Baby “Monster” Star

Many astronomic news stories begin with the telltale words of Star Wars (“A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far, away”), but every so often, one story emerges that breaks that pattern. Such was the case today when the popular press released a sensational science story. According to reports, a study completed by University of Manchester researchers has found something remarkable: an embryonic star in the Milky Way galaxy that could grow to be a giant star with a mass one hundred times that of the sun.

The location of the dark star-forming cloud SDC 335.579-0.292 is indicated with a red circle. Image c/o ALMA.
The location of the dark star-forming cloud SDC 335.579-0.292 is indicated with a red circle. Image c/o ALMA.

Using the newly launched Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA), the research team from Manchester detected the emerging star growing in the Spitzer Dark Cloud (specifically, SDC 335.579-0.292), which is located 11,000 light years from Earth within the Norma constellation. ALMA features highly sensitive radio telescopes that can be used to observe the birth of stars among other things, and is useful for studying dark clouds, which are dense pockets of gas that provide material needed to form new stars.

In the case of SDC 335.579-0.292, the core sitting at its center has a mass 500 times larger than our sun. If you’re doing the math, you’ll note that some numbers aren’t adding up; new stars are formed within dark clouds when the [matter therein collapses], meaning that the mass therein will not stay the same. Estimates for the core in question hover around one hundred times the mass of the sun, but a star only has to have a mass ten times greater than that of our sun to be classified as massive (Note: mass classification has nothing to do with the size of a star. Read more here).

Photo c/o ALMA

The announcement of this discovery is exciting for astronomers everywhere and bolsters the reputation of ALMA, which has been established recently. Nicikas Peretto, the lead researcher for the Manchester team, noted:

Even though we already believed that the region was a good candidate for being a massive star-forming cloud, we were not expecting to find such a massive embryonic star at its centre…Only about one in 10,000 of all the stars in the Milky Way reach that kind of mass.

The term “embryonic” is appropriate here, as the star has not formed, thus, they call the images “prenatal scans.” Observation of the beginning stages of this star’s life cycle will help to clarify how exactly a star is born within a dark cloud. Some of the Manchester study’s findings will be published in an upcoming issue of Astronomy and Astrophysics and gives credit to one theory of how that birth happens, so it is likely that it will receive wide readership and critical response.

Photo c/o ALMA

Nonetheless, the star forming at SDC 335.579-0.292 is far from finished making science headlines. To keep up with the excitement and commentary, consider following the real-time news coverage or reading the Manchester team’s paper, “Global collapse of molecular clouds as a formation mechanism for the most massive stars” (pre-publication version available here.)


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