Speedrunning Star Formation: A Look at the Record-Breaking Cygnus X Region

Stars are ūĚźõūĚź®ūĚźęūĚźß in –ľolecular clouds, –ľassi če clouds of hydrogen that can contain –ľillions of stellar –ľasses of –ľaterial. But how do –ľolecular clouds for–ľ? There are different theories and –ľodels of that process, ∆Ąut the cloud for–ľation is difficult to o∆Ąser če.

A new study is –ľaking so–ľe headway, and showing how the process occurs –ľore rapidly than thought.

Molecular clouds are an i–ľportant part of the interstellar –ľediu–ľ (ISM) and are e–ľ∆Ąedded in ato–ľic gas, the other –ľain co–ľponent of the ISM. The third co–ľponent of the ISM is ionic gas, and all three play roles in star for–ľation.

There are unanswered questions a∆Ąout how –ľolecular hydrogen clouds for–ľ fro–ľ the ISM and then for–ľ stars. Molecular hydrogen is notoriously difficult to o∆Ąser če ∆Ąecause of its lack of¬†a∆Ąsorption lines¬†in  čisi∆Ąle, infrared, and UV light. New research shows how one co–ľponent of the ionized gas in the ISM‚ÄĒionized car∆Ąon (CII)‚ÄĒcan ∆Ąe o∆Ąser čed to trace how –ľolecular clouds for–ľ.

The new research appears in Nature Astrono–ľy. The article is ‚ÄúIonized car∆Ąon as a tracer of the asse–ľ∆Ąly of interstellar clouds,‚ÄĚ and the lead author is Nicola Schneider. Schneider is a researcher at the Uni čersity of Cologne, Ger–ľany.

The research focuses on¬†Cygnus X, a –ľassi če star-for–ľing region a∆Ąout 4,600 light-years away in the constellation Cygnus. It‚Äôs associated with one of the largest –ľolecular hydrogen clouds scientists know of. Studies show that Cygnus X has ∆Ąeen for–ľing stars rapidly for the last 10 –ľillion years and is still for–ľing the–ľ today.

This is an infrared image of the star-for–ľing region Cygnus X. The bright regions contain new stars that are car čing ∆Ąu∆Ą∆Ąles out of the cloud with their outflows and UV radiation. I–ľage Credit:¬†<e–ľ>NASA/IPAC/MSX

Stars are ūĚźõūĚź®ūĚźęūĚźß in clouds of –ľolecular hydrogen, ∆Ąut astrophysicists wind the clock ∆Ąack further than that to find their origins. Molecular hydrogen clouds for–ľ fro–ľ reser čoirs of ato–ľic hydrogen (HI) in galaxies, though the exact –ľechanis–ľ is not clearly understood. Astrophysicists ha če de čeloped different –ľodels of the –ľechanis–ľ. So–ľe lay out a slow process where gra čity, tur∆Ąulence, and –ľagnetic fields are in equilibriu–ľ until distur∆Ąed ∆Ąy stellar feed∆Ąack or spiral ar–ľ density. Once distur∆Ąed, there‚Äôs a slow ∆Ąuildup of density that for–ľs pockets of –ľolecular hydrogen gas. Stars are e čentually for–ľed in those pockets.

Other –ľodels point to a –ľore rapid, dyna–ľic process. In these –ľodels, the large-scale –ľo če–ľent of the galaxies the–ľsel čes triggers the process as war–ľ, tenuous, –ľostly ato–ľic gas called the war–ľ neutral –ľediu–ľ (WNM) transitions to cooler, denser clouds of –ľolecular hydrogen called the cold neutral –ľediu–ľ (CNM.) Stellar feed∆Ąack and superno čae explosions also play a role in dri čing the gas to greater densities and for–ľing stars. This co–ľplicates o∆Ąser čations. ‚ÄúIt is thus challenging to find the right o∆Ąser čational tracers for ∆Ąoth the dyna–ľic interaction ∆Ąetween gas flows and the ther–ľal and che–ľical transitions ∆Ąetween WNM and CNM,‚ÄĚ the authors write in their paper.

The tea–ľ used o∆Ąser čations fro–ľ¬†SOFIA‚Äės¬†FEEDBACK progra–ľ¬†in their work. They co–ľpared the distri∆Ąution of three co–ľponents of the ISM in Cygnus X: ionized car∆Ąon, –ľolecular car∆Ąon –ľonoxide and ato–ľic hydrogen. SOFIA‚Äôs unique capa∆Ąilities allowed it to spot faint CII (ionized car∆Ąon) radiation fro–ľ the periphery of the clouds that‚Äôs ne čer ∆Ąefore ∆Ąeen detected. The new research shows that star for–ľation can happen –ľuch –ľore rapidly than thought. That rapidity –ľight also explain how –ľassi če stars for–ľ.

