Telescope on the Side of a Jet Plane Spotted Young Stars Forming in Nearby Nebula Rho Ophiuchi

An image of stars formed in the Rho Ophiuchi cloud. NASA/JPL-Caltech/Harvard-Smithsonian CfA

A high-tech camera mounted on a former jumbo jet spotted new stars forming and provided scientists with groundbreaking information about how stars are born. The discovery suggests that magnetic fields shape star birth by manipulating interstellar dust. The results were presented at this week's annual conference of the American Astronomical Society.

The research focused on a nebula, or star-forming region, called Rho Ophiuchi, located a little more than 400 light-years away. That sounds incredibly distant, but compared to other so-called stellar nurseries we can see, it's actually pretty close. The area is full of hydrogen, gas and dust that swirls together to form stars—but we're still hazy on the nuances that drive that process.

"The cloud has mass, and therefore it has gravity. So you would think that it should just contract and create stars in there," co-author Fabio Pereira Santos, a physicist at Northwestern University, told the BBC. "There is an idea that if you have very strong magnetic fields in some parts of the galaxy, you could run into a situation where gravity will not be able to overcome this magnetic tension."

This is where that jet-borne camera comes into play, an instrument called the High-resolution Airborne Wideband Camera-Plus, or HAWC+, which was added to SOFIA, the Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy, last spring. HAWC+ is tuned to focus on infrared light and what scientists call the polarization of light, how it is affected by magnetic fields. Those two talents taken together means the instrument lets astronomers see relatively cool material, like those stellar dust bunnies found in a nebula.

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So Santos and his fellow researchers pointed HAWC+ at Rho Ophiuchi to see what they would see. In particular, they wanted to analyze the magnetic alignment of the particles of interstellar dust clumps, which is the sort of measurement that couldn't be taken before HAWC+ came along. If you've ever watched iron filings pulled around a sheet of paper by passing a magnet beneath it, it's the same basic idea.

In the central parts of the star-forming regions known as Rho Ophiuchi, shown in the @NASAspitzer image on the left, several young stars are forming, some of which may become stars with planetary systems much like our Sun. Full details: #AAS231

— SOFIAtelescope (@SOFIAtelescope) January 9, 2018

They found that particles in the skin of the stellar dust bunnies were better governed by the magnetic fields than those farther in. That's actually what they had expected to find, thanks to an idea called Radiative Alignment Torque, which tries to explain the details of how dust particles respond to magnetic fields. Now, they have some data to support the idea—and to start building a better picture of star formation. And some of those newborn stars in Rho Ophiuci may end up looking an awful lot like our own, with planets to match.

SOFIA is currently taking a break, but will be back in the skies starting in February for a packed year of science, including more observations with the HAWC+ instrument to keep exploring these mysteries.