Dissolving Star Systems Create Mess in Orion

For young stars, stellar outflows are the rule. T Tauri stars and other young stars eject matter in generally collimated jets. However, a region in Orion’s giant molecular cloud known as the Becklin-Neugebauer/Kleinmann-Low (BN/KL) region, appears to have a clumpy, scattered set of outflows with “finger-like” projections in numerous directions. A new study, led by Luis Zapata at the National Autonomous University of Mexico, explores this odd region.

To conduct their study, the team used the Submillimeter Array to trace the motion of carbon monoxide gas in the area. Flying away from this region are three massive and young stars. Tracing their paths back, astronomers had previously determined that these stars likely had a common origin as members of a multiple system that for some reason, broke apart an estimated 500 years ago. Likely related to this, the new study discovered several new fingers of gas moving away as well with velocities that implied they came from the same point of origin near the same time. But what could send stars and gas hurtling outwards?

Nearby, the team also discovered a “hot core” of material as well as a “bubble” of empty space near the point of origin of the event. To explain the combination of these three events, the team proposes that an close interaction between the three stars (or perhaps more) occurred. At that time, the interaction tore apart any potential binary system throwing the stars outwards.

Since the stars are young and still embedded in a nebula, the team suggests it was likely they also contained circumstellar disks that had not yet formed planets. During the interaction, the outer portions which would be least strongly bound, were thrown outwards, creating the finger-like projections. Material that was bound more tightly but just enough to be torn off, “would find itself with an excess of kinetic energy, and will start to expand” creating the apparent bubble. If that bubble, expanding supersonically for the local medium, encountered a region that was overly dense, it would collide, heating the region and potentially forming the hot core.

This new discovery presents a potential first for the discovery of one or more destroyed circumstellar disks. Such findings could help impose new constraints on how planetary systems form since most stars form in open clusters and associations in which such interactions may be commonplace. Yet, the very fact that such destroyed systems have never been found until now imply that interactions sufficiently close to cause such disruption are rare. Regardless, such things will help astronomers form a better picture of the formation of planets.

The Thick Disk: Galactic Construction Project or Galactic Rejects?

Our Milky Way Gets a Makeover
Our Milky Way Gets a Makeover


The disk of spiral galaxies is comprised of two main components: The thin disk holds the majority of stars and gas and is the majority of what we see and picture when we think of spiral galaxies. However, hovering around that, is a thicker disk of stars that is much less populated. This thick disk is distinct from the thin disk in several regards: The stars there tend to be older, metal deficient, and orbit the center of the galaxy more slowly.

But where this population of the stars came from has been a long standing mystery since its identification in the mid 1970’s. One hypothesis is that it is the remainder of cannibalized dwarf galaxies that have never settled into a more standard orbit. Others suggest that these stars have been flung from the thin disk through gravitational slingshots or supernovae. A recent paper puts these hypothesis to the observational test.

At a first glance, both propositions seem to have a firm observational footing. The Milky Way galaxy is known to be in the process of merging with several smaller galaxies. As our galaxy pulls them in, the tidal effects shred these minor galaxies, scattering the stars. Numerous tidal streams of this sort have been discovered already. The ejection from the thin disk gains support from the many known “runaway” and “hypervelocity” stars which have sufficient velocity to escape the thin disk, and in some cases, the galaxy itself.

The new study, led by Marion Dierickx of Harvard, follows up on a 2009 study by Sales et al., which used simulations to examine the features stars would take in the thick disk should they be created via these methods. Through these simulations, Sales showed that the distribution of eccentricities of the orbits should be different and allow a method by which to discriminate between formation scenarios.

By using data from the Sloan Digital Sky Survey Data Release 7 (SDSS DR7), Dierickx’s team compared the distribution of the stars in our own galaxy to the predictions made by the various models. Ultimately, their survey included some 34,000 stars. By comparing the histogram of eccentricities to that of Sales’ predictions, the team hoped to find a suitable match that would reveal the primary mode of creation.

The comparison revealed that, should ejection from the thin disk be the norm there were too many stars in nearly circular orbits as well as highly eccentric ones. In general, the distribution was too wide. However, the match for the scenario of mergers fit well lending strong credence to this hypothesis.

While the ejection hypothesis or others can’t be ruled out completely, it suggests that, at least in our own galaxy, they play a rather minor role. In the future, additional tests will likely be employed, analyzing other aspects of this population.

