ALMA Takes Close Look at Drama of Starbirth
20 August 2013
Astronomers using the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA) have obtained a vivid close-up view of material streaming away from a newborn star. By looking at the glow coming from carbon monoxide molecules in an object called Herbig-Haro 46/47 they have discovered that its jets are even more energetic than previously thought. The very detailed new images have also revealed a previously unknown jet pointing in a totally different direction.
Young stars are violent objects that eject material at speeds as high as one million kilometres per hour. When this material crashes into the surrounding gas it glows, creating a Herbig-Haro object . A spectacular example is named Herbig-Haro 46/47 and is situated about 1400 light-years from Earth in the southern constellation of Vela (The Sails). This object was the target of a study using ALMA during the Early Science phase, whilst the telescope was still under construction and well before the array was completed.
The new images reveal fine detail in two jets, one coming towards Earth and one moving away. The receding jet was almost invisible in earlier pictures made in visible light, due to obscuration by the dust clouds surrounding the new-born star. ALMA has not only provided much sharper images than earlier facilities but also allowed astronomers to measure how fast the glowing material is moving through space.
These new observations of Herbig-Haro 46/47 revealed that some of the ejected material had velocities much higher than had been measured before. This means the outflowing gas carries much more energy and momentum than previously thought.
The team leader and first author of the new study, Héctor Arce (Yale University, USA) explains that "ALMA's exquisite sensitivity allows the detection of previously unseen features in this source, like this very fast outflow. It also seems to be a textbook example of a simple model where the molecular outflow is generated by a wide-angle wind from the young star."
The observations were obtained in just five hours of ALMA observation time – even though ALMA was still under construction at the time – similar quality observations with other telescopes would have taken ten times longer.
"The detail in the Herbig-Haro 46/47 images is stunning. Perhaps more stunning is the fact that, for these types of observations, we really are still in the early days. In the future ALMA will provide even better images than this in a fraction of the time," adds Stuartt Corder (Joint ALMA Observatory, Chile), a co-author on the new paper.
Diego Mardones (Universidad de Chile), another co-author, emphasises that "this system is similar to most isolated low mass stars during their formation and birth. But it is also unusual because the outflow impacts the cloud directly on one side of the young star and escapes out of the cloud on the other. This makes it an excellent system for studying the impact of the stellar winds on the parent cloud from which the young star is formed."
The sharpness and sensitivity achieved by these ALMA observations also allowed the team to discover an unsuspected outflow component that seems to be coming from a lower mass companion to the young star. This secondary outflow is seen almost at right angles to the principal object and is apparently carving its own hole out of the surrounding cloud.
Arce concludes that "ALMA has made it possible to detect features in the observed outflow much more clearly than previous studies. This shows that there will certainly be many surprises and fascinating discoveries to be made with the full array. ALMA will certainly revolutionise the field of star formation!"
 The astronomers George Herbig and Guillermo Haro were not the first to see one of the objects that now bear their names, but they were the first to study the spectra of these strange objects in detail. They realised that they were not just clumps of gas and dust that reflected light, or glowed under the influence of the ultraviolet light from young stars, but were a new class of objects associated with shocks created by material ejected at high speeds in star formation regions.
The Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA), an international astronomy facility, is a partnership of Europe, North America and East Asia in cooperation with the Republic of Chile. ALMA is funded in Europe by the European Southern Observatory (ESO), in North America by the U.S. National Science Foundation (NSF) in cooperation with the National Research Council of Canada (NRC) and the National Science Council of Taiwan (NSC) and in East Asia by the National Institutes of Natural Sciences (NINS) of Japan in cooperation with the Academia Sinica (AS) in Taiwan. ALMA construction and operations are led on behalf of Europe by ESO, on behalf of North America by the National Radio Astronomy Observatory (NRAO), which is managed by Associated Universities, Inc. (AUI) and on behalf of East Asia by the National Astronomical Observatory of Japan (NAOJ). The Joint ALMA Observatory (JAO) provides the unified leadership and management of the construction, commissioning and operation of ALMA.
This research was presented in a paper entitled "ALMA Observations of the HH 46/47 Molecular Outflow" by Héctor Arce et al, to appear in the Astrophysical Journal.
The team is composed of Héctor G. Arce (Yale University, New Haven, USA), Diego Mardones (Universidad de Chile, Santiago, Chile), Stuartt A. Corder (Joint ALMA Observatory, Santiago, Chile), Guido Garay (Universidad de Chile), Alberto Noriega-Crespo (Infrared Processing and Analysis Center, California Institute of Technology, Pasadena, USA) and Alejandro C. Raga (Instituto de Ciencias Nucleares, Mexico).
ESO is the foremost intergovernmental astronomy organisation in Europe and the world's most productive ground-based astronomical observatory by far. It is supported by 15 countries: Austria, Belgium, Brazil, Czechia, Denmark, France, Finland, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Portugal, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland and the United Kingdom. ESO carries out an ambitious programme focused on the design, construction and operation of powerful ground-based observing facilities enabling astronomers to make important scientific discoveries. ESO also plays a leading role in promoting and organising cooperation in astronomical research. ESO operates three unique world-class observing sites in Chile: La Silla, Paranal and Chajnantor. At Paranal, ESO operates the Very Large Telescope, the world's most advanced visible-light astronomical observatory and two survey telescopes. VISTA works in the infrared and is the world's largest survey telescope and the VLT Survey Telescope is the largest telescope designed to exclusively survey the skies in visible light. ESO is the European partner of a revolutionary astronomical telescope ALMA, the largest astronomical project in existence. ESO is currently planning the 39-metre European Extremely Large optical/near-infrared Telescope, the E-ELT, which will become "the world's biggest eye on the sky".
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