Space | 19. August 2020

The SOFIA airborne observatory: Understanding the role of magnetic fields in star formation

Für diese Abbildung wurden die Magnetfelder mit einem Bild der NASA%2dMission Spitzer überlagert und als Linien dargestellt.
Credit: NASA/SOFIA/T. Pillai/J. Kauffmann; NASA/JPL-Caltech/L. Allen
For this illustration, the magnetic fields were superimposed on an image from NASA's Spitzer Space Telescope and are represented as lines. The magnetic fields are pulled along with the movement of the gas. In this image you can see the change of direction from perpendicular (top – marked red) to parallel (bottom left – marked blue) with respect to the thick black filament of dust and gas.

A research team led by Thushara Pillai from Boston University and the Max Planck Institute for Radio Astronomy in Bonn has just published their work on the interaction of interstellar magnetic fields with newly forming stars in Nature Astronomy. The observations were made using the High Resolution Airborne Wideband Camera Plus (HAWC+) – the unique far-infrared polarimetry instrument on board DLR and NASA's Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy (SOFIA). We at the DLR Space Administration supported Dr Pillai and her team’s observations through the DLR Astronomy and Astrophysics Collaborative Research project.##markend##

The object under investigation was the Serpens South Cluster, a star-forming molecular cloud in the constellation of Serpens (the Snake), which is approximately 1400 light years away from Earth. The star cluster consists of a relatively dense group of 50 young stars, 35 of which are protostars – stars in the earliest stages of formation.

In 2017, ESA's Herschel Space Observatory discovered that star formation is significantly intensified along the gaseous filaments of galaxies. Filaments (from the Latin filium, 'thread') are 'thread-like' accumulations of matter in huge molecular clouds, the most famous of which are the Pillars of Creation. ESA's Planck mission uncovered magnetic fields in such interstellar clouds that are about 10,000 times weaker than Earth's own magnetic field.

In general, the magnetic field in a low-density filaments is oriented parallel to the filament. By contrast, the magnetic field in a dense, star-forming filament runs perpendicular to it.

Dr Pillai's team has now discovered that the magnetic field in dense filaments can change its orientation from perpendicular to parallel. The resulting, weakly magnetised gas stream can further stimulate the growth of young star clusters. Understanding the role of these magnetic fields and their orientations in relation to filaments is crucial for understanding star formation.

For further information, please visit the website of the Max Planck Institute for Radio Astronomy.

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About the author

Alessandra Roy studied astronomy at the University of Bologna (Italy). She received her doctorate from geodesy at the University of Bonn. She worked for almost 16 years at the University of Bonn and at the Max Plank Institute for Radio Astronomy. to authorpage