The Youngest Stellar Disk Ever Seen, Just 500,000 Years Old

Unless you’re reading this in an aircraft or the International Space Station, then you’re currently residing on the surface of a planet. You’re here because the planet is here. But how did the planet get here? Like a rolling snowball picking up more snow, planets form from loose dust and gas surrounding young stars. As the planets orbit, their gravity draws in more of the lose material and they grow in mass. We’re not certain when the process of planet formation begins in orbit of new stars, but we have incredible new insights from one of the youngest solar systems ever observed called IRS 63.

The Rho Ophiuchi cloud complex is a nebula of gas and dust that is located in the constellation Ophiuchus. It is one of the closest star-forming regions to the Solar System and where the young star system IRS 63 was observed

Primordial Soup

Swirling in orbit of young stars (or protostars) are massive disks of dust and gas called circumstellar disks. These disks are dense enough to be opaque hiding young solar systems from visible light. However, energy emanating from the protostar heats the dust which then glows in infrared radiation which more easily penetrates obstructions than wavelengths of visible light. In fact, the degree to which a newly forming star system is observed in either visible or infrared light determines its classification. Class 0 protostars are completely enshrouded and can only be observed in submillimeter wavelengths corresponding to far-infrared and microwave light. Class I protostars, are observable in the far-infrared, Class II in near-infrared/red, and finally a Class III protostar’s surface and solar system can be observed in visible light as the remaining dust and gas is either blown away by the increasing energy of the star AND/OR has formed into PLANETS! That’s where we came from. That leftover material orbiting newly forming stars is what accumulates to form US. The whole process from Class 0 to Class III, when the solar system leaves its cocoon of dust and joins the galaxy, is about 10 million years. But at what stage does planet formation begin? The youngest circumstellar disks we’d observed are a million years old and had shown evidence that planetary formation had already begun. The recently observed IRS 63 is less than 500,000 years old – Class I – and shows signs of possible planet formation. The excitement? We were surprised to see evidence of planetary formation so early in the life of a solar system.

IRS 63 Circumstellar Disk C. ALMA/ Segura-Cox et al. 2020
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We’re Made of Starstuff. Especially From Extremely Massive Stars

An illustration of a protoplanetary disk. Planets coalesce out of the remaining molecular cloud the star formed out of. Within this accretion disk lay the fundamental elements necessary for planet formation and potential life. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/T. Pyle (SSC) - February, 2005

A new study shows how massive young stars create the kind of organic molecules that are necessary for life.

A team of researchers used an airborne observatory to examine the inner regions around two massive young stars. Along with water, they found things like ammonia and methane. These molecules are swirling around in a disk of material that surrounds the young stars.

That material is the same stuff that planets form from, and the study presents some new insights into how the stuff of life becomes incorporated into planets.

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Planets Form in Just a Few Hundred Thousand Years

Astronomers like to observe young planets forming in circumstellar debris disks, the rotating rings of material around young stars. But when they measure the amount of material in those disks, they don’t contain enough material to form large planets. That discrepancy has puzzled astronomers.

The answer might come down to timing.

A new study suggests that planets form much quicker than astronomers think.

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This is a Binary Star in the Process of Formation

About 460 light years away lies the Rho Ophiuchi cloud complex. It’s a molecular cloud—an active star-forming region—and it’s one of the closest ones. R. Ophiuchi is a dark nebula, a region so thick with dust that the visible light from stars is almost completely obscured.

But scientists working with ALMA have pin-pointed a pair of young proto-stars inside all that dust, doing the busy work of becoming active stars.

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A Peek Inside NGC 7538

The active star forming region NGC 7538. Image by Fred Calvert/Adam Block/NOAO/AURA/NSF

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Often overshadowed by the more famous Bubble Nebula which lies nearby, NGC 7538 is an exciting emission and reflection nebula located in Cepheus. While it is often overlooked by amateur astronomers, professionals looking to study stellar formation find it an exciting target as it is the host to ongoing star formation, including the largest known protostar.

Because of the dusty nature of this region, studies targeting the nebula are frequently conducted in longer wavelengths, ranging from the infrared to the radio. Previous studies have put the age of the forming stars at around ~1-4 million years and at a distance of ~2.8 kiloparsecs. Within it, several individual sub groups of star formation seem to have occurred. Among some of the more interesting individual forming stars are NGC 7538S and MM 1.

