Tuesday, 26 January 2016

NASA's next big space telescope reaches a critical stage

The space telescope that will one day replace NASA's Hubble Space Telescope (HST) has reached a critical stage in its construction this month as work entered the final assembly phase. Engineers working on the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) started installing its mirrors last fall and by December had fitted 9 of the 18 primary flight mirrors. This month they started on the 10th mirror and the final stage of the assembly process.

The team is using a precise robotic arm to carefully position the massive gold-coated mirrors onto the growing observatory. Inside the huge clean room at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Centre, the massive observatory is starting to take shape.

Engineers installing the 9th primary flight mirror onto JWST
(Credit: NASA)
The 18 hexagonal-shaped primary mirrors each weigh approximately 40kg and measure over a metre in diameter. They were built at the Ball Aerospace labs in Boulder, Colorado, and then transported to NASA's laboratory in Maryland. Together they will produce a single mirror 6.5 metres across, making JWST the largest space telescope ever constructed.

Construction work is on schedule for completion in time for a launch in 2018. Once constructed and launched JWST will have the light-gathering power to peer back in time to when the first stars and galaxies were forming in the Universe. By observing these objects astronomers hope to understand how the Universe that we see around us was constructed. JWST will also aid the ongoing search for habitable exoplanets, the study of nearby forming stars and star clusters, and the large-scale structure of the Universe.

Artist's impression of the completed James Webb Space Telescope with its 18
gold-coated mirrors and large sun shied at the bottom (Credit: NASA).

Look out for more news on JWST's construction, mirror installation, and testing!

Thursday, 21 January 2016

The nearest site of dense star formation, the ρ Ophiuchi Molecular Cloud

A few months ago I talked about the Taurus Molecular Cloud, a prominent and well-studied site of active star formation, which also has the privilege of being the closest such region to us. It isn't the only nearby region of star formation though, and this week I want to talk about another well-studied nearby region called the ρ Ophiuchi (pronounced rho oh-fee-ook-eemolecular cloud.

ρ Ophiuchi is not much further away than the Taurus Molecular Cloud, lying at a distance of 400 light years from us (120 parsecs), but one of its truly special features is that it is visible from both hemispheres. Due to the orbit and rotation of the Earth, astronomical objects visible from one hemisphere are often not easily seen from the other hemisphere, simply because the Earth does not spin into a position where they could be observed.

This presents a difficulty for astronomers because astronomical observatories can therefore only observe about half the sky. Telescopes and radio antennae in the Southern hemisphere can only observe the Southern sky, and vice versa (this isn't strictly true as it depends on the precise position of the observatory, but it serves as a good general rule). This can be annoying for astronomers because it means they can't always observe their targets with the ideal telescope. For example, my favourite region Cygnus OB2 is in the Northern sky, and thus I have to use telescopes in the Northern hemisphere to study it, a very disappointing situation when one considers the wonderful telescopes available in the Southern hemisphere!

ρ Ophiuchi is one of a small number of regions that straddles the Northern and Southern skies and can be observed from observatories in both hemispheres. It is therefore much easier to study ρ Ophiuchi than it is to study the northern hemisphere Taurus Molecular Cloud for example.

The ρ Ophiuchi star forming region is made up of quite a few different components, as the image below shows. The region is very close to one of the subgroups of the Scorpius-Centaurus OB association (the subgroup is known as Upper Scorpius), which leads to a number of bright stars in the area, many of which can be seen with the naked eye. Amongst these, Antares or Alpha Scorpius is one of the most impressive. The 'Alpha' designation means that it is the brightest star in the constellation of Scorpius, and is actually the 15th brightest star in the night sky. The star is a red supergiant, a very massive star coming towards the end of its life, which will one day explode as a supernova.

