ScienceDaily (Nov. 16, 2009) — The constellation of Orion is a hotbed of massive star formation, most prominently in the Great Nebula that sits in Orion's sword. The glowing gas of the Nebula is powered by a group of young massive stars, but behind it is a cluster of younger stars and clumps of gas. Still gathering together under gravity's pull, these gas clumps will eventually ignite into stars.
The way that massive stars form remains mysterious, in part, because massive stars are rare and tend to spend their youth enshrouded by dust and gas hiding them from view.
"We know how these stars die, but not how they are born," said Lincoln Greenhill, a principal investigator of the study and part of a team comprising scientists from the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics (CfA) and the National Radio Astronomy Observatory (NRAO).
Unlike Hubble and other visible-light telescopes, radio telescopes can penetrate dusty veils around stars. The research astronomers studied a massive young protostar called Source I (pronounced "eye") at radio wavelengths, using the National Science Foundation's Very Long Baseline Array (VLBA) as a powerful "zoom lens."
The VLBA yielded even sharper images than the famous Hubble photos of "proplyds," or protoplanetary disks in Orion. The team observed Source I at monthly intervals over two years and then assembled the individual images into a time-lapse movie.
The VLBA detected thousands of silicon monoxide gas clouds called masers -- naturally occurring laser-like beacons often associated with star formation. Some masers were as close to the protostar as Jupiter is to our Sun, which is also a record. Many of the masers existed long enough for their motions to be tracked across the sky and along our line of sight, yielding their 3-d motions through space.
"In astronomy, it's rare to see changes over the course of a human lifetime. With this new movie, we can see changes over just a few months as gas clumps swarm around this young protostar," added Smithsonian astronomer and co-author Ciriaco Goddi.
The resulting movie reveals signs of a rotating accretion disk, where gas is swirling closer and closer to the protostar at the center. It also shows material flowing outward perpendicular to the disk in two large V's -- actually the edges of cone-shaped streams of gas. Such outflows foster star formation by carrying angular momentum away from the system.
Intriguingly, the outflow streams appear to curve as they leave the disk. "The bending path of these masers provides key evidence that magnetic fields may be influencing gas motions very close to the protostar," pointed out Claire Chandler of NRAO, a co-principal investigator of the study.
Source of image of the Great Nebula in Orion:http://www.freewebs.com/jezstar/imagesfromspace.htm
Credit & Copyright: Jon Christensen