Magnetic Fields on O-Class Stars

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The primary method by which astronomers can measure magnetic field strength on stars is the Zeeman effect. This effect is the splitting of spectral lines into two due to the magnetic field’s effect on the quantum structure of the orbitals. For massive O-class stars, their spectra are largely featureless in the visual portion of the spectra due to an insufficient number of atoms with electrons in the necessary orbitals to undergo transitions which can produce visual spectral lines. Thus, determining whether or not these stars have magnetic fields has been a unique challenge. A new paper from researchers at the University of Amsterdam, led by Roald Schnerr, looks for evidence of these fields in the form of synchrotron radiation.

Synchrotron radiation is a form of light produced when relativistic, charged particles move through a magnetic field. The light emitted can be generated in any portion of the spectra from radio to gamma rays, depending on the strength of the field. Astronomically, this was first detected in 1956 by Geoffrey Burbidge in the jets of M87 and has since been used to explain emission in planetary magnetospheres, supernovae, near black holes, and around pulsars.

This form of energy distinguishes itself from other forms of light in two main fashions. The first is that it is highly polarized. This property is generated by the electric and magnetic components always being in the same planes and can be studied with filters that only allow light with its fields in appropriate planes to pass. The second is that the radiation created is “non-thermal”. In other words, it doesn’t match the distribution of wavelengths generated by a blackbody.

Models of massive, O-class stars suggest they should contain magnetic fields. Some evidence has seemed to confirm this. Previous studies have also shown that the stellar winds from some of these stars varies with timescales similar to the rotation rates of the stars which could be interpreted as winds being slowed on some faces by the magnetic field as it swept by.

Schnerr’s team attempted to bolster the evidence for magnetic fields by detecting the non-thermal radiation from these stars. The team selected 5 stars which have been shown to have strongly variable winds, some with cyclic variations and used the Westerbork Synthesis Radio Telescope, in the Netherlands to search for non-blackbody signals. The radio range was selected due to the predicted magnetic field strength.

Ultimately, only three of the five selected targets could be observed with the chosen telescope and only one of those, ξ Persei, showed evidence of a non-thermal spectrum. But while this strengthens the case for magnetic fields on the star, it raises another question: From where do the relativistic particles originate? Although O-class stars have strong stellar winds, their speeds are well studied and well below the necessary velocity.

One clue could come from the fact that ξ Persei is a “runaway star”. These stars have velocities and plunge through the interstellar medium at 30-200 km/sec. The team suggests that a bow shock created by this motion could result in sufficiently high velocities. Whether or not ξ Per has such a bow shock is something that could be determined with additional observations.

While this research provides some interesting clues to the nature of these magnetic fields on these stars, it still relies on a small sample. This technique can certainly be expanded to a larger number of stars in the future and may help astronomers better constrain their models of stellar workings.

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.