In Space, After Chaos There is Birth: Mysterious Formation of Star Clusters

Mysterious Formation of Star Clusters

The stars that we see on a clear night sky are conceived through a pandemonium of atoms. These light elements are squeezed under enough pressure for their nuclei to undergo fusion. These little twinkling bits of light we see adorning the infinity of sky at night are beautiful to gaze at. However, its beauty is a result of a mayhem. Atomic behaviors that are pattern-less and random. The small sensitivity in the changes of its atom’s condition can bring life to myriad of possibilities.

Stars are born as a result of balance of forces. The team up of varying forces of gravity squeezes atoms so tight that fusion and reaction emanates. The result of this fusion is an outward and expanding pressure. Once the outward and inward pressure becomes stable, the star that was born can live up to millions – if not billions – of years.

This sounds like a simple lighting of a match when read from a paper. However, the upheaval that the fusion and reaction takes is beyond everyone’s imagination. The biggest explosion known to human being is just a tiny spark in the process of giving birth to a star.

Such awe-inspiring events have made physical cosmologists and astrophysicist craving for more details. They have found some indicators and explanation on the different results of a birth of a star.

Star cluster has received renewed attention in the realm of physical cosmology and astrophysics. Thanks to the technology and relevant discovery they culminated throughout the years.

The Understanding of How Star Clusters are Born

How Star Clusters are Born
Source: NASA

Stars start from large clouds of molecular gas. As a member of a molecular gas, stars form in groups or clusters. The influence of various level of gravity has made possible the exchange of energy between the stars. Some are born as runaway stars that run astray and escaped the tug of the gravity. The rest of them fall into a bind and exists as a collection of stars orbiting one another for an indefinite period of time.

A single star is born from the giant chilling cloud of molecular gas and dust. The stars have had dozens or even hundreds of stellar siblings in a cluster.

When a cluster is young, the brightest members are O, B and A stars. Young clusters in our Galaxy are called open clusters due to their loose appearance. They usually contain between 100 and 1,000 members.

Traditional models claim that the force of gravity may be solely responsible for the formation of stars and star clusters. More recent observations suggest that magnetic fields, turbulence, or both are also involved and may even dominate the creation process. But just what triggers the events that lead to the formation of star clusters.

Gravity has a Hand, But Not Most of the Time.

While gravity plays a very important role in keeping the clusters together, scientists have recently discovered that there are other causes of star birth. Aside from gravity, magnetic fields and turbulence, it is found out that collision among giant molecular clouds sparks the formation of star clusters.

At the forefront of the discovery is National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) and German Aerospace Center’s SOFIA. SOFIA is a Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy. It is a modified Boeing 747SP aircraft that houses a 2.7-meter (106-inch) reflecting telescope (with an effective diameter of 2.5 meters or 100 inches). Flying into the stratosphere at 38,000-45,000 feet allows SOFIA to escape 99 percent of Earth’s infrared-blocking atmosphere, allowing astronomers to study the solar system and beyond in ways that are not possible with ground-based telescopes.

Gravity has a Hand, But Not Most of the Time.
Source: NASA

The astronomers leveraging SOFIA’s instrument have observed the amount of motion needed for the ionized carbon around a molecular cloud to form stars. They found the existence of two distinct components of molecular gas colliding with each other at unimaginable speeds of 20,000 miles per hour

The relationship of the distribution and velocity of the molecular and ionized gases are found to be consistent with their model simulations of cloud collisions. Thus the cluster form as a huge gas that is compressed upon collision – creating a shock wave as clouds hit one another.

Thomas Bisbas, a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Virginia, Charlottesville, Virginia, and the lead author on the paper describing these new results said that “Stars are powered by nuclear reactions that create new chemical elements.”

“The very existence of life on earth is the product of a star that exploded billions of years ago, but we still don’t know how these stars — including our own sun — form,” he added.

Universe’s Own Way of Giving Birth

The universe and all the mysteries that shroud its infinite length and width have its own unique ways of giving birth. Astronomers are delving deeply into their simulations and theories that would match their findings. In the case of SOFIA, the infrared-based observation on near-, mid- and far-infrared wavelengths has brought new ideas on how the universe can bring to life a star.

“These star formation models are difficult to assess observationally,” said Jonathan Tan, a professor at Chalmers University of Technology in Gothenburg, Sweden, and the University of Virginia, and a lead researcher on the paper. “We’re at a fascinating point in the project, where the data we are getting with SOFIA can really test the simulations.”

The next step for astronomers is to gather larger amount of data and draw scientific consensus on the mechanism responsible for driving the creation of star clusters.

The breakthrough sparked by SOFIA points that the universe and the limitless chaos that sparks from time to time has its own way of giving birth. It was a spark in a huge atomic fusion that – according to the Big Bang Theory – gave birth to our galaxy.

The unravelling of the actual and scientific cause of a birth of a star is a step towards determining the possibility of life – maybe even civilizations – thriving in one of those stars in a cluster.


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