Australian dish charts where stars are born

The Large Magellanic Cloud

The Large Magellanic Cloud (LMC) is the nearest sizeable galaxy to our Milky Way, and is therefore a popular target for astronomers studying the evolution of stars.

ASTRONOMERS HAVE MAPPED in detail the star-forming regions of the nearest star-forming galaxy to our own, a step toward understanding the conditions surrounding star creation.

The researchers, led by University of Illinois astronomy professor Tony Wong—and including Associate Professor Sarah Maddison and PhD student Annie Hughes, both of the Swinburne University of Technology in Melbourne, Australia—have published their findings in the December issue of the Astrophysical Journal Supplement Series.

The Large Magellanic Cloud (LMC) is a popular galaxy among astronomers both for its nearness to our Milky Way and for the spectacular view it provides, a big-picture vista impossible to capture of our own galaxy.

“If you imagine a galaxy being a disc, the LMC is tilted almost face-on so we can look down on it, which gives us a very clear view of what’s going on inside,” Wong said.

Mopra dish

CSIRO's 22-metre-diameter Mopra radio telescope, located near Coonabarabran in NSW.

As the LMC is in the far southern sky, it is an ideal target for Australian telescopes. And indeed, the team used the CSIRO’s 22-metre-diameter radio telescope at Mopra, near Coonabarabran in north-central New South Wales.

Where are stars born?

Although astronomers have a working theory of how individual stars form, they know very little about what triggers the process or the conditions in space that are optimal for star birth.

Wong’s team focused on areas called molecular clouds, which are dense patches of gas—primarily molecular hydrogen—where stars are born. By studying these clouds and their relationship to new stars in the galaxy, the team hoped to learn more about how gas clouds turn into stars.

Using the Mopra dish, the astronomers mapped more than 100 molecular clouds in the LMC and estimated their sizes and masses, identifying regions with ample material for making stars. This seemingly simple task engendered a surprising find.

Conventional wisdom states that most of the molecular gas in a galaxy is apportioned to a few large clouds. However, Wong’s team found many more low-mass clouds than they expected—so many, in fact, that a majority of the dense gas may be sprinkled across the galaxy in these small molecular clouds, rather than clumped together in a few large blobs.

MAGMA image of the LMC

False-colour image of the Large Magellanic Cloud galaxy combining maps of neutral atomic hydrogen gas (red), hydrogen energised by nearby young stars (blue), and new data from Wong’s team which roughly show the locations of dense clouds of molecular hydrogen (green). It's thought that stars form within molecular hydrogen clouds.

Star formation widespread in the LMC galaxy

The large numbers of these relatively low-mass clouds means that star-forming conditions in the LMC may be relatively widespread and easy to achieve.

To better understand the connection between molecular clouds and star formation, the team compared their molecular cloud maps to maps of infrared radiation, which reveal where young stars are heating cosmic dust.

“It turns out that there’s actually very nice correspondence between these young massive stars and molecular clouds,” Wong said.

“We can say with great confidence that these clouds are where the stars form, but we are still trying to figure out why they have the properties they do,” he added.

Adapted from information issued by University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Mopra photo courtesy CSIRO. MAGMA image of LMC courtesy Tony Wong, University of Illinois.

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