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Star Formation is the process by which dense parts of molecular clouds collapse into a ball of plasma to form a star. As a branch of astronomy star formation includes the study of the interstellar medium and giant molecular clouds as precursors to the star formation process and the study of young stellar objects and planet formation as its immediate products. Star formation theory, as well as accounting for the formation of a single star, must also account for the statistics of binary stars and the initial mass function.

Theoretical Outline

According to current theories of star formation, cores of molecular clouds (regions of especially high density) become gravitationally unstable, fragment, and begin to collapse (the so-called spontaneous star formation), or shockwaves from supernovae or other energetic astronomical processes trigger star formation in nearby nebulae (the so-called triggered star formation). Part of the gravitational energy lost in this collapse is radiated in the infrared, with the remainder increasing the temperature of the core of the object. The accretion of material happens partially through a circumstellar disc. When the density and temperature are high enough, deuterium fusion ignition occurs, and the outward pressure of the resultant radiation slows (but does not stop) the collapse. Material comprising the cloud continues to "rain" onto the protostar. In this stage bipolar flows are produced, probably an effect of the angular momentum of the infalling material. Finally, hydrogen begins to fuse in the core of the star, and the rest of the enveloping material is cleared away.

The protostar follows a Hayashi track on the Hertzsprung-Russell diagram.[1] The contraction will proceed until the Hayashi limit is reached, and thereafter contraction will continue on a Kelvin-Helmholtz timescale with the temperature remaining stable. Stars with less than 0.5 solar masses thereafter join the main sequence. For more massive protostars, at the end of the Hayashi track they will slowly collapse in near hydrostatic equilibrium, following the Henyey track.[2]

The stages of the process are well defined in stars with masses around one solar mass or less. In high mass stars, the length of the star formation process is comparable to the other timescales of their evolution, much shorter, and the process is not so well defined. The later evolution of stars are studied in stellar evolution.


Key elements of star formation are only available by observing in wavelengths other than the optical. The structure of the molecular cloud and the effects of the protostar can be observed in near-IR extinction maps (where the number of stars are counted per unit area and compared to a nearby zero extinction area of sky), continuum dust emission and rotational transitions of CO and other molecules; these last two are observed in the millimeter and submillimeter range. The radiation from the protostar and early star has to be observed in infrared astronomy wavelengths, as the extinction caused by the rest of the cloud in which the star is forming is usually too big to allow us to observe it in the visual part of the spectrum. This presents considerable difficulties as the atmosphere is almost entirely opaque from 20μm to 850μm, with narrow windows at 200μm and 450μm. Even outside this range atmospheric subtraction techniques must be used.

The formation of individual stars can only be directly observed in our Galaxy, but in distant galaxies star formation has been detected through its unique spectral signature.

Notable Pathfinder Objects

* MWC 349 was first discovered in 1978, and is estimated to be only 1,000 years old. Since the object is located at a distance of 10,000 lightyears, it actually is now 11,000 years old.

* VLA 1623 -- The first exemplar Class 0 protostar, a type of embedded protostar that has yet to accrete the majority of its mass. Found in 1993, is possibly younger than 10,000 years [1].

* L1014 -- An incredibly faint embedded object representative of a new class of sources that are only now being detected with the newest telescopes. Their status is still undetermined, they could be the youngest low-mass Class 0 protostars yet seen or even very low-mass evolved objects (like a brown dwarf or even an interstellar planet). [2].

* IRS 8* -- The youngest known main sequence star, discovered in August 2006. It is estimated to be 3.5 million years old [3].

* However, no direct observation of star formation has been witnessed. [[4]]

* "What are the early stages in the formation of a star? What determines whether a cloud of star-forming matter will evolve into one, two or several stars? Because clouds of gas, dust and debris largely obscure all but the initial and final stages of the birth of a star, these questions have so far not been answered by direct observation....it has been impossible to date to view the cloud as it collapses through this range of densities. Consequently stars cannot be observed as they form. (Alan Boss) Boss, Alan P., "Collapse and Formation of Stars," Scientific American, Jan 1985, p. 40

Low Mass and High Mass Star Formation

Stars of different masses are thought to form by slightly different mechanisms. The theory of low-mass star formation, which is well-supported by a plethora of observations, suggests that low-mass stars form by the gravitational collapse of rotating density enhancements within molecular clouds. As described above, the collapse of a rotating cloud of gas and dust leads to the formation of an accretion disk through which matter is channeled onto a central protostar. For stars with masses higher than about 8 solar masses, however, the mechanism of star formation is not well understood.

Massive stars emit copious quantities of radiation which pushes against infalling material. In the past, it was thought that this radiation pressure might be substantial enough to halt accretion onto the massive protostar and prevent the formation of stars with masses more than a few tens of solar masses.[3] Recent theoretical work has shown that the production of a jet and outflow clears a cavity through which much of the radiation from a massive protostar can escape without hindering accretion through the disk and onto the protostar. [4][5] Present thinking is that massive stars may therefore be able to form by a mechanism similar to that by which low mass stars form.

There is mounting evidence that at least some massive protostars are indeed surrounded by accretion disks. Several other theories of massive star formation remain to be tested observationally. Of these, perhaps the most prominent is the theory of competitive accretion, which suggests that massive protostars are "seeded" by low-mass protostars which compete with other protostars to draw in matter from the entire parent molecular cloud, instead of simply from a small local region.[6][7]

Another theory of massive star formation suggests that massive stars may form by the coalescence of two or more stars of lower mass.[8]

See also

Stellar evolution


1. ^ C. Hayashi (1961). "Stellar evolution in early phases of gravitational contraction". Publications of the Astronomical Society of Japan 13: 450-452. 
2. ^ L. G. Henyey, R. Lelevier, R. D. Levée (1955). "The Early Phases of Stellar Evolution". Publications of the Astronomical Society of the Pacific 67 (396): 154. 
3. ^ M. G. Wolfire, J. P. Cassinelli (1987). "Conditions for the formation of massive stars". Astrophysical Journal 319 (1): 850-867. 
4. ^ C. F. McKee, J. C. Tan (2002). "Massive star formation in 100,000 years from turbulent and pressurized molecular clouds". Nature 416 (6876): 59-61. 
5. ^ R. Banerjee, R. E. Pudritz (2007). "Massive star formation via high accretion rates and early disk-driven outflows". Astrophysical Journal 660 (1): 479-488. 
6. ^ I. A. Bonnell, M. R. Bate, C. J. Clarke, J. E. Pringle (1997). "Accretion and the stellar mass spectrum in small clusters". Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society 285 (1): 201-208. 
7. ^ I. A. Bonnell, M. R. Bate (2006). "Star formation through gravitational collapse and competitive accretion". Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society 370 (1): 488-494. 
8. ^ I. A. Bonnell, M. R. Bate, H. Zinnecker (1998). "On the formation of massive stars". Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society 298 (1): 93-102. 
9. Star Formation. By Jon A Covey, BA, MT(ASCP). Edited by Anita K. Millen, MD, MPH, MA. [5]].

Astronomy Encyclopedia

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