as our Sun), it lasts about 1000,000 years.
T Tauri Star:
A T Tauri star begins when material stops falling onto the protostar, and it’s releasing a tremendous amount of energy. They are so-named because of the prototype star used to research this phase of solar evolution – T Tauri, a variable star located in the direction of the Hyades cluster, about 600 light years from Earth.
A T Tauri star may be bright, but this all comes its gravitational energy from the collapsing material. The central temperature of a T Tauri star isn’t enough to support fusion at its core. Even so, T Tauri stars can appear as bright as main sequence stars. The T Tauri phase lasts for about 100 million years, after which the star will enter the longest phase of its development – the Main Sequence phase.
Eventually, the core temperature of a star will reach the point that fusion its core can begin. This is the process that all stars go through as they convert protons of hydrogen, through several stages, into atoms of helium. This reaction is exothermic; it gives off more heat than it requires, and so the core of a main sequence star releases a tremendous amount of energy.
This energy starts out as gamma rays in the core of the star, but as it takes a long slow journey out of the star, it drops down in wavelength. All of this light pushes outward on the star, and counteracts the gravitational force pulling it inward. A star at this stage of life is held in balance – as long as its supplies of hydrogen fuel lasts.
And how long does it last? It depends on the mass of the star. The least massive stars, like red dwarfs with half the mass of the Sun, can sip away at their fuel for hundreds of billions and even trillions of years. Larger stars, like our Sun will typically sit in the main sequence phase for 10-15 billion years. The largest stars have the shortest lives, and can last a few billion, and even just a few million years.
Over the course of its life, a star is converting hydrogen into helium at its core. This helium builds up and the hydrogen fuel runs out. When a star exhausts its fuel of hydrogen at its core, its internal nuclear reactions stop. Without this light pressure, the star begins to contract inward through gravity.
This process heats up a shell of hydrogen around the core which then ignites in fusion and causes the star to brighten up again, by a factor of 1,000-10,000. This causes the outer layers of the star to expand outward, increasing the size of the star many times. Our own Sun is expected to bloat out to a sphere that reaches all the way out to the orbit of the Earth.
The temperature and pressure at the core of the star will eventually reach the point that helium can be fused into carbon. Once a star reaches this point, it contracts down and is no longer a red giant. Stars much more massive than our Sun can continue on in this process, moving up the table of elements creating heavier and heavier atoms.
A star with the mass of our Sun doesn’t have the gravitational pressure to fuse carbon, so once it runs out of helium at its core, it’s effectively dead. The star will eject its outer layers into space, and then contract down, eventually becoming a white dwarf. This stellar remnant might start out hot, but it has no fusion reactions taking place inside it any more. It will cool down over hundreds of billions of years, eventually becoming the background temperature of the Universe.
A star is a star, right? Sure there are some difference in terms of color when you look up at the night sky. But they are all basically the same, big balls of gas burning up to billions of light years away, right? Well, not exactly. In truth, stars are about as diverse as anything else in our Universe, falling into one of many different classifications based on its defining characteristics.
All in all, there are many different types of stars, ranging from tiny brown dwarfs to red and blue supergiants. There are even more bizarre kinds of stars, like neutron stars and Wolf-Rayet stars. And as our exploration of the Universe continues, we continue to learn things about stars that force us to expand on the way we think of them. Let’s take a look at all the different types of stars there are.
A protostar is what you have before a star forms. A protostar is a collection of gas that has collapsed down from a giant molecular cloud. The protostar phase of stellar evolution lasts about 100,000 years. Over time, gravity and pressure increase, forcing the protostar to collapse down. All of the energy release by the protostar comes only from the heating caused by the gravitational energy – nuclear fusion reactions haven’t started yet.
