In 1936, the young star FU Orionis began gobbling material from its surrounding disk of gas and dust with a sudden voraciousness. During a three-month binge, as matter turned into energy, the star became 100 times brighter, heating the disk around it to temperatures of up to 12,000 degrees Fahrenheit (7,000 Kelvin). FU Orionis is still devouring gas to this day, although not as quickly.
This brightening is the most extreme event of its kind that has been confirmed around a star the size of the sun, and may have implications for how stars and planets form. The intense baking of the star’s surrounding disk likely changed its chemistry, permanently altering material that could one day turn into planets.
“By studying FU Orionis, we’re seeing the absolute baby years of a solar system,” said Joel Green, a project scientist at the Space Telescope Science Institute, Baltimore, Maryland. “Our own sun may have gone through a similar brightening, which would have been a crucial step in the formation of Earth and other planets in our solar system.”
Visible light observations of FU Orionis, which is about 1,500 light-years away from Earth in the constellation Orion, have shown astronomers that the star’s extreme brightness began slowly fading after its initial 1936 burst. But Green and colleagues wanted to know more about the relationship between the star and surrounding disk. Is the star still gorging on it? Is its composition changing? When will the star’s brightness return to pre-outburst levels?
To answer these questions, scientists needed to observe the star’s brightness at infrared wavelengths, which are longer than the human eye can see and provide temperature measurements.
Green and his team compared infrared data obtained in 2016 using the Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy, SOFIA, to observations made with NASA’s Spitzer Space Telescope in 2004. SOFIA, the world’s largest airborne observatory, is jointly operated by NASA and the German Aerospace Center and provides observations at wavelengths no longer attainable by Spitzer. The SOFIA data were taken using the FORCAST instrument (Faint Object infrared Camera for the SOFIA Telescope).
“By combining data from the two telescopes collected over a 12-year interval, we were able to gain a unique perspective on the star’s behavior over time,” Green said. He presented the results at the American Astronomical Society meeting in San Diego, this week.
Using these infrared observations and other historical data, researchers found that FU Orionis had continued its ravenous snacking after the initial brightening event: The star has eaten the equivalent of 18 Jupiters in the last 80 years.
The recent measurements provided by SOFIA inform researchers that the total amount of visible and infrared light energy coming out of the FU Orionis system decreased by about 13 percent over the 12 years since the Spitzer observations. Researchers determined that this decrease is caused by dimming of the star at short infrared wavelengths, but not at longer wavelengths. That means up to 13 percent of the hottest material of the disk has disappeared, while colder material has stayed intact.
“A decrease in the hottest gas means that the star is eating the innermost part of the disk, but the rest of the disk has essentially not changed in the last 12 years,” Green said. “This result is consistent with computer models, but for the first time we are able to confirm the theory with observations.”
Astronomers predict, partly based on the new results, that FU Orionis will run out of hot material to nosh on within the next few hundred years. At that point, the star will return to the state it was in before the dramatic 1936 brightening event. Scientists are unsure what the star was like before or what set off the feeding frenzy.
“The material falling into the star is like water from a hose that’s slowly being pinched off,” Green said. “Eventually the water will stop.”
If our sun had a brightening event like FU Orionis did in 1936, this could explain why certain elements are more abundant on Mars than on Earth. A sudden 100-fold brightening would have altered the chemical composition of material close to the star, but not as much farther from it. Because Mars formed farther from the sun, its component material would not have been heated up as much as Earth’s was.
At a few hundred thousand years old, FU Orionis is a toddler in the typical lifespan of a star. The 80 years of brightening and fading since 1936 represent only a tiny fraction of the star’s life so far, but these changes happened to occur at a time when astronomers could observe.
“It’s amazing that an entire protoplanetary disk can change on such a short timescale, within a human lifetime,” said Luisa Rebull, study co-author and research scientist at the Infrared Processing and Analysis Center (IPAC), based at Caltech, Pasadena, California.
Green plans to gain more insight into the FU Orionis feeding phenomenon with NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope, which will launch in 2018. SOFIA has mid-infrared high-resolution spectrometers and far-infrared science instrumentation that complement Webb’s planned near- and mid-infrared capabilities. Spitzer is expected to continue exploring the universe in infrared light, and enabling groundbreaking scientific investigations, into early 2019.
NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, California, manages the Spitzer Space Telescope mission for NASA. Science operations are conducted at the Spitzer Science Center at Caltech. Spacecraft operations are based at Lockheed Martin Space Systems Company, Littleton, Colorado. Data are archived at the Infrared Science Archive housed at IPAC at Caltech. Caltech manages JPL for NASA.
