The Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy (SOFIA), NASA’s flying observatory, has provided a replacement glimpse of chemistry surrounding massive young stars where future planets could begin to make. It found massive quantities of water and organic molecules in these swirling, disk-shaped clouds, offering new insights into how a number of the key ingredients of life get incorporated into planets during the earliest stages of formation.
A similar process likely happened during the formation of the Sun and therefore the inner rocky planets of our system, including Earth. The results are published within the Astrophysical Journal.
“We are seeing more molecular signatures than were ever seen before at these wavelengths,” said Andrew Barr, the lead author of the study and a doctoral candidate at Leiden University within the Netherlands. “It seems that these stars are like chemical factories churning out molecules important for all times as we all know it and that we just needed the proper quite observations to ascertain them.” SOFIA’s unique observations are enabling these scientific insights.
SOFIA’s infrared observations offer an unparalleled view of star chemistry. When light is spread into its component colors, a rainbow appears. When infrared is broken into its components, it reveals a series of bright lines, called spectra. Each element creates a singular line, therefore the lines act as chemical fingerprints. Scientists use them to spot which substances are in and around stars. SOFIA’s instruments can detect small details within the chemical fingerprints from the cores of massive young stars, almost like how high-resolution images reveal tiny features. This information about massive stars, quite 40 times the mass of our Sun, are often a reference for NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope, which can study the formation of Sun-sized stars, among other sorts of targets.
SOFIA’s instruments can detect small details within the chemical fingerprints from the cores of massive young stars, almost like how high-resolution images reveal tiny features. This information about massive stars, quite 40 times the mass of our Sun, are often a reference for NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope, which can study the formation of Sun-sized stars, among other sorts of targets.
“This study is extremely exciting because it demonstrates the facility of infrared observatories to sense the presence of straightforward organic compounds that were important for the origin of life on Earth, and possibly other planets,” said Klaus Pontoppidan, project scientist for the Webb telescope at the Space Telescope Science Institute. “One of the foremost important goals of both Webb and SOFIA is to know the origins of stars and planets and ultimately ourselves.”
Stars form when celestial clouds collapse, feeding a rotating disc of gas and mud into a central core. SOFIA observed that this process is occurring around two massive stars, AFGL 2591 and AFGL 2136, each about 3,000 light-years away within the constellation Cygnus and therefore the Juggler Nebula respectively. The observatory found the inner regions of those discs are heated from the within out, transforming the gas surrounding the core into a completely different composition. Within an equivalent areas of the disc where planets would form there have been a chemical soup of organic molecules, including water, ammonia, methane, and acetylene — which may be a building block of larger and more complex organic molecules.
Further studies of other massive young stars by SOFIA will deepen our understanding of the processes creating organic molecules. As SOFIA’s observations indicate that massive star formation may be a scaled-up version of what’s occurring in smaller, Sun-sized stars, these new studies are often of benefit to James Webb Telescope. While Webb’s extremely sensitive telescope is going to be ready to detect a number of the weakest signals from molecules present around Sun-like stars, SOFIA can unambiguously identify the chemical composition of molecules glowing brightly around more massive stars. this may help scientists using Webb telescope observations to interpret the weaker signals.