Essential Science – Part 2

June 4, 2007 — Leave a comment

So I’m still musing about the reasons for studying star formation and so I have begun trying to think in a more positive way. This is what I came up with earlier today…


Star formation is a science at a turning point. It will not be long now before astronomers have the choice of several world-leading instruments capable of observing at millimetre and sub-millimetre wavelengths. NASA’s Spitzer telescope is already orbiting above our heads taking new and exciting images with an array of instruments. Herschel, an eagerly anticipated multiple-instrument space observatory akin to Hubble will be launched by ESA within a year or so. SCUBA-2 is a high-technology camera that will be fitted to the James Clerk Maxwell Telescope (JCMT) atop Hawaii’s Mauna Kea and allow rapid surveys of star forming regions to be made at speeds many tens of times faster than has been done previously.

…star formation actually fits into your life…

Within the next decade it is hoped that several of the big questions of star formation may be answered. Why do stars form in clusters of hundreds or thousands of stars? Why do stars have the signature spread of masses that is observed? What are the initial conditions of planet formation? There are many more but these give a good example of the kind of thing that star formation theorists and observers are out to explain.

Whilst returning to the Moon and Mars will hold the public eye for decades to come, the nitty gritty of the origins of our creation are mostly hidden in understanding star and planet formation. To understand how the Sun and it’s ever-growing family of planets, dwarf-planets and other miscellany – including us – came to be here in this neck of the galactic woods is a vital part of the much larger puzzle that is star formation itself.

As a discipline, star formation slots neatly in almost all areas of astronomy and astrophysics. If you want to understand galaxies you’ll need to know what they’re made of and if you want to get to grips with nebulae then you’d better know where they’re headed. Even cosmology, so often seen by my own colleagues as putting the physics in astrophysics, has recently been bitten by the star formation question. Namely, they need to explain how stars formed so early in the universe after the big bang. If they can’t, then there is some explaining to do since we have observed stars at ages very close to that of the universe itself.


Those three examples are very overarching but they get the point across: star formation is vital to modern astronomy. Part of the mystery of the subject is that it often crosses huge orders of scale in the same physical process. A good example told to me recently is that if the Sun were a metre across then the nebula from which it formed would be the size of France. The Earth on this scale is only the size of a marble! To compress all that material down through a million orders of magnitude in size obviously involves complex physics, yet if you want to understand where we all ultimately came from, then you need to know. So to save you the trouble of having to figure it all out, the astronomers are willing to do it for you.

So as well as fitting nicely into most areas of astronomy, star formation actually fits into your life – it’ll change the way you think of things. This isn’t just because the various stages of stars give you pretty objects like the Orion Nebula (Above) and the Pleiades (Top) to look at with your telescope. Star formation tells us something very fundamental: we are all made of stardust. The Sun, the planets and everything else you know were formed from the same giant cloud of material – most likely a cloud left over from an even older star when it died. Anything that wasn’t there to begin with was made inside the Sun and it is the Sun that protects from anything outside our Solar System with its enormous gravitational and magnetic fields. Only star formation can tell us how all of this works and how the cogs in the great celestial machine got turning in the first place.

This is inspirational science…

Soon we will be in the position to look at other solar systems from the outside, a perspective we have never had before. If the current theories are correct then star formation is about to turn a corner. Astronomers will look at whole systems like our own at various stages of existence, from barely formed blobs about to start collapsing through multiple stars with their many shapes and sizes to single suns with rocky bodies in orbit and who knows what else. This will in turn allow us to see ourselves even more clearly then we ever have before and to figure out how we got here and why it happened.

This is inspirational science, and worth keeping an eye out for in the years to come. I welcome views on what I have written here from astronomers and non-astronomers alike – what do you think?

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