Astronomers Watch Birth of Multi-Star System in Action
In a first, this week an international team of astronomers reported watching the birth of a multiple-star system in action, shedding light on the mysterious beginnings of star and planet formation.
According to a study published in the journal Nature, the earliest stage of star formation such as that which scientists have seen is critical. During this time the number of stars in the system is determined (multiple-star systems contain two to three stars); however it is usually obscured by dense clouds of dust and gas. Now, new findings offer a glimpse into the processes involved in this elusive history of star formation.
The researchers add that their new observations may also help explain why some pre-stellar condensations go on to form a system with only a single star like ours, while others form binary or multi-star systems.
"It seems like a simple question. Why is our Sun a single star while the nearest star to us, Alpha Centauri, happens to be a triple system?" lead study author Stella Offner, an astrophysicist at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, said in a statement. "There are competing models for how multiple star systems are born, but now we know a little more than we did before."
Thanks to the Very Large Array (VLA) in New Mexico and the Green Bank Telescope (GBT) in West Virginia, researchers were able to catch the star system in the act, forming within the "stellar nursery" region of the constellation Perseus. The new, high-resolution observations show three gas condensations, which are fragments of a dense gas filament, and one very young star that's still gaining mass.
In theory, these condensations will each form a star in about 40,000 years, which is relatively quick on an astronomical scale.
The gravitational attraction between these forming stars, researchers predict, will likely be strong enough to create a quadruple star system - despite the fact that the distances between them are now several times the size of our solar system.
"In terms of what this means for the formation of our Sun," Offner added, "it suggests that its early conditions did not look like this forming system. Instead, the Sun likely formed from something that was more spherical than filamentary. The distribution of the planets in our solar system also suggests that our Sun was never part of a multiple system like this one."
For more great nature science stories and general news, please visit our sister site, Headlines and Global News (HNGN).