SOFIA Highlights: Star formation

The Horsehead Nebula is shown in red and green against the surrounding cold molecular cloud (blue)

Two research teams used a map from NASA’s Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy, SOFIA, to uncover new findings about stars forming in Orion’s iconic Horsehead Nebula. The map reveals vital details for getting a complete understanding of the dust and gas involved in star formation.

The Tarantula Nebula as seen on SOFIA’s visible light guide camera.

To have a full picture of the lives of massive stars, researchers need to study them in all stages – from when they’re a mass of unformed gas and dust, to their often dynamic end-of-life explosions.

The massive forming star Cepheus A shown at three infrared wavelengths of 8, 19 and 37 microns.

Astronomers are observing star-forming regions in our galaxy with NASA’s flying telescope, the Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy, SOFIA, to understand the processes and environments required to create the largest known stars, which tip the scales at ten times the mass of our own Sun or more.

A near- and mid-infrared image of galaxy IC 342 from the Spitzer Space Telescope

An international team of researchers used NASA’s Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy, SOFIA, to make maps of the ring of molecular clouds that encircles the nucleus of galaxy IC 342. The maps determined the proportion of hot gas surrounding young stars as well as cooler gas available for future star formation. The SOFIA maps indicate that most of the gas in the central zone of IC 342, like the gas in a similar region of our Milky Way Galaxy, is heated by already-formed stars, and relatively little is in dormant clouds of raw material.

An infrared image of the W43 star-forming region

Researchers on board NASA’s Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy, SOFIA, observed the collapse of portions of six interstellar clouds on their way to becoming new stars that will be much larger than our sun.

When a gas cloud collapses on itself, the cloud’s own gravity causes it to contract and the contraction produces heat friction. Heat from the contraction eventually causes the core to ignite hydrogen fusion reactions creating a star.

Images of the S140 core

Information about the star formation process, as well as early tests of the optical quality and stability of the telescope in NASA's Statospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy (SOFIA), were provided by analyses of infrared images of the Sharpless 140 nebula performed by Paul Harvey of the University of Texas at Austin with collaborators from Cornell University, Ithaca College, and the SOFIA scientific staff. The results of their work were published in a May 2012 special SOFIA-dedicated issue of The Astrophysical Journal Letters.

FORCAST images of G35 at wavelengths of 31 and 37 microns

Researchers using the airborne Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy (SOFIA) have captured the most detailed mid-infrared images yet of a massive star condensing within a dense cocoon of dust and gas.

The star is G35.20-0.74, more commonly known as G35. It is one of the most massive known protostars and is located relatively close to Earth at a distance of 8,000 light years.

SOFIA/FORCAST mid-IR image of the Sagittarius A East region in the Galactic Center

SOFIA/FORCAST images of the H II (ionized hydrogen) complex G0.02-0.07 resolved a string of three compact HII regions (labeled A, B, and C in Figure 1) plus two new infrared sources designated FIRS 1 and 2 (Figures 1 and 2). G0.02-0.07 is located in the Sagittarius A (Sgr A) region, 6 pc (20 light years) from our line of sight to the center of the Milky Way Galaxy. The Galactic Center includes a hot, turbulent interstellar medium, cloud-cloud collisions, stellar winds, and supernova shocks.

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