NASA's SOFIA Telescope Just Solved the Mystery of How Massive Stars Are Born

Thursday, 11 January 2018 - 1:53PM
Space
Thursday, 11 January 2018 - 1:53PM
NASA's SOFIA Telescope Just Solved the Mystery of How Massive Stars Are Born
Image credit: NASA

NASA's flying telescope, the Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy, or SOFIA, is able to intimately capture data in atmospheric conditions that no man can traverse because, well… it flies.

 

Now scientists are looking at SOFIA in order to better understand just how and where the largest known stars, some of which are 10 times the mass of our own sun, are created.

 

A group of researchers led by SOFIA senior scientist James M. De Buizer, and Jonathan Tan has published observations of eight gigantic young stars within our galaxy. Using SOFIA's Faint Object infraRed Camera, or FORCAST, the team was able to probe warm, dusty regions that are heated by the light from these giant stars.

 

Because SOFIA flies above more than 99 percent of Earth's infrared-blocking water vapor, it is currently the only instrument that can study the stars at the proper wavelengths, sensitivity, and resolution necessary to see what's going on in those dust clouds. Most of these stars emit energy that registers so incredibly high on the spectrum, only SOFIA and its ability to see at infrared wavelengths can capture them all.

 

This research is part of an ongoing survey called SOFIA Massive, or SOMA, that finds the team studying a large sample of newborn stars, or "protostars," each with different masses, in different environments, and at varying evolutionary stages.

 

With the first results from the survey, published last June, the team discovered that massive star formation is accompanied by the launching of powerful, magnetized winds that flow out from the top and bottom of a swirling, gaseous disk that then helps grow the star.

 

"These wavelengths trace thermal emission from warm dust, which in Core Accretion models mainly emerges from the inner regions of protostellar outflow cavities," the researchers say in the paper's abstract. "Dust in dense core envelopes also imprints characteristic extinction patterns at these wavelengths, causing intensity peaks to shift along the outflow axis and profiles to become more symmetric at longer wavelengths." 

 

More data on these massive stars will be collected this summer, when SOMA's observations are set to continue onboard SOFIA. Researchers plan to observe approximately fifty regions throughout our galaxy.

 

When considering that such giant stars die a violent, fiery death by supernova, only to see their contents dispersed throughout the galaxy, it's worth remembering that many researchers believe our solar system may have began in a super-hot bubble, not unlike the astro-nursery the SOMA researchers describe.

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