Airborne SOFIA observatory studies formation of massive stars

Formation process of these stars is still not well understood.
By Laurel Kornfeld | Jan 16, 2018
An international team of astronomers is using NASA's Strategic Observatory for Infrared Astronomy (SOFIA), an airborne telescope, to study the formation processes of the universe's most massive stars.

The SOFIA Massive Star Formation Survey (SOMA), led by SOFIA senior scientist James M. De Buizer and by Jonathan Tan of Chalmers University of Technology in Gothenburg, Sweden, and of the University of Virginia, is an ongoing project that studies newborn massive stars in the Milky Way.

Massive stars are generally defined as those of ten or more solar masses. Their deaths in supernova explosions produce elements heavier than hydrogen and helium, which are necessary for building rocky planets as well as the building blocks of life.

Yet scientists know little about the processes through which these massive stars are born.

"If it weren't for massive stars, we wouldn't have the essential elements needed to create our solar system, our planet, or even the basic building blocks needed for life," explained De Buizer.

"It's not clear whether massive stars form in a similar environment, or even in the same ways, as our Sun formed. That's the reason we study massive stars and their birth processes."

SOFIA's powerful infrared camera, the Faint Object InfraRed Camera for the SOFIA Telescope (FORCAST) is capable of studying warm, dusty regions where massive stars are in the process of being born.

The observatory's sophisticated instruments, along with its ability to fly above 99 percent of Earth's infrared-blocking atmospheric water vapor, puts it in the unique position of being the only telescope with the specific resolutions, wavelengths and sensitivity necessary to see into the thick dust clouds in which massive stars form.

So far, SOMA has observed the flowing of powerful, magnetized winds both above and below the disks in which new massive stars are forming. By creating holes in the thick dust clouds surrounding the forming stars, the winds make it possible for scientists to look into these star-forming regions.

Through measurements of the amount of light that escapes from these holes in various wavelengths, scientists gain a window into the structure and formation processes of these stars.

"Understanding the birth process of massive stars is one of the most important unsolved problems of modern astrophysics since these stars are so influential throughout our galaxy and beyond," Tan emphasized.

"The unique ability of the SOFIA telescope to see at infrared wavelengths--wavelengths that are 100 times longer than those of visible light--is crucial for progress on this research, since this is the part of the spectrum where the stars emit most of their energy."

A study on SOMA's initial findings was published in The Astrophysical Journal. More SOFIA observations will be conducted in the summer of 2018.



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