How a Massive Star Is Born

By Joseph Calamia | July 14, 2010 4:14 pm
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Our sun and a much bigger star that resides 10,000 light years away have something in common: the way they were born. Though scientists had previously wondered if stars 10 to 20 times the sun’s size required a different setup to grow, new observations show that both our sun and plus-sized stars can form from large hoops of dust called accretion disks.

Astronomers arrived at the findings, published online today in Nature, by weaving together observations from two observatories–the Very Large Telescope Interferometer of the European Southern Observatory in Chile and NASA’s orbital Spitzer Space Telescope. Researchers combined the observatories’ power to get a “virtual” telescope of much better resolution, the equivalent of one with a 280-foot mirror.

Lead researcher Stefan Kraus and his colleagues took a close peek at a 60,000-year-old stellar infant about 20 times our sun’s mass, called IRAS 13481-6124. The researchers were able to piece together temperature data to make a model of stellar birth that might resemble something from our 4.6 billion-year-old sun’s baby-book.

The team’s observations yielded a jackpot result: the discovery of a massive disk of dust and gas encircling the giant young star. “It’s the first time something like this has been observed,” Kraus said. “The disk very much resembles what we see around young stars that are much smaller, except everything is scaled up and more massive.” [Jet Propulsion Laboratory]

Previously, scientists weren’t sure if giant stars could form from accretion disks. They wondered if solar winds and other radiation coming out of bigger stars would prevent the disk’s dust from falling into the forming star.

As an alternative, some proposed that bigger stars came from smaller stars colliding into one another. Though IRAS 13481-6124 gives one example of stellar birth by disk, researchers must find others to say that this is the preferred birthing technique.

Astronomers are on the hunt for other big baby stars still wrapped in dust cocoons, but massive young stars are relatively rare, quite distant and typically clumped together so that it is difficult to pick out individual objects in the tumultuous, complicated environment. “For now, we can only talk about this object, where we found a disk, but it means in general it is possible for a disk to exist around stars with these properties,” Kraus said. [Discovery]

The picture isn’t exactly the same for smaller stars and larger ones. IRAS 13481-6124 had a much larger disk, 12 billion miles across, or 130 times the distance between Earth and the Sun. Still researchers say the findings suggest that the accretion disks around massive stars could, at least temporarily, serve as home to planet offspring. The neighborhood, though, wouldn’t be too pleasant.

“In the future, we might be able to see gaps in this and other dust disks created by orbiting planets, although it is unlikely that such bodies could survive for long.” Kraus said. “A planet around such a massive star would be destroyed by the strong stellar winds and intense radiation as soon as the protective disk material is gone, which leaves little chance for the development of solar systems like our own.” [Jet Propulsion Laboratory]

Related content:
80beats: Breathtaking Images of Star Birth Amid the Cold Cosmic Dust
80beats: Photo: Heart and Soul Nebulae Reveal Star Birth in the Cold Dust
80beats: Hubble Snaps New Pics of Star Birth to Celebrate 100,000 Orbits
80beats: Star Birth on the Edge of a Black Hole

Image 1: ESO/L. Calçada, Image 2: ESO/Spitzer/NASA/JPL/S. Kraus, Image 3: ESO

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Space
  • m

    So why a picture of an Artist’s impression? Could they not have released an actual photo?

  • Joseph Calamia

    m: Thanks for the question. They constructed the model from temperature data. There is no photograph. Sorry for the confusion.

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