Astronomers realized that spinning disks of gas always form around the nucleus of a new star, feeding it matter and serving as an incubator for the development of planets. The disks form because of the natural rotation of the original gas clouds. Just as a spinning ice-skater who pulls her arms inward will increase the speed of her spin, gas in a collapsing cloud will rotate more quickly until it naturally forms a spinning disk. If interstellar magnetic fields thread the cloud, then they, too, will be carried downward with the collapsing, spinning gas. The twisting magnetic fields will act as drive belts, tapping the enormous energy of the spinning disk to launch powerful jets of gas along the axis of the disk and back out into space.
These jets are remarkably long lived, driving 10 light-years or more across the star-forming environment. The discovery of jets pushing away from dust-shrouded protostars at hundreds of miles per second was the first hint to astronomers that star formation was a far more chaotic process than they had envisioned.
Over the past couple of decades, intense effort in both theory and observation allowed astronomers to develop a coherent, consistent picture of how single stars were born that included gas disks and jets. But researchers knew their story was still woefully incomplete because it did not take into account how one star’s formation might affect another’s. “The problem,” Goodman explains, “is that you need to see into the entire cloud where many stars are forming at once. But the clouds are dense, and they extend over large chunks of the sky. You need new instruments, and you have to be systematic if you really want to understand what is going on.”
Spitzer was built, in part, to answer these needs.
With Spitzer’s three-foot-wide infrared eye, astronomers can see deep into the youngest stellar nurseries where stars are just beginning to form. They can see protostellar disks taking shape and pushing their jets out into space, and they have worked to integrate the new data with results from optical and radio telescopes (radio waves, millimeter wavelengths in particular, can penetrate the dust and gas too). Combining radio and infrared observations, researchers like Goodman and Arce created high-resolution, multiwavelength images of entire star-forming clouds. This multiyear, multi-institution project, called the Complete Survey, gave astronomers the view they needed to study star formation in a global context. Finally they could map out the detailed nature of interactions between infant stars and their environment, and a true portrait of star formation began to emerge.
“You really have to think about star formation in a kind of urban, suburban, and rural context,” Goodman says. “It matters who you are born close to, and it also matters what you mean by ‘close.’”
Stellar nurseries come in low- and high-mass varieties. In the high-mass kind, like the great Orion nebula, which is about 1,500 light-years away, stars are packed together like a swarm of bees. (In our neighborhood of the galaxy, the sun floats alone in a cube about three light-years on a side. In a high-mass star-forming cluster, thousands of stars occupy the same amount of space.) More important, high-mass clusters produce high-mass stars—brightly burning nuclear furnaces 10 to 100 times the mass of our sun. These behemoths live fast and die young. Our sun will burn for 10 billion years, but high-mass stars are lucky to make it to 10 million. “Massive stars have a huge impact on star formation,” Bally says. “They emit powerful winds and a lot of ultraviolet radiation.” The winds and UV light tear apart the surrounding gas, carving vast, glowing “blisters” that disrupt the cloud. This turmoil can inhibit other stars from forming—or promote star birth in other regions.
The picture of star formation given to us by infrared telescopes is one of unexpected violence, and it is this violence that is the key to understanding why there are so few stars.
Only over the past decade have astronomers come to understand how common and significant the feedback between stars and their stellar nurseries can be. “There is a kind of self-regulation going on,” Bally says. “The stars that form can change their own star-forming environment.” The Pillars of Creation in the Eagle nebula (pictured in one of the most famous images captured by the Hubble Space Telescope) are one clear example of this feedback. Like the dense rock spires that form from erosion in a windblown desert, the gaseous pillars in the Eagle nebula have been shaped and compressed by the stellar winds and energetic ultraviolet light from the nebula’s massive stars. Spitzer images of the Eagle nebula show that this compression is in turn triggering the formation of new stars within the pillars.
The complex environment in which a star forms affects the creation of planets, too. In fact, the effect of massive stars on the disks around infant stars—where planets arise—can be deadly. “The UV radiation from a massive star will ionize and heat up disks of gas surrounding nearby low-mass stars,” Bally says. “The gas in the disks will then evaporate into space. It can take a planet 10 million years to form, but the UV radiation from a massive star can burn away the outer part of a disk in just 10,000 years.” With their gas depleted, it may be impossible for the disks around stars in massive clusters to form giant planets like Jupiter or Saturn. It might still be possible for an Earth-like world to form close to a star where the disk is undisturbed, but that point remains debatable.
Massive stars can also cause havoc within a cloud when they die. At the end of its life, a massive star inevitably explodes as a supernova. This dumps apocalyptic quantities of energy into the surroundings: A supernova can briefly outshine an entire galaxy. Supernovas also create all the elements heavier than iron. With such short lifetimes, massive stars expire close to where they were born, often still within the star-forming region where they began.
Some astronomers have argued that the formation of our sun was triggered by a blast wave from a nearby stellar explosion. “There is strong evidence that our own solar system was born near a massive star that went supernova,” Bally says. “Even if our formation wasn’t triggered by a supernova, the presence of decay products of certain radioactive elements points to a supernova perhaps seeding the already formed young solar system with enriched elements.” This implies that our star was born near the edge of a high-mass cluster—close enough to feel the effects of a supernova, but not so deep inside that our protoplanetary disk was shredded.