Thursday, 24 November 2016

How to make a star cluster

In my last two posts I've been discussing how stars are distributed at the time they're born. This is an important question because many of our theories for how stars form suggest that their environment can play a crucial role in how they accrete material. Our current observations suggest that stars form directly out of the dense gas that is found in filamentary structures across molecular clouds. But if stars form with an elongated and filamentary distribution, how do spherical star clusters form?

The answer to this question has eluded astronomers for many decades, and though there is still considerable debate in the community, a picture is emerging whereby star clusters arise when filaments of dense gas merge.

Star clusters forming in the Rosette Molecular Cloud
(Credit: Schneider et al. 2012)
The figure to the right shows an image of filaments and star clusters in a star forming region known as the Rosette Molecular Cloud (so-called because its very close to the famous Rosette Nebula). The background image shows the distribution of dense gas in the cloud, with the density of the gas ranging from low-density (black) to high-density (green and red).

On top of this are marked (in white) the positions of the filaments that make up the molecular cloud, and on top of that (the turquoise stars) are the positions of known star clusters.

If you inspect the image closely you'll see that the majority of the star clusters (which were known about well in advance of this study) sit at the intersections between the filaments. In fact out of the 14 star clusters in this molecular cloud, 13 of them are found at these intersections. This is unlikely to be a coincidence, so it appears that the formation of star clusters is closely linked to overlapping or merging filaments.

Over the last decade astronomers have seen various strands of evidence pointing towards this picture (a good summary of the early evidence can be found here). However it wasn't until the launch of the far-infrared Herschel Space Observatory in 2009 that the filamentary structure of molecular clouds became so apparent, and soon after that the relation between clusters and filaments began to emerge.

So if stars clusters are found where filaments overlap, this suggests that the collision between the filaments might create the necessary conditions for a star cluster to form. The question this then poses is whether the filament collision occurs before, after, or even during the star formation process.

If the filament collision occurs before star formation then the collision is effectively bringing together large volumes of dense gas into a small space. This would allow star formation to proceed very rapidly in a very dense cluster of gas, leading to the formation of stars in a highly clustered distribution. This has sometimes been referred to as clustered star formation or in-situ cluster formation.

Alternatively, the filament collision might occur after star formation has begun, in which case the filament collision would be bringing together stars that have already formed, depositing them in a highly clustered distribution. This is usually referred to as conveyor-belt cluster formation.

Which of these two scenarios is right has big implications for how stars form and how the environment affects the star formation process. There are strands of evidence in favour of both scenarios, though neither has been conclusively shown to be true yet. Of course its possible that both scenarios might occur, perhaps in different environments, in which case it would be interesting to understand which process occurs more often, and whether the clusters that form from the two processes differ in some way. Hopefully that's a question we can answer soon!


  1. Excellent! It's where we were trying to go with Carla's thesis, but along the GP to get better statistics.
    If it's the second of these mechanisms, then you'd need to get rid of a lot of potential energy to form the cluster - could be done with the gas but you might expect some stars to be kicked out ⇒ RV studies to look for high velocity stars?

  2. I think kinematics both for ejected stars but also for very young clusters could provide some good insights into this.

    I've also wondered whether there might be anything learnt from the typical timescales on which filaments exist before star formation occurs in them - i.e. do they live long enough for collisions between filaments to occur and channel gas into a dense clustered configuration?