The miraculous, awe-inspiring scenes of a star emerging to life have been observed by a group of astronomers, signified by large plumes of gas splintering across the empty void of space. The images were collected by a highly sophisticated telescopic array, showing a star’s formation in unprecedented detail.
The display was not a direct observation of a star’s birth, however. Instead, the formation of the star was indirectly observed from jets of high speed gas, shooting outward from the nascent star.
When these gas emissions (comprising of carbon monoxide and oxygen) shoot outward, they create an almost magical luminescence, known as a Herbig-Haro object. These impressive visual displays occur when narrow plumes of gaseous material are fired, from young star formations, towards nearby gas and dust regions in space. The Herbig-Haro name derives from the pair of astronomers who had made the phenomenon’s discovery, George Herbig and Guillermo Haro.
These dramatic scenes were captured by an enormous radio telescope, situated on a plateau in Chile. The Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA) is a ten mile diameter telescope, combining the power of dozens of radio telescope dishes, to offer a resolution that surpasses the Hubble Space Telescope (five times better). The behemoth devices needed elevation to reduce the interference of the Earth’s atmosphere, and enable enhanced collection of data from wavelengths between the infrared and radio sections of the electromagnetic spectrum.
The ALMA array is classified as an interferometer, using an array of 66 dishes to collect wavelengths of a single millimeter. These data are then collected and sent along optical cables to a support facility, where the information is assimilated.
The captured images show Herbig-Haro 46/47, some 1,400 light-years from our planet, within the Vela constellation.
During a recent press statement, one of the lead authors of the project, Héctor Arce of Yale University, discussed the basis for these awe-inspiring Herbig-Haro interactions, denoting star formation. As reported by the Los Angeles Times, Arce explains the collection of electric displays to be the result of the proto-star’s magnetic pull on the thin disk of material that envelopes it:
“The material in the disk spirals toward the star, and when it gets to be a certain distance away most of it goes to the protostar to help it grow… But a fraction of that material is launched into an outflow, usually along the magnetic poles of the protostar.”
The high resolution images clearly show the vibrant impact of the Herbig-Haro object, with pink, purple, green and orange jets shooting off in different directions. The purple/pink streams show jets that are projecting towards our Earth, whilst the green/orange clouds are shooting off in the opposite direction, away from the Earth. The retreating stream had been almost invisible in images acquired from separate studies of the star, due to interference from dust clouds.
Quite incredibly, these images were produced in just five hours of ALMA’s operation, and whilst the interferometer was still in the stages of production.
The ALMA array is also likely to better inform astronomers as to the complexities behind the birth of proto-stars, yielding high resolution images in a fraction of the time taken by similar telescopes. In a European Southern Observatory (ESO) press release, Arce expounded upon the high quality images and their potential to revolutionize our understanding of star formation:
“ALMA has made it possible to detect features in the observed outflow much more clearly than previous studies. This shows that there will certainly be many surprises and fascinating discoveries to be made with the full array. ALMA will certainly revolutionise the field of star formation!”
The speed at which these awe-inspiring images were collected, along with their sensational quality, will go a long way to helping with astronomer’s understanding of starbirths, as well as the impact of stellar winds on their formation.
By: James Fenner