‘Death Stars’ in Orion Blast Planets before They Even Form (March 13, 2014)

The Orion Nebula is home to hundreds of young stars and even younger protostars known as proplyds. Many of these nascent systems will go on to develop planets, while others will have their planet-forming dust and gas blasted away by the fierce ultraviolet radiation emitted by massive O-type stars that lurk nearby.

A team of astronomers from Canada and the United States has used the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA) to study the often deadly relationship between highly luminous O-type stars and nearby protostars in the Orion Nebula. Their data reveal that protostars within 0.1 light-years (about 600 billion miles) of an O-type star are doomed to have their cocoons of dust and gas stripped away in just a few millions years, much faster than planets are able to form.

“O-type stars, which are really monsters compared to our Sun, emit tremendous amounts of ultraviolet radiation and this can play havoc during the development of young planetary systems,” remarked Rita Mann, an astronomer with the National Research Council of Canada in Victoria, and lead author on a paper in the Astrophysical Journal. “Using ALMA, we looked at dozens of embryonic stars with planet-forming potential and, for the first time, found clear indications where protoplanetary disks simply vanished under the intense glow of a neighboring massive star.”

Many, if not all, Sun-like stars are born in crowded stellar nurseries similar to the Orion Nebula. Over the course of just a few million years, grains of dust and reservoirs of gas combine into larger, denser bodies. Left relatively undisturbed, these systems will eventually evolve into fully fledged star systems, with planets – large and small – and ultimately drift away to become part of the galactic stellar population.

Astronomers believe that massive yet short-lived stars in and around large interstellar clouds are essential for this ongoing process of star formation. At the end of their lives, massive stars explode as supernovas, seeding the surrounding area with dust and heavy elements that will get taken up in the next generation of stars. These explosions also provide the kick necessary to initiate a new round of star and planet formation. But while they still shine bright, these larger stars can be downright deadly to planets if an embryonic solar systems strays too close.

“Massive stars are hot and hundreds of times more luminous than our Sun,” said James Di Francesco, also with the National Research Council of Canada. “Their energetic photons can quickly deplete a nearby protoplanetary disk by heating up its gas, breaking it up, and sweeping it away.”

Earlier observations with the Hubble Space Telescope revealed striking images proplyds in Orion. Many had taken on tear-drop shapes, with their dust and gas trailing away from a nearby massive star. These optical images, however, couldn’t reveal anything about the amount of dust that was present or how the dust and gas concentrations changed in relation to massive stars.

The new ALMA observations detected these and other never-before-imaged proplyds, essentially doubling the number of protoplanetary disks discovered in that region. ALMA also could see past their surface appearance, peering deep inside to actually measure how much mass was in the proplyds.
Combining these studies with previous observations from the Submillimeter Array (SMA) in Hawai‛i, the researchers found that any protostar within the extreme-UV envelope of a massive star would have much of its disk of material destroyed in very short order. Proplyds in these close-in regions retained only a fraction (one half or less) of the mass necessary to create one Jupiter-sized planet. Beyond the 0.1 light-year radius, in the far-UV dominated region, the researchers observed a wide range of disk masses containing anywhere for one to 80 times the mass of Jupiter. This is similar to the amount of dust found in low-mass star forming regions.

“Taken together, our investigations with ALMA suggest that extreme UV regions are not just inhospitable, but they’re downright hazardous for planet formation. With enough distance, however, it’s possible to find a much more congenial environment,” said Mann. “This work is really the tip of the iceberg of what will come out of ALMA; we hope to eventually learn how common solar systems like our own are.”

Other researchers involved in this project include Doug Johnstone, National Research Council of Canada; Sean M. Andrews, Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics; Jonathan P. Williams, University of Hawai‛i; John Bally, University of Colorado; Luca Ricci, California Institute of Technology; A. Meredith Hughes, Wesleyan University, and Brenda C. Matthews, National Research Council of Canada.

Official press release: https://public.nrao.edu/news/pressreleases/death-stars-in-orion

Milky Way amidst a ‘Council of Giants’ (March 11, 2014)

We live in a galaxy known as the Milky Way – a vast conglomeration of 300 billion stars, planets whizzing around them, and clouds of gas and dust floating in between.

