The Origin of Solar Systems
A Look into the Hellish Cradles of Suns and Solar Systems
The dense star cluster RCW 38 glistens about 5500 light-years away in the direction of the constellation Vela (the Sails). Like the Orion Nebula Cluster, RCW 38 is an “embedded cluster”, in that the nascent cloud of dust and gas still envelops its stars. Astronomers have determined that most stars, including the low mass, reddish ones that outnumber all others in the universe, originate in these matter-rich locations. Accordingly, embedded clusters provide scientists with a living laboratory in which to explore the mechanisms of star and planetary formation.
“By looking at star clusters like RCW 38, we can learn a great deal about the origins of our solar system and others, as well as those stars and planets that have yet to come”, said Kim DeRose, first author of the new study that appears in the Astronomical Journal. DeRose did her work on RCW 38 while an undergraduate student at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, USA.
Using the NACO adaptive optics instrument on ESO’s Very Large Telescope the astronomers obtained the sharpest image yet of RCW 38. They focused on a small area in the centre of the cluster that surrounds the massive star IRS2, which glows in the searing, white-blue range, the hottest surface color and temperatures possible for stars. These dramatic observations revealed that IRS2 is actually not one, but two stars -- a binary system consisting of twin scorching stars, separated by about 500 times the Earth--Sun distance.
As if intense ultraviolet rays were not enough, crowded stellar nurseries like RCW 38 also subject their brood to frequent supernovae, as giant stars explode at the ends of their lives. These explosions scatter material throughout nearby space, including rare isotopes -- exotic forms of chemical elements that are created in these dying stars. This ejected material ends up in the next generation of stars that form nearby. As these isotopes have been detected in our sun, scientists have concluded that the sun formed in a cluster like RCW 38, rather than in a more rural portion of the Milky Way.
“Overall, the details of astronomical objects that adaptive optics reveals are critical in understanding how new stars and planets form in complex, chaotic regions like RCW 38”, says co-author Dieter Nurnberger.