Lab-simulated star formation, using lasers, of course
The vacuum of space is not really a vacuum. A vacuum is defined by Merriam-Webster as “a space absolutely devoid of matter”. However, even empty space contains matter. This material, in the form of dust and gas, tends to accumulate in what are called molecular clouds. Without anything interfering with them, they continue to float like a cloud.
When something disrupts the balance of the molecular cloud, some of this dust and gas begins to clump together. As more and more of this dust and gas clumps together, gravity takes over and begins to form stars. The balance of a molecular cloud can be upset by a supernova remnant, the remnants of an exploded star. Plasma jets, radiation, and other clouds can also interact with these clouds.
It is difficult to observe this process in action and there are too many variables to use computer modeling to determine how it all happens. Recently, an international team of researchers used something a little different to model the interaction between a supernova remnant and a molecular cloud, laser and foam ball.
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The team used a high-powered laser to create a shock wave that traveled through a gas chamber with a ball of foam inside. Using X-ray imaging, they were able to observe the compression of the foam ball hit by the shock wave.
These observations can help us understand the mechanisms that trigger star formation. Such interactions can impact the rate of star formation, the evolution of a galaxy, and explain the formation of some of the most massive stars.
This experiment was more proof-of-concept than anything else, giving researchers a new way to use lasers to find answers to astronomical questions that are hard to infer by other means. And who doesn’t love the idea of using lasers… for anything?
The shock wave caused a deformation of the ball of foam which ended up compressing on a part while a part ended up stretching, modifying the average density of the material. In their subsequent experiments, researchers will need to take this into account to get an accurate measurement of the compressed material and the impact of the shock wave on star formation. Soon the team will test how radiation, magnetic fields and turbulence can affect star formation in molecular clouds.
Header: Illustration of the evolution of a massive cloud that indicates the importance of SNR propagation in the formation of new stars. CREDIT: Albertazzi et al.