Thursday, 27 August 2015

Star birth and the Sea Serpent

What do sea serpents have to do with star formation I hear you ask! Well normally the two may not be connected, but this sea serpent is no ordinary snake, it is the giant constellation of Hydra, otherwise known as the Sea Serpent! Within this constellation lies a very important young star known as TW Hydrae, which has the honour of being the closest T-Tauri star to the Sun.

T-Tauri stars, as I've discussed before, are young stars, named after the prototypical example T Tauri. They are stars which have almost completely formed but are still accreting some material from their surroundings, which can cause them to glow brightly. This accretion process is not fully understood and so astronomers try to study as many different accreting stars as possible so that they can better understand how this is happening and how the accretion is affecting the star.

Artists impression of the TW Hydrae star
and its protoplanetary disk (Credit: NASA)
TW Hydrae is particularly important because it is the closest T-Tauri star at a distance of only 176 light years, and therefore it is the easiest such object to study. It was first recognised as a young star by American astronomer (and later astronaut) Karl Gorden Henize, who noted extreme H-alpha emission, typical of strongly accreting objects, in 1976.

The isolation of the star, not near any other T-Tauri stars or known star forming regions, suggested to some astronomers that it might not be a truly young star. However thanks to further observations of the star a few years later it was shown to be a bona fide and fully accreting young T-Tauri star, despite its apparent isolation.

The star itself is similar to our Sun, a little less massive and therefore a little redder, but much younger. Current estimates put its age at about 5-10 million years old, considerably younger than the 4.6 billion year old Sun that we orbit.

Fortunately for us of course the Sun is not a young star, because young stars like TW Hydrae can be very volatile objects. Young stars are surrounded by a disk of gas and dust known as a protoplanetary disk. These disks are created as material falls towards the star and gathers in a disk around it, due to a process known as the conservation of angular momentum (which basically means that things that spiral in towards a star like to keep spiralling, or at least orbiting the star and this can sometimes stop the material from falling onto the star).

Material from this disk is occasionally accreted onto the star, channeled along magnetic field lines before pummelling onto the star's surface. When this material hits the stellar surface it is heated to incredibly high temperatures, approximately 3 million degrees, which causes the star to briefly shine brightly. You don't want to be near such stars when they're accreting!

The stars and motions of the TW Hydrae association (shown in red and labelled "TW Hya" and with new members shown in black) relative to other nearby OB associations (Credit: Murphy et al. 2015).

Recently astronomers have uncovered other low-mass stars in the vicinity of TW Hydrae, creating a small group of about 20-30 stars known as the TW Hydrae association. These stars are all very young and share a common motion through our Galaxy, suggesting that they probably formed together. This discovery will be useful for astronomers looking for other young stars to study, as well as for studying how stars form in groups such as these. And importantly, TW Hydrae isn't alone any more!

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