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Commentary On The Press Release “A Drastic Chemical Change Occurring In Birth Of Planetary System: Has The Solar System Also Experienced it?”

February 13, 2014 Leave a comment

An infrared image of the protostar L1527 taken by the Spitzer Space Telescope. Credit: J. Tobin/NASA/JPL-Caltech

An infrared image of the protostar L1527 taken by the Spitzer Space Telescope.
Credit: J. Tobin/NASA/JPL-Caltech

Stars are formed by the contraction of interstellar gas and dust. Around a protostar, gas and dust form a disk in which planets are eventually formed. Then, are the chemical compositions of the interstellar cloud and the disk identical? The new ALMA observations show that the answer is ‘no.’ This finding has a large impact on understandings of the formation process of planets and protoplanetary disks.

The international research team, led by Dr. Nami Sakai, an assistant professor at the Department of Physics, The University of Tokyo, observed a baby star L1527 in the constellation Taurus with ALMA. The team observed radio emission from cyclic-C3H2 [note 1] and sulfur monoxide (SO) molecules to analyze the motion and temperature of the gas around the baby star.

L1527 is a well-known protostar (baby star) and many astronomers have pointed telescopes at it. For example, NASA’s Spitzer Space Telescope took infrared images of the star. The stellar light escapes through a cavity excavated by a powerful bipolar gas flow from the star and illuminates the surrounding gas, which makes a butterfly-shaped nebula extending in the east-west direction (Figure 1). Past radio observations revealed that gas is circling around the star to form a disk and we see the disk edge-on.

Radio observations by ALMA have the advantage of being able to see the gas directly, which is invisible in infrared light. Various molecules in the gas emit characteristic radiation as radio waves under characteristic conditions (temperature, density, chemical compositions). Therefore astronomers can investigate the nature of the gas by observing various molecules.

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ALMA Discovers A Formation Site Of A Giant Planetary System

January 21, 2014 Leave a comment

Credit: ALMA (ESO/NAOJ/NRAO), Fukagawa et al.

Credit: ALMA (ESO/NAOJ/NRAO), Fukagawa et al.

A team of Japanese astronomers has obtained a firm evidence of formation of a giant planetary system around a young star by the observations with the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA). This result has a transformative impact on the theories of planet formation and gives us a clue to the origin of a wide variety of planetary systems.

The research team, led by astronomers at Osaka University and Ibaraki University, observed a young star named HD142527 in the constellation Lupus (the Wolf) with ALMA. The ALMA image shows that cosmic dust, which is component material of planets, is circling around the star in a form of asymmetric ring. By measuring the density of dust in the densest part of the ring, the astronomers found that it is highly possible that planets are now being formed in that region. This region is far from the central star, about 5 times larger than the distance between the Sun and the Neptune. This is the first firm evidence of planet formation found so far from the central star in a protoplanetary disk. The research team plans further observations of HD142527 with ALMA for closer investigation, as well as other protoplanetary disks to have a comprehensive understanding of the planet formation in general.

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Starless Cloud Cores Reveal Why Some Stars Are Bigger Than Others

December 20, 2013 Leave a comment

Credit: Bill Saxton & Alexandra Angelich (NRAO/AUI/NSF); ALMA (ESO/NAOJ/NRAO)

Credit: Bill Saxton & Alexandra Angelich (NRAO/AUI/NSF); ALMA (ESO/NAOJ/NRAO)

Massive stars – those at least 8 times the mass of our Sun – present an intriguing mystery: how do they grow so large when the vast majority of stars in the Milky Way are considerably smaller?

To find the answer, astronomers used the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA) telescope to survey the cores of some of the darkest, coldest, and densest clouds in our Galaxy to search for the telltale signs of star formation.

To find the answer, astronomers used the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA) telescope to survey the cores of some of the darkest, coldest, and densest clouds in our Galaxy to search for the telltale signs of star formation.

Since these cloud cores are so massive and dense, gravity should have already overwhelmed their supporting gas pressure, allowing them to collapse to form new, Sun-mass stars. If a star had not yet begun to shine, that would be a hint that something extra was supporting the cloud.

“A starless core would indicate that some force was balancing out the pull of gravity, regulating star formation, and allowing vast amounts of material to accumulate in a scaled-up version of the way our own Sun formed,” remarked Jonathan Tan, an astrophysicist at the University of Florida, Gainesville, and lead author of a paper published today in the Astrophysical Journal. “This suggests that massive stars and Sun-like stars follow a universal mechanism for star formation. The only difference is the size of their parent clouds.”