The Ophiuchus Clouds and surrounding area, covering 5 x 6 degrees. The image shows
both the dark clouds of Rho Ophiuchus (L1688 and L1689) and many of the nearby
naked eye stars (Antares, Alpha and Sigma Scorpius) and the nearby globular cluster M4.
(Credit: Robert Gendler / Nick Wright)
The triple star system ρ Ophiuchus, from which the star forming region gets its name, also contains a number of massive stars, slightly less massive than Antares, and not as far towards the ends of their lives, but still very bright and impressive. They'd be even brighter in the night sky if they weren't partly embedded within the molecular cloud. These stars are what astronomers refer to as B-type stars.

The young stars of ρ Ophiuchi are actually much fainter and less massive than those in the nearby OB association. They are younger as well, only about 1 million years old, making them stellar toddlers! Most of these young stars are still embedded in the molecular cloud that they formed in, so they are difficult to see in images like this, though the molecular clouds themselves can be seen as they appear as dark clouds obscuring the background starlight. The two main clouds in ρ Ophiuchi are known as L1688 and L1689, though they're both made up of many smaller clouds.

The first proper studies of ρ Ophiuchi came with the advent of infrared astronomy in the 1970s. Infrared radiation can penetrate into the dark and obscuring clouds, allowing astronomers to see the young stars forming within them. These early studies revealed hundreds of young stars deeply embedded with the molecular clouds, many still in the processes of forming and others at the end of the formation process.

The cluster of young stars that the infrared observations uncovered is larger and denser than those in the Taurus Molecular Cloud, though not as dense as some of the more massive star clusters such as the Orion Nebula Cluster. They therefore provide a nice contrast between these two other prominent regions.

The young stars of the L1688 cloud in Rho Ophiuchus, as seen in infrared light (Credit: Spitzer Space Telescope)

By studying this large population of forming stars astronomers were able to garner insight into the star formation process and study how stars appeared to change appearance as they formed. These infrared studies also revealed an important type of object known as a starless core. These are giant globules of gas, dense and massive enough to be held together by their own gravity, but without a star inside of them. Because they are gravitationally bound but not supported by any outward forces they must be in the process of collapsing to form new stars.

By studying these starless cores astronomers have been trying to understand how stars start to form, as well as how the properties of the core affects the properties of the star that forms. For example, astronomers have discovered that the distribution of masses of these cores is very similar (if slightly larger) than the distribution of masses of stars, suggesting that stars probably form directly out of these cores with a direct correlation between the mass of the core and the mass of the star that forms within it.

Rho Ophiuchus (right) and the Pipe Nebula (left) projected against
the Galactic Centre, with many of the bright stars of the Scorpius-Centaurus
OB association also visible (Credit: Maurice Toet)
Star formation in the region is thought to have started when a shock wave from the nearby Scorpius-Centaurus OB association triggered the collapse of the ambient gas clouds in the area. This may have been caused by winds that emanate from massive stars or even possibly a supernova explosion when one of the most massive stars in the OB association died. Many astronomers think that shock waves such as this are a common trigger of large star formation events in our galaxy, and there has been considerable work to trace back these triggering events to their source.

Recent far-infrared and sub-mm observations of ρ Ophiuchi have allowed astronomers to trace the molecular gas and dust that makes up the densest parts of the molecular cloud where star formation is most active. These molecular maps have revealed that the gas has a highly filamentary structure on large scales, with multiple dense clumps on the smaller scales where stars are beginning to form.

Rho Ophiuchus (right) and the Pipe Nebula (left) with a colour map
projected on top showing the density of molecular gas
(Credit: ESO, S. Guisard and J. Kainulainen)
It is thought that stellar winds and supernovae sculpt the gas in these molecular clouds into these massive filamentary structures, which then become gravitationally unstable and collapse to form the dense cores that are the precursors of forming stars. Trying to understand how these filaments of gas are created and how stars form from them is an area of very active research at the moment.

ρ Ophiuchi has proved to be not only an amazing location to study young and forming stars, but also to study all the processes that lead up to star formation: the sculpting of molecular gas, the collapse of long filaments into dense cores, and the formation of protostars within them. It has, and continues to be, a valuable resource for astronomers!