Washington, August 13 (ANI): A new study from two of NASA's Great Observatories has shown that radiation from massive stars may trigger the formation of many more stars than previously thought.
While astronomers have long understood that stars and planets form from the collapse of a cloud of gas, the question of the main causes of this process has remained open.
One option is that the cloud cools, gravity gets the upper hand, and the cloud falls in on itself.
The other possibility is that a "trigger" from some external source - like radiation from a massive star or a shock from a supernova - initiates the collapse.
Some previous studies have noted a combination of triggering mechanisms in effect.
By combining observations of Cepheus B from the Chandra X-ray Observatory and Spitzer Space Telescope, researchers have taken an important step in addressing this question.
Cepheus B is a cloud of mainly cool molecular hydrogen located about 2,400 light years from the Earth.
There are hundreds of very young stars inside and around the cloud - ranging from a few millions years old outside the cloud to less than a million in the interior - making it an important testing ground for star formation.
"Astronomers have generally believed that it's somewhat rare for stars and planets to be triggered into formation by radiation from massive stars," said Konstantin Getman of Penn State University, and lead author of the study. "Our new result shows this belief is likely to be wrong," he added.
This particular type of triggered star formation had previously been seen in small populations of a few dozen stars, but the latest result is the first time it has been clearly observed in a rich population of several hundred stars.
The new study suggests that star formation in Cepheus B is mainly triggered by radiation from one bright, massive star outside the molecular cloud.
According to theoretical models, radiation from this star would drive a compression wave into the cloud triggering star formation in the interior, while evaporating the cloud's outer layers.
The Chandra-Spitzer analysis revealed slightly older stars outside the cloud while the youngest stars with the most protoplanetary disks congregate in the cloud interior - exactly what is predicted from the triggered star formation scenario.
"We essentially see a wave of star and planet formation that is rippling through this cloud," said co-author Eric Feigelson, also of Penn State. "Outside the cloud, the stars probably have newly born planets while inside the cloud the planets are still gestating," he added. (ANI)