SOFIA is a joint project of NASA and the German Aerospace Center (DLR). The aircraft is based at NASA Armstrong Flight Research Center’s facility in Palmdale, California. NASA’s Ames Research Center in Moffett Field, California, manages the SOFIA science and mission operations in cooperation with the Universities Space Research Association (USRA) headquartered in Columbia, Maryland, and the German SOFIA Institute (DSI) at the University of Stuttgart.
Story written by George McGinn
Cosmology and Space Exploration News
Want to become an astronaut to visit Mars?
Today, NASA put out a press release with information on how to apply to become an astronaut for the future manned flight to Mars.
Normally these just go into the page for Media Releases. But this is a good time to tell you that I have created a new page called:
below is the beginning of the press release. The link after it takes you to our new Media page.
While many options such as asking questions and getting access to their teleconference systems, with most press releases, if a meeting or a panel is conviened, NASA will allow the public to view it live either on its website or on NASA TV.
Each press release has all the information you need to watch and listen to the questions the press ask and the respones they get.
This page is also available and lists below it with “–” showing the releases available. Click on the 3 lines in the upper right corner to see all the pages we have and to access all the press releases we get.
Here is the first two paragraph of the press release asking for applications to anyone who thinks they can become an astronaut. Good luck to anyone applying.
“In anticipation of returning human spaceflight launches to American soil, and in preparation for the agency’s journey to Mars, NASA announced it will soon begin accepting applications for the next class of astronaut candidates. With more human spacecraft in development in the United States today than at any other time in history, future astronauts will launch once again from the Space Coast of Florida on American-made commercial spacecraft, and carry out deep-space exploration missions that will advance a future human mission to Mars.
The agency will accept applications from Dec. 14 through mid-February and expects to announce candidates selected in mid-2017. Applications for consideration as a NASA Astronaut will be accepted at…”
Using NASA’s Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy (SOFIA), an international scientific team discovered that supernovae are capable of producing a substantial amount of the material from which planets like Earth can form.
These findings are published in the March 19 online issue of Science magazine.
“Our observations reveal a particular cloud produced by a supernova explosion 10,000 years ago contains enough dust to make 7,000 Earths,” said Ryan Lau of Cornell University in Ithaca, New York.
The research team, headed by Lau, used SOFIA’s airborne telescope and the Faint Object InfraRed Camera for the SOFIA Telescope, FORCAST, to take detailed infrared images of an interstellar dust cloud known as Supernova Remnant Sagittarius A East, or SNR Sgr A East.
Supernova remnant dust detected by SOFIA (yellow) survives away from the hottest X-ray gas (purple). The red ellipse outlines the supernova shock wave. The inset shows a magnified image of the dust (orange) and gas emission (cyan).
Image Credit: NASA/CXO/Lau et al
The team used SOFIA data to estimate the total mass of dust in the cloud from the intensity of its emission. The investigation required measurements at long infrared wavelengths in order to peer through intervening interstellar clouds and detect the radiation emitted by the supernova dust.
Astronomers already had evidence that a supernova’s outward-moving shock wave can produce significant amounts of dust. Until now, a key question was whether the new soot- and sand-like dust particles would survive the subsequent inward “rebound” shock wave generated when the first, outward-moving shock wave collides with surrounding interstellar gas and dust.
“The dust survived the later onslaught of shock waves from the supernova explosion, and is now flowing into the interstellar medium where it can become part of the ‘seed material’ for new stars and planets,” Lau explained.
These results also reveal the possibility that the vast amount of dust observed in distant young galaxies may have been made by supernova explosions of early massive stars, as no other known mechanism could have produced nearly as much dust.
“This discovery is a special feather in the cap for SOFIA, demonstrating how observations made within our own Milky Way galaxy can bear directly on our understanding of the evolution of galaxies billions of light years away,” said Pamela Marcum, a SOFIA project scientist at Ames Research Center in Moffett Field, California.
SOFIA is a heavily modified Boeing 747 Special Performance jetliner that carries a telescope with an effective diameter of 100 inches (2.5 meters) at altitudes of 39,000 to 45,000 feet (12 to 14 km). SOFIA is a joint project of NASA and the German Aerospace Center. The aircraft observatory is based at NASA’s Armstrong Flight Research Center facility in Palmdale, California. The agency’s Ames Research Center in Moffett Field, California, is home to the SOFIA Science Center, which is managed by NASA in cooperation with the Universities Space Research Association in Columbia, Maryland, and the German SOFIA Institute at the University of Stuttgart.