How to Crash Stars Together

Globular Cluster
A Hubble Space Telescope image of the typical globular cluster Messier 80, an object made up of hundreds of thousands of stars and located in the direction of the constellation of Scorpius. The Milky Way galaxy has an estimated 160 globular clusters of which one quarter are thought to be ‘alien’. Image: NASA / The Hubble Heritage Team / STScI / AURA. Click for hi-resolution version.


The math is simple: Star + Other star = Bigger star.

While conceptually this works well, it fails to take into account the extremely vast distances between stars. Even in clusters, where the density of stars is significantly higher than in the main disk, the number of stars per unit volume is so low that collisions are scarcely considered by astronomers. Of course, at some point the stellar density must reach a point at which the chance for a collision does become statistically significant. Where is that tipping point and are there any locations that might actually make the cut?

Early in the development of stellar formation models, the necessity of stellar collisions to produce massive stars was not well constrained. Early models of formation via accretion hinted that accretion may be insufficient, but as models became more complex and moved into three dimensional simulations, it became apparent that collisions simply weren’t needed to populate the upper mass regime. The notion fell out of favor.

However, there have been two recent papers that have explored the possibility that, while still certainly rare, there may be some environments in which collisions are likely to occur. The primary mechanism that assists in this is the notion that, as clusters sweep through the interstellar medium, they will inevitably pick up gas and dust, slowly increase in mass. This increase mass will cause the cluster to shrink, increasing the stellar density. The studies suggest that in order for the probability of collision to be statistically significant, a cluster would be required to reach a density of roughly 100 million stars per cubic parsec. (Keep in mind, a parsec is 3.26 light years and is roughly the distance between the sun, and our nearest neighboring star.)

Presently, such a high concentration has never been observed. While some of this is certainly due to the rarity of such densities, observational constraints likely play a crucial role in making such systems difficult to detect. If such high densities were to be achieved, it would require extraordinarily high spatial resolution to distinguish such systems. As such, numerical simulations of extremely dense systems will have to replace direct observations.

While the density necessary is straightforward, the more difficult topic is what sorts of clusters might be capable of meeting such criteria. To investigate this, the teams writing the recent papers conducted Monte Carlo simulations in which they could vary the numbers of stars. This type of simulation is essentially a model of a system that is allowed to play forward repeatedly with slightly different starting configurations (such as the initial positions of the stars) and by averaging the results of numerous simulations, an approximate understanding of the behavior of the system is reached. An initial investigation suggested that such densities could be reached in clusters with as little as a few thousand stars provided gas accumulation were sufficiently rapid (clusters tend to disperse slowly under tidal stripping which can counteract this effect on longer timescales). However, the model they used contained numerous simplifications since the investigation into the feasibility of such interactions was merely preliminary.

The more recent study, uploaded to arXiv yesterday, includes more realistic parameters and finds that the overall number of stars in the clusters would need to be closer to 30,000 before collisions became likely. This team also suggested that there were more conditions that would need to be satisfied including rates of gas expulsion (since not all gas would remain in the cluster as the first team had assumed for simplicity) and the degree of mass segregation (heavier stars sink to the center and lighter ones float to the outside and since heavier ones are larger, this actually decreases the number density while increasing the mass density).  While many globular clusters can easily meet the requirement of number of stars, these other conditions would likely not be met. Furthermore, globular clusters spend little time in regions of the galaxy in which they would be likely to encounter sufficiently high densities of gas to allow for accumulation of sufficient mass on the necessary timescales.

But are there any clusters which might achieve sufficient density? The most dense galactic cluster known is the Arches cluster. Sadly, this cluster only reaches a modest ~535 stars per cubic parsec, still far too low to make a large number of collisions likely. However, one run of the simulation code with conditions similar to those in the Arches cluster did predict one collision in ~2 million years.

Overall, these studies seem to confirm that the role of collisions in forming massive stars is small. As pointed out previously, accretion methods seem to account for the broad range of stellar masses. Yet in many young clusters, still forming stars, rarely do astronomers find stars much in excess of ~50 solar masses. The second study this year suggests that this observation may yet leave room for collisions to play some unexpected role.

(NOTE: While it may be suggested that collisions could also be considered to take place as the orbit of binary stars decays due to tidal interactions, such processes are generally referred to as “mergers”. The term “collision” as used in the source materials and this article is used to denote the merging of two stars that are not gravitationally bound.)


Stellar collisions in accreting protoclusters: a Monte Carlo dynamical study

Collisional formation of very massive stars in dense clusters