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Hidden Details Revealed In Nearby Starburst Galaxy: Green Bank Telescope’s New Vision Debuts

December 9, 2013 Leave a comment

Composite image of starburst galaxy M82. CREDIT: Bill Saxton (NRAO/AUI/NSF); Hubble/NASA

Composite image of starburst galaxy M82. CREDIT: Bill Saxton (NRAO/AUI/NSF); Hubble/NASA

Using the new, high-frequency capabilities of the National Science Foundation’s Robert C. Byrd Green Bank Telescope (GBT), astronomers have captured never-before-seen details of the nearby starburst galaxy M82. These new data highlight streamers of material fleeing the disk of the galaxy as well as concentrations of dense molecular gas surrounding pockets of intense star formation.

M82, which is located approximately 12 million light-years away in the constellation Ursa Major, is a classic example of a starburst galaxy — one that is producing new stars tens- to hundreds-of-times faster than our own Milky Way. Its relatively nearby location made it an ideal target for the GBT’s newly equipped “W-Band” receiver, which is capable of detecting the millimeter wavelength light that is emitted by molecular gas. This new capability makes the GBT the world’s largest single-dish, millimeter-wave telescope.

“With this new vision, we were able to look at M82 to explore how the distribution of molecular gas in the galaxy corresponded to areas of intense star formation,” said Amanda Kepley, a post-doctoral fellow at the National Radio Astronomy Observatory (NRAO) in Green Bank, West Virginia, and lead author on a paper accepted for publication in the Astrophysical Journal Letters. “Having this new capability may help us understand why stars form where they do.”

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Mystery World Baffles Astronomers

November 1, 2013 Leave a comment

Kepler-78b is a planet that shouldn’t exist. This scorching lava world circles its star every eight and a half hours at a distance of less than one million miles – one of the tightest known orbits. According to current theories of planet formation, it couldn’t have formed so close to its star, nor could it have moved there.

“This planet is a complete mystery,” says astronomer David Latham of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics (CfA). “We don’t know how it formed or how it got to where it is today. What we do know is that it’s not going to last forever.”

“Kepler-78b is going to end up in the star very soon, astronomically speaking,” agrees CfA astronomer Dimitar Sasselov.

Not only is Kepler-78b a mystery world, it is the first known Earth-sized planet with an Earth-like density. Kepler-78b is about 20 percent larger than the Earth, with a diameter of 9,200 miles, and weighs almost twice as much. As a result it has a density similar to Earth’s, which suggests an Earth-like composition of iron and rock.

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A Rare Snapshot Of A Planetary Construction Site

October 25, 2013 Leave a comment

Credit: Á. Kóspál (ESA) and A. Moór (Konkoly Observatory)

Credit: Á. Kóspál (ESA) and A. Moór (Konkoly Observatory)

When a star similar to our Sun is born, it is surrounded by a disk of dust and gas. Within that disk, the star’s planetary system begins to form: The dust grains stick together to build larger, solid, kilometer-sized bodies known as planetesimals. Those either survive in the form of asteroids and comets, or clump together further to form solid planets like our Earth, or the cores of giant gas planets.

Current models of planet formation predict that, as a star reaches the planetesimal stage, the original gas should quickly be depleted. Some of the gas falls into the star, some is caught up by what will later become giant gas planets like Jupiter, and the rest is dispersed into space, driven by the young star’s intense radiation. After 10 million years or so, all the original gas should be gone.

But now a team of astronomers from the Netherlands, Hungary, Germany, and the US has found what appears to be a rare hybrid disk, which contains plenty of original gas, but also dust produced much later in the collision of planetesimals. As such, it qualifies as a link between an early and a late phase of disk evolution: the primordial disk and a later debris phase.

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ALMA Discovers Large “Hot” Cocoon Around A Small Baby Star

October 8, 2013 Leave a comment

Artist impression. Credit: NAOJ

Artist impression. Credit: NAOJ

A large hot molecular cloud around a very young star was discovered by ALMA. This hot cloud is about ten times larger than those found around typical solar-mass baby stars, which indicates that the star formation process has more diversity than ever thought. This result was published in the Astrophysical Journal Letters on September 20th, 2013.

Stars are formed in very cold (-260 degrees Celsius) gas and dust clouds. Infrared Dark Clouds (IRDC) are dense regions of such clouds, and thought that in which clusters of stars are formed. Since most of stars are born as members of star clusters, investigating IRDCs has a crucial role in comprehensive understanding the star formation process.

A baby star is surrounded by the natal gas and dust cloud, and the cloud is warmed up from its center. Temperature of the central part of some, but not all, of such clouds reaches as high as -160 degrees Celsius. Astronomers call those clouds as “hot core” – it may not be hot on the Earth, but is hot enough for a cosmic cloud. Inside hot cores, various molecules, originally trapped in the ice mantle around dust particles, are sublimated. Organic molecules such as methanol (CH3OH), ethyl cyanide (CH3CH2CN), and methyl formate (HCOOCH3) are abundant in hot cores.

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