Observations of Star Birth

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Astronomers have a pretty solid idea of how stars are born. They begin within the dense, cold dust of an interstellar cloud such as this one. They heat up and get more luminous as they contract, and then drop in luminosity as they continue to contract steadily toward the main sequence.

I’m going to spend at least the next ten or so posts talking about the main-sequence portion of a star’s life cycle. Basically, we’re talking about a star’s adulthood.

You know what, while we’re at it, why don’t I draw up an analogy between a star’s life cycle and that of a human:

  1. When a human is a mere fetus developing within its mother, a star is a protostar.
  2. We say a star has been “born” when it crosses the birth line—basically, satisfies certain expectations for its temperature and luminosity for its specific mass—and becomes visible.
  3. After that, a star steadily approaches adulthood. A “child” star is referred to as a Young Stellar Object (YSO) or a pre-main-sequence star.
  4. An “adult” star is one that has begun to fuse atomic nuclei in its core for fuel. At this stage, the star has reached the main sequence.
  5. When a star runs out of fuel, it leaves the main sequence. We’ll cover this evolution in depth very soon.

I explained this process in depth in my last post. But I also posed the question: how do astronomers know all this? Where’s the evidence? Continue reading

The Story of a Newborn Star

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What happens when a star is born?

A couple of posts ago, I explained how a protostar forms out of a dense cloud core within the interstellar medium. But…wait. What exactly is a protostar again?

A protostar forms when one dense core of an interstellar cloud condenses enough so that gravity can overcome the repulsive forces between the particles, and collapse the cloud. A very cool object then forms in the cloud’s depths, visible only at infrared wavelengths—known as a protostar.

A protostar is compressed enough to be opaque no matter the wavelength—that is, no radiation can pass through it due to its density. However, what separates it from a “true” star is that it’s not compressed enough to generate energy by nuclear fusion.

Astronomers also define a protostar specifically as a young star that’s not yet detectable at visible wavelengths. In other words, protostars emit only longer-wavelength light—that is, infrared and radio waves.

You’d think that becoming a true star would be the next step for a protostar. But that’s not quite how it happens… Continue reading

What is Contagious Star Formation?

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Recognize this nebula?

Yeah…we’re talking about the Orion Nebula again. I know, we already took a tour through the Orion constellation in my last post…but there’s still more to cover about how stars come to life, and Orion is still the best case study I know.

So…hold up a second. Contagious star formation? What’s that supposed to mean? I mean, usually, when you think about “contagion,” you think of catching diseases from others around you. So…can stars get sick?

Well, no. Stars are pretty good at maintaining their own homeostasis, something I’ll explain in a later post. By “contagious” star formation, I mean that star formation can trigger more star formation.

Basically…forming stars is contagious.

But how the heck does that happen? Continue reading

The Orion Nebula: A Stellar Nursery

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One of my favorite objects to show people at astronomy outreach events is the Orion Nebula. Not only does it reside within a fairly well-known constellation, but it’s a gorgeous sight to see with a good telescope.

There’s no time like the present up here in the northern hemisphere. Orion is a winter constellation and rises high in the sky this time of year. Not to mention, as a stellar nursery, talking about the Orion Nebula follows on perfectly from my last couple posts on star formation.

If you’ve ever seen the Orion Nebula through a small telescope, you’re probably wondering what all the rage is about. It mostly just looks like a bluish haze around a star—like the telescope operator didn’t tune the focus quite right.

But if that’s all you’ve seen, I promise you, you’re missing out… Continue reading

From Cold Cloud to Hot Protostar

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Paradoxically, stars begin in the galaxy’s coolest places: the dense giant molecular clouds (or GMCs).

This is not quite the paradox it seems, as in the beginning, stars require little else but gravity to form. And that’s really quite lucky, because one thing they do need is regions of high density, and high density is unlikely to occur where temperatures are high.

And so stars begin in perhaps the most surprising of ways: as a high-density bundle of very cool gases within an equally cool interstellar cloud.