Though it has long been known that the Milky Way and its orbiting companion Andromeda are the dominant members of a small group of galaxies, the Local Group, which is about 3 million light years across, much less was known about our immediate neighbourhood in the universe.

Now, a new paper by York University Physics & Astronomy Professor Marshall McCall, published today in the Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society, maps out bright galaxies within 35-million light years of the Earth, offering up an expanded picture of what lies beyond our doorstep.

“All bright galaxies within 20 million light years, including us, are organized in a ‘Local Sheet’ 34-million light years across and only 1.5-million light years thick,” says McCall. “The Milky Way and Andromeda are encircled by twelve large galaxies arranged in a ring about 24-million light years across – this ‘Council of Giants’ stands in gravitational judgment of the Local Group by restricting its range of influence.”

McCall says twelve of the fourteen giants in the Local Sheet, including the Milky Way and Andromeda, are “spiral galaxies” which have highly flattened disks in which stars are forming. The remaining two are more puffy “elliptical galaxies”, whose stellar bulks were laid down long ago. Intriguingly, the two ellipticals sit on opposite sides of the Council. Winds expelled in the earliest phases of their development might have shepherded gas towards the Local Group, thereby helping to build the disks of the Milky Way and Andromeda.

McCall also examined how galaxies in the Council are spinning. He comments: “Thinking of a galaxy as a screw in a piece of wood, the direction of spin can be described as the direction the screw would move (in or out) if it were turned the same way as the galaxy rotates. Unexpectedly, the spin directions of Council giants are arranged around a small circle on the sky. This unusual alignment might have been set up by gravitational torques imposed by the Milky Way and Andromeda when the universe was smaller.”

The boundary defined by the Council has led to insights about the conditions which led to the formation of the Milky Way. Most important, only a very small enhancement in the density of matter in the universe appears to have been required to produce the Local Group. To arrive at such an orderly arrangement as the Local Sheet and its Council, it seems that nearby galaxies must have developed within a pre-existing sheet-like foundation comprised primarily of dark matter.

“Recent surveys of the more distant universe have revealed that galaxies lie in sheets and filaments with large regions of empty space called voids in between,” says McCall. “The geometry is like that of a sponge. What the new map reveals is that structure akin to that seen on large scales extends down to the smallest.”

Original Press Release from the Royal Astronomical Society, on behalf of York University, Toronto, Canada (RAS PR 14/16)

Media Contacts

Robin Heron
Media Relations
York University
Canada
Tel: +1 416 736 2100 x22097
rheron@yorku.ca

Robert Massey
Royal Astronomical Society
Tel: +44 (0)20 7734 3307 x214
Mob: +44 (0)794 124 8035
rm@ras.org.uk

Images and animations

Image 1: https://www.ras.org.uk/images/stories/press/Local%20sheet%20topview.jpg
A diagram showing the brightest galaxies within 20 million light years of the Milky Way, as seen from above. The largest galaxies, here shown in yellow at different points around the dotted line, make up the ‘Council of Giants’. Credit: Marshall McCall / York University

Image 2: https://www.ras.org.uk/images/stories/press/Local%20sheet%20sideview.jpg
A diagram showing the brightest galaxies within 20 million light years of the Milky Way, this time viewed from the side. Credit: Marshall McCall / York University

Movie with sound: http://youtube/VzL7xGzfNlU (channel YorkU Astronomer)
An animation that illustrates the positions of the nearby galaxies, including those in the ‘Council of Giants’, in three dimensions. Credit: Marshall McCall / York University

Movie with no sound: https://www.ras.org.uk/images/stories/press/council_of_giants_nosound_v2.mp4
An animation that illustrates the positions of the nearby galaxies, including those in the ‘Council of Giants’, in three dimensions. Credit: Marshall McCall / York University

Further information

The new work appears in “A Council of Giants”, M. L. McCall, Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society, Oxford University Press, in press. A copy of the paper is available from http://mnras.oxfordjournals.org/lookup/doi/10.1093/mnras/stu199