Astronomers have glimpsed what could be the youngest known star at the very moment it is being born. Not yet fully developed into a true star, the object is in the earliest stages of star formation and has just begun pulling in matter from a surrounding envelope of gas and dust.
Scientists found the object using the Submillimeter Array in Hawaii and the Spitzer Space Telescope. Known as L1448-IRS2E, it’s located in the Perseus star-forming region about 800 light-years away in our Milky Way Galaxy.
Stars form out of large, cold, dense regions of gas and dust called molecular clouds that exist throughout the galaxy. Astronomers think L1448-IRS2E is in between the prestellar phase, a particularly dense region of a molecular cloud first begins to clump together, and the protostar phase, when gravity has pulled enough material together to form a dense, hot core out of the surrounding envelope.
“It’s very difficult to detect objects in this phase of star formation because they are very short-lived and they emit very little light,” said Xuepeng Chen at Yale University, New Haven, Connecticut. The team detected the faint light emitted by the dust surrounding the object.
Most protostars are between 1 to 10 times as luminous as the Sun, with large dust envelopes that glow at infrared wavelengths. Because L1448-IRS2E is less than one-tenth as luminous as the Sun, the team believes the object is too dim to be considered a true protostar. Yet, they also discovered that the object is ejecting streams of high-velocity gas from its center, confirming that some sort of preliminary mass has already formed, and the object has developed beyond the prestellar phase. This kind of outflow is seen in protostars — as a result of the magnetic field surrounding the forming star — but has not been seen at such an early stage until now.
The team hopes to use the new Herschel space telescope to look for more of these objects caught between the earliest stages of star formation so they can better understand how stars grow and evolve. “Stars are defined by their mass, but we still don’t know at what stage of the formation process a star acquires most of its mass,” said Hector Arce at Yale University. “This is one of the big questions driving our work.”