But they do heat up eventually. How? Continue reading

How are Stars Born?

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Astronomers have discovered that the clouds of gas and dust—the interstellar medium (ISM)—found between the stars are made of the same materials as the stars themselves. In fact, hydrogen is the most common element in both stars and the ISM, followed closely by helium.

But it would be more accurate to say that stars are made of the same material as the ISM, not the other way around.

This is because all of the stars formed out of material in the ISM at some point millions to hundreds of billions of years ago. And when they die, they return that material—what’s left of it—to the ISM.

Specifically, stars form out of the giant molecular clouds (GMCs) of the ISM. But how? Continue reading

Where Did the Interstellar Medium Come From?

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Contrary to popular belief, space is not empty. The space between the stars is filled with clouds of dust and gas. And this space—the interstellar medium—is incredibly beautiful and fascinating.

I often refer to the interstellar medium as the galaxy’s “backstage.” Why? Because it’s not the part of the universe that astronomy enthusiasts usually think about. And yet, there are whole studies devoted to studying this natural wonder of the universe.

Also, the interstellar medium is largely hidden from us. There are ways we can detect it—when light from a distant star passes through it, for example. And with our eyes, we can see nebulae, the visible evidence of this interstellar expanse.

The backstage of a theater is similar—it’s not the main part of the show, but you sometimes see evidence of it in the forms of new costumes donned as the play progresses and new props brought into play. The audience often forgets about it entirely.

Nevertheless, it’s beautiful. Stars are born out of giant molecular clouds, triggered by compression from expanding bubbles of coronal gas. The interstellar medium spells our beginning.

But how did it get there? Continue reading

What is Coronal Gas?

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Stars are hot. Space is cold. We’re all familiar with that, right?

Ok, good.

Technically, it’s more complicated than that. Space isn’t completely frigid—absolute zero, the temperature at which there is no heat whatsoever, is purely theoretical and not thought to exist in the universe. But it is pretty darn cold.

And stars aren’t always very hot—there is one newly discovered star that’s only as hot as fresh coffee. (It’s a brown dwarf, and if you go by the definition of a star as an object that’s ignited hydrogen fusion in its core, then it doesn’t actually count.)

In general, though, stars are pretty darn hot. Some special types of stars reach up to 200,000 K—that’s 359,540.33℉. Our own sun is about 5,778 K, which much cooler, but still almost ten thousand degrees Fahrenheit.

As a rule, we can think of stars as being much hotter than the space in between…except in the case of coronal gas. Continue reading

What are Molecular Clouds?

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Meet the Pillars of Creation, a photograph taken by the Hubble Telescope in 1995. These apparent “pillars” of dust and gas are what we call molecular clouds. And this region of clouds in space is aptly named: it’s where stars are created.

Technically, there are two types of molecular clouds—molecular clouds and giant molecular clouds, or GMCs—but I’ll get into that in a second.

Molecular clouds are deep within the interstellar medium. In case you don’t remember the ISM from my “recent” posts (sorry about that), it’s the stuff between the stars. It’s the galaxy’s backstage. Space is in fact not a perfect vacuum—it’s full of the ISM.

So what’s going on with molecular clouds like the Pillars of Creation? Continue reading

What is the Intercloud Medium?

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Stars are like headlights in a fog bank that’s impossibly thick in some places, and so thin as to be transparent in others. Sometimes, we get lucky enough for starlight to light up the fog. Other times, stars shine straight through it.

That “fog” is the interstellar medium. I’ve covered it in several posts already. We’ve gone over nebulae, the visible evidence of the stuff between the stars. I’ve talked about ways to study the interstellar medium. And I’ve introduced you to cool clouds, the clouds of mostly neutral hydrogen gas.

Now I want to introduce you to the intercloud medium. It’s different from cool HI clouds in that it’s ionized, rather than neutral.

But what exactly does that mean? Continue reading