Gravity's growing role in 'The Starry Night'
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This 21st-century "live" version of 'The Starry Night' covers a patch of sky that has become a proving ground for a new way to study cloudy, molecule-rich nurseries where stars and planets are born.
In essence, astronomers have taken a page from modern medical imaging to develop 3D graphics of the cloud. This allows researchers to detect more structure in the cloud than they can see using 2D representations.
One intriguing result: Gravity appears to play a bigger role earlier in the star-forming process than some current models suggest, says Alyssa Goodman. She's an astronomer at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics in Cambridge, Mass., and the leader of the research team.
Getting a better handle on star formation is important in reconstructing the bigger picture of how galaxies have grown and evolved over the past 13.7 billion years. Researchers are now adopting this approach to studying star-forming regions in other galaxies -- albeit with far less detail than they enjoy looking at clouds in our home galaxy, the Milky Way.
Their target: A molecular cloud dubbed L1448 in the constellation Perseus. It's about 100 light-years across. The patch they worked with is about 1 light-year across. What they see could prompt astrophysicists to ratchet back the number of stars they estimate these clouds can produce.
Hitchhicker's Map to the Molecular Cloud
Typically, astronomers have built up maps of the distribution of mass in these clouds. They look a lot like a hiker's topographical trail map -- oddly shaped loops of lines nested inside one another. Each "loop" in a molecular cloud's map represents a different value for the total mass present along a telescope's line of sight at different places in the cloud.
But contour lines on a hiker's map say nothing about the how different rock types are distributed under the surface of a mountain summit. Likewise, the contours on the molecular clouds' mass maps say nothing about whether or how mass found deeper in a section of the cloud is clumped. Those clumps are important: They represent the seeds of new stars and solar systems.
Goodman and her team took data on the cloud and derived rough distance estimates to various features along the line of sight. Then they used special software they've developed to, in effect, slice the cloud along the line of sight like so much cosmic salami.