T Tauri Star:
A T Tauri star is stage in a star’s formation and evolution right before it becomes a main sequence star. This phase occurs at the end of the protostar phase, when the gravitational pressure holding the star together is the source of all its energy. T Tauri stars don’t have enough pressure and temperature at their cores to generate nuclear fusion, but they do resemble main sequence stars; they’re about the same temperature but brighter because they’re a larger. T Tauri stars can have large areas of sunspot coverage, and have intense X-ray flares and extremely powerful stellar winds. Stars will remain in the T Tauri stage for about 100 million years.
Main Sequence Star:
The majority of all stars in our galaxy, and even the Universe, are main sequence stars. Our Sun is a main sequence star, and so are our nearest neighbors, Sirius and Alpha Centauri A. Main sequence stars can vary in size, mass and brightness, but they’re all doing the same thing: converting hydrogen into helium in their cores, releasing a tremendous amount of energy.
A star in the main sequence is in a state of hydrostatic equilibrium. Gravity is pulling the star inward, and the light pressure from all the fusion reactions in the star are pushing outward. The inward and outward forces balance one another out, and the star maintains a spherical shape. Stars in the main sequence will have a size that depends on their mass, which defines the amount of gravity pulling them inward.
The lower mass limit for a main sequence star is about 0.08 times the mass of the Sun, or 80 times the mass of Jupiter. This is the minimum amount of gravitational pressure you need to ignite fusion in the core. Stars can theoretically grow to more than 100 times the mass of the Sun.
Red Giant Star:
When a star has consumed its stock of hydrogen in its core, fusion stops and the star no longer generates an outward pressure to counteract the inward pressure pulling it together. A shell of hydrogen around the core ignites continuing the life of the star, but causes it to increase in size dramatically. The aging star has become a red giant star, and can be 100 times larger than it was in its main sequence phase. When this hydrogen fuel is used up, further shells of helium and even heavier elements can be consumed in fusion reactions. The red giant phase of a star’s life will only last a few hundred million years before it runs out of fuel completely and becomes a white dwarf.
White Dwarf Star:
When a star has completely run out of hydrogen fuel in its core and it lacks the mass to force higher elements into fusion reaction, it becomes a white dwarf star. The outward light pressure from the fusion reaction stops and the star collapses inward under its own gravity. A white dwarf shines because it was a hot star once, but there’s no fusion reactions happening any more. A white dwarf will just cool down until it becomes the background temperature of the Universe. This process will take hundreds of billions of years, so no white dwarfs have actually cooled down that far yet.
Red Dwarf Star:
Red dwarf stars are the most common kind of stars in the Universe. These are main sequence stars but they have such low mass that they’re much cooler than stars like our Sun. They have another advantage. Red dwarf stars are able to keep the hydrogen fuel mixing into their core, and so they can conserve their fuel for much longer than other stars. Astronomers estimate that some red dwarf stars will burn for up to 10 trillion years. The smallest red dwarfs are 0.075 times the mass of the Sun, and they can have a mass of up to half of the Sun.
If a star has between 1.35 and 2.1 times the mass of the Sun, it doesn’t form a white dwarf when it dies. Instead, the star dies in a catastrophic supernova explosion, and the remaining core becomes a neutron star. As its name implies, a neutron star is an exotic type of star that is composed entirely of neutrons. This is because the intense gravity of the neutron star crushes protons and electrons together to form neutrons. If stars are even more massive, they will become black holes instead of neutron stars after the supernova goes off.
The largest stars in the Universe are supergiant stars. These are monsters with dozens of times the mass of the Sun. Unlike a relatively stable star like the Sun, supergiants are consuming hydrogen fuel at an enormous rate and will consume all the fuel in their cores within just a few million years. Supergiant stars live fast and die young, detonating as supernovae; completely disintegrating themselves in the process.
As you can see, stars come in many sizes, colors and varieties. Knowing what accounts for this, and what their various life stages look like, are all important when it comes to understanding our Universe. It also helps when it comes to our ongoing efforts to explore our local stellar neighborhood, not to mention in the hunt for extra-terrestrial life!