Wednesday, 29 July 2015

The nearest site of star formation, the Taurus Molecular Cloud

Following my recent post about how stars form I wanted to take some time to talk about a few of the most prominent star forming regions that astronomers have studied and what they have taught us about the star formation process. The first of these regions I want to talk about is the Taurus Molecular Cloud.

The Taurus Molecular Cloud is, unsurprisingly, in the constellation of Taurus. It is the nearest star forming region to our Sun and so it is the region that astronomers have been able to study in the most detail. The proximity of the Taurus Molecular Cloud means that it spans a relatively large area on the sky, almost 10 degrees across, but the lack of a bright emission nebula means that all that can be seen even with a good backyard telescope is the obscuration of the background stars due to the gas and dust in the cloud.

The image below shows where the Taurus Molecular Cloud can be found in the night sky, approximately halfway between Elnath (the second brightest star in the constellation of Taurus, to the upper left) and the Pleiades open star cluster.

Location of the Taurus Molecular Cloud within the constellation of Taurus, and near the Pleiades star cluster. North is up in this image, East to the left (Image adapted from one by David Malin)

The Taurus Molecular Cloud was discovered in 1852 by J.R. Hind, which he noted as a faint nebulous object on the sky. Astronomers were soon able to take a spectrum of the light from the nebula and were able to confirm that it was indeed a giant cloud of gas. However, its importance as a site of nearby star formation wasn't immediately recognised.

The archetypal young star, T Tauri, visible in the centre
of this image and surrounded by a small dusty cloud
At the beginning of the 20th Century many astronomers became interested in a number of variable stars identified in the vicinity of the Taurus Molecular Cloud, the most prominent of which was named T Tauri after the constellation in which it was found.

Searches for other variable stars in the vicinity of dark nebulae produced many candidates in the 1940s and 1950s. These stars were often found in the vicinity of young OB stars (massive stars with particularly short lives, hence they must be young), leading many astronomers to believe that they were particularly young stars themselves. This discovery led to the realisation that the dark nebulae that these stars were found near was likely where these stars had formed. This was how the modern theory of star formation began!

The star T Tauri is now firmly recognised as the prototypical young star, and its name has been given to the class of young stars that share its properties, T-Tauri stars. It is thought to be less than a few million years old, already formed but still accreting material and growing in mass. The star itself is actually in a binary system with a fainter star, and is thought to be surrounded by a disk of material that is in the process of accreting onto the star, which partly explains the variability of the star that initially brought it attention.

An infrared view of the Taurus Molecular Cloud (Credit: FCRAO)
With the invention of infrared detectors in the second half of the 20th century astronomers were able to start peering into these dark nebulous clouds to study the star formation process within them, and as the nearest such cloud Taurus was a major target for early infrared astronomy.

The infrared image shown here penetrates the dusty molecular cloud and allows astronomers to see the giant gas clouds that are in the process of collapsing into stars. This image shows the cloud in immense detail, with filamentary tendrils of gas and dense cores where stars will one day form.

Because the Taurus Molecular Cloud is not large enough to be forming any really massive stars the region is spared the destructive powers that these stars can inflict on their surroundings. This means that there is still considerable molecular material in the cloud, including many molecular ices, despite the fact that many stars have already formed. This means that star formation is still ongoing and may be able to continue for a while, all thanks to the tranquil nature of the stars formed here.

The rise of infrared astronomy has also led to an increase in the number of young stars discovered in the cloud. Prior to this only the bright and optically visible young stars, such as T Tauri itself, had been identified. But infrared observations allowed astronomers to peer into the dark and obscuring clouds and identify many more young stars, and several hundred are now known.

The distribution of young stars (red stars and triangles) in the Taurus Molecular Cloud, show against a map of the molecular hydrogen in the cloud. Yellow diamonds, blue squares and green circles show young stars with known outflows. (Credit: Narayanan et al. 2012

This large sample of young stars has been vital in helping astronomers learn about star formation. For example, the distribution of these stars, as can be seen in the image above, coincides strongly with the distribution of the dense molecular gas, suggesting that stars form in regions of particularly dense gas. Furthermore with so many young stars all roughly of a similar age, astronomers have been able to produce models for how young stars of a given age would appear as they finished forming, and were then able to compare these models with the stars discovered in Taurus.

All in all the Taurus Molecular Cloud has been vital for how astronomers have learnt about the star formation process. It has provided a rich, nearby laboratory to study the dark nebulous clouds in which stars form and also to observe the final stages of the star formation process itself. Next time you look up and see the constellation of Taurus, see if you can spot the dark clouds of the Taurus Molecular Cloud and think about how important this region has been for astronomy!

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