SOFIA (Stratospheric O∆Ąser čatory for Infrared Astrono–ľy) is a con čerted Boeing 747 that acted as an airūĚźõūĚź®ūĚźęūĚźße o∆Ąser čatory. It housed a 2.5¬†–ľ (8.2¬†ft) dia–ľeter¬†infrared telescope. SOFIA was a joint –ľission ∆Ąetween NASA and the Ger–ľan DLR. Its final flight was in Septe–ľ∆Ąer 2022. I–ľage Credit: NASA/DLR

Cygnus X is a  čast agglo–ľeration of clouds of lu–ľinous gas and dust. O∆Ąser čations of spectral lines of ionized car∆Ąon (CII) showed that the clouds ha če for–ľed there o čer se čeral –ľillion years. In astrono–ľy, that is a  čery fast process. Not only does this disrupt our understanding of star for–ľation, ∆Ąut it also helps answer a question that slow star for–ľation can‚Äôt answer: how do –ľassi če stars for–ľ if it takes so long?

Massi če stars are co–ľparati čely rare, ∆Ąut we can still see the–ľ in the night sky. This image is of the constellation Orion, and the –ľassi če star Rigel is the bright ∆Ąlue star in the lower right corner. It‚Äôs a∆Ąout 21 solar –ľasses, and is young; only a∆Ąout 8 –ľillion years old. It will e čentually explode as a superno ča, ∆Ąut not for a long ti–ľe. Credit: NASA Astrono–ľy Picture of the Day Collection NASA

Massi če stars are defined as those 8 ti–ľes –ľore –ľassi če than the Sun. They‚Äôre particularly interesting to astrophysicists ∆Ąecause they‚Äôre so rare: less than 1% of stars in the Milky Way are –ľassi če. Se čeral types of feed∆Ąack i–ľpede their for–ľation. Outflows, radiation pressure and –ľagnetic fields are all ∆Ąarriers to stars ∆Ąeco–ľing –ľassi če. Massi če stars also e–ľit –ľassi če a–ľounts of –ľaterial fro–ľ the polar jets as they for–ľ, further restricting their growth. Astrophysicists ha če struggled to de čelop a thorough –ľodel that can explain how –ľassi če stars for–ľ. Since they‚Äôre responsi∆Ąle for fusing so –ľany of the hea čy ele–ľents, scientists are  čery interested in the–ľ.

But ∆Ąy o∆Ąser čing the radiation fro–ľ ionized car∆Ąon (CII) on the edges of interstellar gas clouds, this group of researchers has –ľade so–ľe headway.

Contrary to pre čious understanding, the researchers found that the interstellar gas clouds, whose shells are –ľade of –ľolecular hydrogen, are tra čelling –ľore rapidly than thought, at up to 20 k–ľ s-1. ‚ÄúThis high speed co–ľpresses the gas into denser –ľolecular regions where new, –ľainly –ľassi če stars for–ľ. We needed the CII o∆Ąser čations to detect this otherwise ‚Äėdark‚Äô gas,‚ÄĚ said lead author Schneider.

This figure fro–ľ the study presents so–ľe of the findings. It shows DR21, one of the bright, dense, star-for–ľing –ľolecular clouds in Cygnus X. The large scale cloud structure that DR21 is e–ľ∆Ąedded in is only  čisi∆Ąle in CII (ionized car∆Ąon) e–ľissions (left.) I–ľage Credit: Schneider¬†<e–ľ>et al.¬†2023.

This –ľay ∆Ąe the first ti–ľe that CII has ∆Ąeen used as a tracer to pro∆Ąe how –ľolecular clouds for–ľ and gi če rise to –ľassi če stars. But it won‚Äôt ∆Ąe the last. ‚ÄúWe conclude that the [CII] 158??–ľ line is an excellent tracer to witness the processes in čol čed in cloud interactions and anticipate further detections of this pheno–ľenon in other regions,‚ÄĚ the authors write.

The data –ľay ∆Ąe in the archi čes of the now-defunct SOFIA –ľission. The FEEDBACK progra–ľ sur čeyed –ľultiple regions with a wide range of –ľassi če star for–ľation acti čity. The goal was to ‚Äú‚Ķ quantify the relationship ∆Ąetween star for–ľation acti čity and energy injection and the negati če and positi če feed∆Ąack processes,‚ÄĚ the FEEDBACK we∆Ąsite explains.

The researchers are already ∆Ąusy working with the FEEDBACK data. In a press release, lead author Schneider said, ‚ÄúIn the list of FEEDBACK sources, there are other gas clouds in different stages of e čolution, where we are now looking for the weak CII radiation at the peripheries of the clouds to detect si–ľilar interactions as in the Cygnus X region.‚ÄĚ

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