Explaining how the most massive stars are born, deep within their stellar nurseries, is one of the most persistent mysteries in modern astronomy. Observations at the Gemini Observatory provide convincing new evidence that these stellar heavyweights may be born in much the same manner as lightweights like the sun.
“The problem is that when the most massive stars form it happens very quickly compared to stars like our sun, and by the time they break free of their natal clouds they are already the finished article,” says Ben Davies, assistant research scientist at RIT’s Rochester Imaging Detector Laboratory, and formerly of the University of Leeds in the United Kingdom. “If you want to see a massive star in the process of forming, you need to be able to see through the obscuring clouds to where the action is.”
Davies led an international team of researchers who brought infrared sensitivity and the extreme resolution of adaptive optics to bear on the problem. This allowed the team to penetrate the obscuring gas and dust clouds surrounding the massive proto-star W33A.
Known as a Massive Young Stellar Object, W33A is located about 12,000 light years away, toward the constellation of Sagittarius. Previous studies of this object only hinted at its dynamic nature but, until now, no stellar objects have been studied at this level of detail using the combination of adaptive optics and integral field spectroscopy used by the Davies team.