Clues to Creation of Most Massive Stars in the Universe Discovered

An international team of researchers using a CSIRO radio telescope, has caught an enormous cloud of cosmic gas and dust called BYF73, is about 8,000 light years away, in the constellation of Carina (“the keel”) in the Southern sky in the process of collapsing in on itsef – a discovery which could help solve one of astronomy’s enduring conundrums: how do massive stars form?

“Astronomers are still debating the physical processes that can generate these big stars,” says Dr Peter Barnes from the University of Florida . “Massive stars are rare, making up only a few per cent of all stars, and they will only form in significant numbers when really massive clouds of gas collapse, creating hundreds of stars of different masses. Smaller gas clouds are not likely to make big stars.”

Accordingly, regions in space where massive stars seem to be forming are also rare. Most are well over 1000 light-years away, making them hard to observe. The research team calculates that the gas is falling in at the rate of
about three per cent of the Sun’s mass every year – one of the highest
rates known.   Evidence for ‘infalling’ gas came from the radio telescope’s detection
of two kinds of molecules in the cloud – HCO+ and H13CO+. The spectral
lines from the HCO+ molecules in particular showed the gas had a
velocity and temperature pattern that indicated collapse.

Dr Stuart Ryder of the Anglo-Australian Observatory said the discovery was made during a survey of more than 200 gas clouds. “With clouds like this we can test theories of massive star cluster formation in great detail.”

The CSIRO telescope observations were confirmed by observations with the Atacama Submillimeter Telescope Experiment (ATSE) telescope in Chile. Follow-up infrared observations made with the 3.9-m Anglo-Australian Telescope (also near Coonabarabran, NSW) showed signs of massive young stars that have already formed right at the centre of the gas clump, and new stars forming.

Star-formation in the cloud was also evident in archival data from the Spitzer and MSX spacecraft, which observe in the mid-infrared.

Gas cloud BYF73 was found during a large-scale search for massive star-forming regions – the Census of High- and Medium-mass Protostars, or CHaMP. This is one of the largest, most uniform and least biased surveys to date of massive star-forming regions in our Galaxy.

Casey Kazan via CSIRO Australia

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