Observations from earlier this year targeted NGC 7538S. This protostar is embedded in a collapsing core of approximately 85 – 115 solar masses and hosts a rotating accretion disc as well as large outflows of material. Although the star has not finished forming, the conditions are right for it to form into a high mass B star and is undergoing accretion at an unusually high rate of 1/1000th of a solar mass per year.

More recently another paper explores several other forming stars in the region including the massive MM 1. This star is already estimated to have accumulated 20-30 solar masses and be well on the way to forming an O class star. But it’s not done yet. Radial velocity measurements of molecules in the protostar’s vicinity indicate it’s still undergoing large amounts of accretion, mostly from its equatorial plane. Numerous studies have shown that this massive star is creating powerful jets.

In addition, this new study identifies an additional eight cores forming into young stars near MM 1. These cores are interesting because they exist in regions where the density and temperature were not expected to be sufficiently high to induce star formation. This suggests that their formation was not uniquely due to a self induced collapse, but rather, triggered by shock waves or magnetic fields. Although no studies have searched for the signs of magnetic fields in the region, there are indications that numerous shock waves exist. Additionally, four of these cores have mass available to them similar to that of MM 1 which may allow them to form into a grouping of high mass stars similar to the famous Trapezium in Orion. These stars all exist in a narrowly confined region of about 1 light year, which is also similar to the separation of the Trapezium. Many of the newly discovered cores have large outflows and maser emission as well.

Further studies on this region will certainly uncover new protostars and assist astronomers in understanding how clusters of stars form. Already, astronomers have used it to help probe the Initial Mass Function which describes the number of stars forming for various masses. Additionally, with small clusters of stars like the Trapezium being common, catching one in the act of forming may help astronomers determine just how they form.

J-E-T-S, Jets, Jets, Jets!

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It seems oddly appropriate to be writing about astrophysical jets on Thanksgiving Day, when the New York football Jets will be featured on television. In the most recent issue of Science, Carlos Carrasco-Gonzalez and collaborators write about how their observations of radio emissions from young stellar objects (YSOs) shed light one of the unsolved problems in astrophysics; what are the mechanisms that form the streams of plasma known as polar jets? Although we are still early in the game, Carrasco-Gonzalez et al have moved us closer to the goal line with their discovery.

Astronomers see polar jets in many places in the Universe. The largest polar jets are those seen in active galaxies such as quasars. They are also found in gamma-ray bursters, cataclysmic variable stars, X-ray binaries and protostars in the process of becoming main sequence stars. All these objects have several features in common: a central gravitational source, such as a black hole or white dwarf, an accretion disk, diffuse matter orbiting around the central mass, and a strong magnetic field.

Relativistic jet from an AGN. Credit: Pearson Education, Inc., Upper Saddle River, New Jersey

When matter is emitted at speeds approaching the speed of light, these jets are called relativistic jets. These are normally the jets produced by supermassive black holes in active galaxies. These jets emit energy in the form of radio waves produced by electrons as they spiral around magnetic fields, a process called synchrotron emission. Extremely distant active galactic nuclei (AGN) have been mapped out in great detail using radio interferometers like the Very Large Array in New Mexico. These emissions can be used to estimate the direction and intensity of AGNs magnetic fields, but other basic information, such as the velocity and amount of mass loss, are not well known.

On the other hand, astronomers know a great deal about the polar jets emitted by young stars through the emission lines in their spectra. The density, temperature and radial velocity of nearby stellar jets can be measured very well. The only thing missing from the recipe is the strength of the magnetic field. Ironically, this is the one thing that we can measure well in distant AGN. It seemed unlikely that stellar jets would produce synchrotron emissions since the temperatures in these jets are usually only a few thousand degrees. The exciting news from Carrasco-Gonzalez et al is that jets from young stars do emit synchrotron radiation, which allowed them to measure the strength and direction of the magnetic field in the massive Herbig-Haro object, HH 80-81, a protostar 10 times as massive and 17,000 times more luminous than our Sun.

Finally obtaining data related to the intensity and orientation of the magnetic field lines in YSO’s and their similarity to the characteristics of AGN suggests we may be that much closer to understanding the common origin of all astrophysical jets. Yet another thing to be thankful for on this day.