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ALMA Observes Birth Cry of a Massive Baby Star
Monday, 12 June 2017

An international research team used the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA) to determine how the enigmatic gas flow from a massive baby star is launched. The astronomers observed the baby star and obtained clear evidence of rotation in the outflow. The motion and the shape of the outflow indicate that the interplay of centrifugal and magnetic forces in a disk surrounding the star plays a crucial role in the star’s birth cry.

Stars form from gas and dust floating in interstellar space. But, astronomers do not yet fully understand how it is possible to form the massive stars seen in space. One key issue is gas rotation. The parent cloud rotates slowly in the initial stage and the rotation becomes faster as the cloud shrinks due to self-gravity. Stars formed in such a process should have very rapid rotation, but this is not the case. The stars observed in the Universe rotate more slowly.

How is the rotational momentum dissipated? One possible scenario involves that the gas emanating from baby stars. If the gas outflow rotates, it can carry rotational momentum away from the system. Astronomers have tried to detect the rotation of the outflow to test this scenario and understand its launching mechanism. In a few cases signatures of rotation have been found, but it has been difficult to resolve clearly, especially around massive baby stars.

ALMA Observes Birth Cry of a Massive Baby Star

Figure 1. Artist’s impression of Orion KL Source I. The massive protostar is surrounded by a disk of gas and dust. The outflow is launched from the surface of the outer disk. Credit: ALMA (ESO/NAOJ/NRAO) | Download image

The team of astronomers led by Tomoya Hirota, an assistant professor at the National Astronomical Observatory of Japan (NAOJ) and SOKENDAI (the Graduate University for Advanced Studies) observed a massive baby star called Orion KL Source I in the famous Orion Nebula, located 1,400 light-years away from the Earth. The Orion Nebula is the closest massive-star forming region to Earth. Thanks to its close vicinity and ALMA’s advanced capabilities, the team could reveal the nature of the outflow from Source I.

“We have clearly imaged the rotation of the outflow,” said Hirota, the lead author of the research paper published in the journal Nature Astronomy. “In addition, the result gives us important insight into the launching mechanism of the outflow.”

The new ALMA observations beautifully illustrate the rotation of the outflow, in the same direction as the gas disk surrounding the star. This strongly supports the idea that the outflow plays an important role in dissipating the rotational energy.

ALMA Observes Birth Cry of a Massive Baby Star

Figure 2. Orion KL Source I observed with ALMA. The massive protostar is in the center and surrounded by a gas disk (red). A bipolar gas outflow is ejected from the protostar (blue). Credit: ALMA (ESO/NAOJ/NRAO), Hirota et al. | Download image

Furthermore, ALMA clearly shows that the outflow is launched not from the vicinity of the baby star itself, but rather from the outer edge of the disk. This morphology agrees well with the “magnetocentrifugal disk wind model.” In this model, gas in the rotating disk moves outward due to the centrifugal force and then moves upward along the magnetic field lines to form outflows. Although previous observations with ALMA have found supporting evidence around a low-mass protostar, there was little compelling evidence around massive protostars because most of the massive-star forming regions are rather distant and difficult to investigate in detail.

ALMA Observes Birth Cry of a Massive Baby Star

Figure 3. The rotation of the outflow from Orion KL Source I imaged with ALMA. The color shows the motion of the gas; red shows gas moving away from us, whereas blue shows gas moving toward us. The disk is shown in green. Credit: ALMA (ESO/NAOJ/NRAO), Hirota et al. | Download image

“In addition to high sensitivity and fidelity, high resolution submillimeter-wave observation is essential to our study, which ALMA made possible for the first time. Submillimeter waves are a unique diagnostic tool for the dense innermost region of the outflow, and at that exact place we detected the rotation,” explained Hirota. “ALMA’s resolution will become even higher in the future. We would like to observe other objects to improve our understanding of the launching mechanism of outflows and the formation scenario of massive stars with the assistance of theoretical research.”

Additional information

ALMA also imaged rotation of a gas jet from a low-mass protostar. Please read the press release “Baby Star Spits a ‘Spinning Jet’ As It Munches -Down on a ‘Space Hamburger’” from the Academia Sinica Institute of Astronomy and Astrophysics, Taiwan.

These observation results were published as Hirota et al. “Disk-Driven Rotating Bipolar Outflow in Orion Source I” in Nature Astronomy on June 12, 2017.

The research team members are:

Tomoya Hirota (National Astronomical Observatory of Japan / SOKENDAI), Masahiro Machida (Kyushu University), Yuko Matsushita (Kyushu University), Kazuhito Motogi (Yamaguchi University / NAOJ), Naoko Matsumoto (Yamaguchi University / NAOJ), Mi Kyoung Kim (Korean Astronomy and Space Science Institute), Ross A. Burns (Joint Institute for VLBI ERIC), Mareki Honma (NAOJ/SOKENDAI)

This research was supported by Grants-in-Aid from the Japan Society for the Promotion of Science and the Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology, Japan (No. 21224002、 24684011、25108005、15H03646、15K17613、24540242、25120007).

The Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA), an international astronomy facility, is a partnership of the European Organisation for Astronomical Research in the Southern Hemisphere (ESO), the U.S. National Science Foundation (NSF) and the National Institutes of Natural Sciences (NINS) of Japan in cooperation with the Republic of Chile. ALMA is funded by ESO on behalf of its Member States, by NSF in cooperation with the National Research Council of Canada (NRC) and the National Science Council of Taiwan (NSC) and by NINS in cooperation with the Academia Sinica (AS) in Taiwan and the Korea Astronomy and Space Science Institute (KASI).

ALMA construction and operations are led by ESO on behalf of its Member States; by the National Radio Astronomy Observatory (NRAO), managed by Associated Universities, Inc. (AUI), on behalf of North America; and by the National Astronomical Observatory of Japan (NAOJ) on behalf of East Asia. The Joint ALMA Observatory (JAO) provides the unified leadership and management of the construction, commissioning and operation of ALMA.


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