Tuesday, 16 February 2016

Why are we interested in star clusters?

This blog is all about star clusters, which are pretty stunning and amazing astronomical objects, but some of you might be wondering why astronomers are so interested in them. So in this post I thought I'd give my Top 5 Reasons to Study Star Clusters! I hope you enjoy it!

The Orion Nebula Cluster, seen in X-rays and
optical light. By estimating the masses of the
young stars formed here we can study the
distribution of stellar masses that form
(Credit: Chandra X-ray Observatory)
1. Star formation. Perhaps the most important reason to study star clusters is because we believe the majority of stars form in groups or clusters and so by studying young star clusters we hope to learn something about how stars form. For example, by measuring the masses of all the stars in a cluster we can study the mass distribution of recently-formed stars (known as the initial mass function), which is one of the most important products of the star formation process.
Hubble Space Telescope image of an evaporating
protoplanetary disk (known as a proplydin the
Orion Nebula. The disk (dark silhouette in the
centre) is being eroded by radiation from a
nearby bright O-type star leading to the tail of
material stripped off(Credit: NASA/HST)

2. The impact of environment on star formation. Stars form in many different environments, from small groups of only a handful of stars, up to dense clusters with millions of stars and many thousands of luminous and massive OB stars. In dense clusters young stars are very close to each other, which can lead to close encounters that might disrupt binary systems or planetary systems. The bright OB stars that are present in the most massive clusters can also erode the disks around stars in which planets form, potentially hindering the creation of a full solar system like our own. Understanding how the environment that stars form in affects their final properties is therefore very important!

3. Stellar evolution. Just like humans, stars change as they age in many different ways, from subtle changes in their luminosity and slowing their rotation, to dramatic changes as they switch their source of nuclear fuel. To study these changes we need to know how old the stars are, but unfortunately its very difficult to measure how old individual stars are (we can't ask stars how old they are like we do with humans!). If you have a group of stars, however, you can often work out how old the group is by studying which stars have come to the ends of their lives and which haven't. This allows you to estimate the age of the cluster, and therefore all the stars in it. Once you know their ages you can study how the stars have evolved over time, an area of research known as stellar evolution.

The life cycle of a star like our Sun (upper row) and a more massive OB-type star (lower row).
Both types of star form in star forming regions and star clusters, but evolve through different
phases. By studying this process in star clusters with known ages, astronomers can
calculate how long this evolution takes (Image credit: SciOly.org)

4. Star clusters can be used to study star formation in distant galaxies. Its easy to study star formation in our own galaxy, the Milky Way, because we can observe stars forming deep within molecular clouds and the young stars that have recently formed. But in distant galaxies these things are too small and too faint to observe, so our understanding of star formation in other galaxies, whether it is different in any way, and how much star formation has been occurring, is limited. Star clusters however are bright and we can easily observe them in distant galaxies. Its also relatively simple to get a good estimate of their mass, the type of stars in them, and how old they are. This is really useful for astronomers because it means we can study not just the current star formation in these galaxies, but also star formation that occurred in the past. Astronomers call this the star formation history of a galaxy and its useful for understanding how galaxies evolve over cosmic time.

The Antennae Galaxies, two interacting galaxies with a rich and vibrant star formation history.
Astronomers have been able to study its star formation history by observing the many
star clusters (bright blue dots surrounded by red clouds) (Credit: Hubble Space Telescope)

The Jewel box Cluster (NGC 4755), one of many
clusters that are important for measuring distances
in astronomy! (Credit: APOD)
5. Star clusters are an important step on the cosmic distance ladder. In actual fact, they're two steps! The first step is a 'local' step on the cosmic distance ladder, and it comes from a process known as the moving cluster method, which is essentially a perspective effect whereby if you know the direction that all the stars in a cluster are moving you can estimate how far away it is. The second step is a much more 'distant' step on the ladder, which uses the luminosity of globular clusters to estimate the distance of the galaxy that they're in. The method stems from the assumption that the brightness globular cluster in a galaxy usually has the same luminosity as the brightest globular cluster in another galaxy. Based on this, if you can measure how bright the globular clusters in a galaxy are, you can estimate how far away the galaxy is.

There are many other reasons to study star clusters, but these are some of the most important and wide-ranging, spanning the formation of planetary systems to the size of the Universe!

So next time you hear about star clusters or new research into our understanding of these amazing objects, think about all the different scientific topics that might be influenced by those new results!

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