Sugar found around a star. Sweet!

Rho Ophiuchi star-forming region in infrared, imaged by NASAs WISE spacecraft. The little red dot in the box is IRAS 16293-2422, a young binary star with a mass similar to our Sun. An artist’s impression of glycolaldehyde (C2H4O2) is shown in the disk surrounding the star.

As stars form, a swirling disc of material surrounds the young star. These dics are mostly composed of simple molecular compounds such as molecular hydrogen (H2) and carbon monoxide (CO) but there’s also some relatively complex stuff there too, including sugar!

Ok, it’s not exactly the same kind of sugar that we add to our coffee, but it’s really not that much different, either. It’s glycolaldehyde (C2H4O2) which is a fairly simple form of sugar. Sweet!

The sugar was detected by Jes Jørgensen and his team using the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA)  in the disc surrounding a young Sun-like star called IRAS 16293-242. The  molecular compounds in this disc are cold so they therefore they emit radiation at long wavelengths – longer than infrared, but shorter than radio. It’s here that you can start to detect complex molecules and sure enough, Jørgensen and his team found a lovin’ spoonful of glycolaldehyde!

Why is this so deliciously awesome? It turns out that glycolaldehyde is one of the ingredients found in RNA. You might remember from high school biology that RNA is similar to DNA except for the type of sugars present. (There are some other differences between RNA and DNA as well, which are worth reading up on.)

So there you have it – discs surrounding stars can have the building blocks of life in them, and it’s in these discs where planets form. It seems that the building blocks of life are fairly common and seed the formation of new planets. Sweet!

A High Energy X-Ray Superbubble

A long, long time ago in a galaxy not that far away at all as a matter of fact, a cluster of stars formed inside a great cloud of gas and dust. Among them were giant stars whose masses may have been between 10-30 times the mass of our Sun. These behemoth stars lived fast, fusing their once hydrogen cores into heavier and heavier elements until one day they could no longer sustain themselves and they explodeed as supernovae.

Like TNT exploding in a mine, the supernovae sent out powerful shock waves that blew a giant bubble in the cloud 1,200 light-years across. Behold:

Massive stars exploded as supernovae, creating superbubbles in the surrounding gas. X-Ray (blue), Optical (yellow/green), Infrared (red) composite of N44 in the Large Magellanic Cloud. Click for the 864×690 version, or get the ridiculously  cool 3600×2874 version Credit: X-ray: NASA/CXC/U.Mich./S.Oey, IR: NASA/JPL, Optical: ESO/WFI/2.2-m

Holy Cosmic Cauldrons! This region is known as N44 and resides in the Large Magellanic Cloud, a satellite galaxy to our own Milky Way. It’s actually a composite of an image of N44 taken by the Chandra X-Ray Observatory, an optical image taken by the 2.2-meter Max-Planck-ESO telescope in Chile, and the Spitzer Space Telescope.

The colors correspond to different wavelengths imaged by the different observatories. Red stands in for infrared emission captured by Spitzer. This is cooler gas and dust and is relatively “intact” surrounding the bubble.

Yellow corresponds to imagery from the Max-Planck-ESO telescope and shows hot ionized gas. This gas is glowing from the ultraviolet radiation from hot, young stars, in much the same way that gas glows in a florescent light bulb.

Finally, we have the really high-energy stuff, the x-ray emission (shown here in blue), taken by the Chandra X-Ray Observatory. In fact, let’s take a look at just the Chandra X-Ray image:

Chandra X-Ray image of star cluster NGC 1929 inside N44.

Here’s where the story gets really interesting. For a long time, it was assumed that the bubbles were created by winds from the hot stars that eventually went supernova. That makes sense. After all, the more massive and hotter they are, the more mass they lose as stellar winds.

Well, the winds from these stars certainly did “blow” out the bubbles. However, it turns out there is a lot more x-ray radiation coming from inside the bubbles than was expected from just the winds alone.

So where is this extra x-ray radiation coming from? Dr. Anne  Jaskot from the University of Michigan and her team used Chandra to find out. It turns out that there are two extra sources of x-ray radiation: the supernova shock waves striking the walls of the cavities, and hot material evaporating from the cavity walls. In fact, if you compare the two images above, you can actually see the X-ray radiation coming off the walls of the bubbles. Cool!

In other words, the supernova explosions themselves generated a lot of high-energy x-ray radiation by slamming into the walls of the bubble making the walls so hot they give off x-rays as the shock waves passed through.

Moreover, these shockwaves, created in the supernovae of these massive stars, compressed the surrounding gas. This in turn triggered the formation of even more stars.

And there it is, the cycle of stellar life: the ashes of stars are blown along the expanding wave of a cosmic bubble, and seed the next generation of stars.

Gazing into the Eye of a Cosmic Seagull

Stars form inside dense clouds of gas and dust. They start out as small eddies bound by mutual gravitation, and continue to grow more massive and hotter until, finally, a new star ignites:

The blue giant star HD 53367 dominates the center of Sh-2-292, causing the hydrogen in the nebula to glow a rich red color. Click to see the 1280×1275 version, or get the über-colossal 6554×6528 version.

Is that beautiful or what? This is an image of Sharpless 2-292, a region of a larger complex called the Seagull Nebula. It was taken by the 2.2-meter telescope at the European Southern Observatory’s (ESO) La Silla Observatory in Chile.

And what an image it is! At the center of Sharpless 2-292 is a bright star called HD 53367, a newly formed monster weighing in at 20 times the mass of our Sun! HD 53367 actually has a smaller companion star that is “only” 5 times more massive than the Sun. We can’t actually see the companion in this image because it too close to its giant, about 1.7AU* apart.

Still, this giant is having quite an effect on the surrounding nebula. HD 53367 is so bright it floods the gas in the surrounding nebula with so much radiation, it strips the hydrogen in the gas of their electrons. In other words, the hydrogen becomes ionized. Eventually, those electrons are recaptured by hydrogen ions and the gas glows a rich red color, much like a neon sign.

The nebula also features a dark lane of thick dust, which stands out in silhouette against the glowing hydrogen. But it’s not all dark – if you look closely at the image you’ll find that blue haze “hanging” about throughout the nebula. This is due to blue light from the star being scattered by tiny particles in the dust itself.

This nebula is really part of a larger complex called the Seagull Nebula:

Wide-field view of the entire Seagull Nebula (IC 2177) Credit: ESO/Digitized Sky Survey 2. Acknowledgement: Davide De Martin

HD 53367 and its immediate surroundings form the “head” of the Seagull (ok, use your imagination!).

What’s great about images like this – apart from their sheer gorgeousness – is that they give us a front-row seat to the process of star formation and their impact on the very nurseries in which they formed.

* An AU is short for Astronomical Unit, which is the distance between the Sun and Earth, so the two stars are separated by a little less than twice the Earth-Sun distance, which is too close to each other to be seen 3700 light-years from Earth.