NGC 6334, also known as the Cat’s Paw Nebula, located 5,500 light-years from Earth within the constellation Scorpio, offers the right environment for scientists to explore the effect of magnetic fields on star birth.
Published March 30th in the journal Nature, a study has found that magnetic fields influence the formation of stars rather evenly across massively different orders of magnitude, that is, in space terms (think light-years). Hua-bai Li, now with The Chinese University of Hong Kong, began the study while a post-doctoral fellow at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics (CfA), observing high-resolution images generated by devices like the Smithsonian’s Submillimeter Array. The array, or SMA, uses radiation to detect colors outside the spectrum of human vision, specifically wavelengths ranging 0.3 to 1.7 millimeters (0.01 to 0.07 inches).
Taking advantage of the fact that dust particles form orderly lines in the direction of the magnetic field impacting them, Li and his team were able to compare polarized light created by dust-emission lines in the nebula at different size scales. The results were rather surprising — from just less than one light year to hundreds, the dust lines stayed in the same direction.
In a press release Li says the discovery implies “that self-gravity and cloud turbulence are not able to significantly alter the field direction,” and co-author T.K. Sridharan, also of the CfA, added “even though they’re much weaker than Earth’s magnetic field, these cosmic magnetic fields have an important effect in regulating how stars form.”
Researchers chose NGC 6334 for good reason — located in our Milky Way the nebula is chock-block full of particulate matter being simultaneously pulled together by gravity and torn apart by magnetic fields and turbulence. Rapidly configuring stars are not only numerous in Cat’s Paw, they’re also big. Stars are thought to range in size from 30 to 40 percent, to ten times the mass of our own center star, and the nebula itself boasts roughly 200,000 times the sun’s total material within its borders.
Particularly rich in gas and dust, Cat’s Paw is called a Starburst Galaxy, turning out new stars at an astronomically astonishing rate — 1,000 times quicker than its peers — a star-formation rate, or SFR, of around 3600 solar masses of gas becoming new stars every million years. The unique conditions of NGC 6334 have made it subject to a fair deal of study since its initial discovery in 1837 by astronomer John Herschel. Some have calculated that the nebula will cause quite a light show in 100 million years or so, with the majority of its new stars collectively rupturing in a rare but beautiful event.
This is the first time work has been presented capturing the force of magnetic fields in the same area over such varied sizes, and it could help scientists add new chapters to our own galaxy’s creation story. Li’s work comes alongside a series of other revelations about the intricacies of star-birth that have offered new insight into space history and given the ramifications this knowledge could have; it’s unlikely he’ll be the last to try to nail down the specifics.
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