ALMA Catches Stellar Cocoon with Curious Chemistry


This artist’s impression shows the molecules found in a hot molecular core in the Large Magellanic Cloud using ALMA. This core is the first such object to be found outside the Milky Way, and it has significantly different chemical makeup to those found in our own galaxy.Credit: FRIS/Tohoku University: The figure is a derivative work based on material from the following sources: ESO/M. Kornmesser; NASA, ESA, and S. Beckwith (STScI) and the HUDF Team; NASA/ESA and the Hubble Heritage Team (AURA/STScI)/HEI.

The first of its kind to be found outside the Milky Way

A team of Japanese researchers have used the power of the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA) to observe a massive star known as ST11 [1] in our neighbouring dwarf galaxy, the Large Magellanic Cloud (LMC). Emission from a number of molecular gases was detected. These indicated that the team had discovered a concentrated region of comparatively hot and dense molecular gas around the newly ignited star ST11. This was evidence that they had found something never before seen outside of the Milky Way — a hot molecular core [2].

Takashi Shimonishi, an astronomer at Tohoku University, Japan, and the paper’s lead author enthused: “This is the first detection of an extragalactic hot molecular core, and it demonstrates the great capability of new generation telescopes to study astrochemical phenomena beyond the Milky Way.”

The ALMA observations revealed that this newly discovered core in the LMC has a very different composition to similar objects found in the Milky Way. The most prominent chemical signatures in the LMC core include familiar molecules such as sulfur dioxide, nitric oxide, and formaldehyde — alongside the ubiquitous dust. But several organic compounds, including methanol (the simplest alcohol molecule), had remarkably low abundance in the newly detected hot molecular core. In contrast, cores in the Milky Way have been observed to contain a wide assortment of complex organic molecules, including methanol and ethanol.

Takashi Shimonishi explains: “The observations suggest that the molecular compositions of materials that form stars and planets are much more diverse than we expected.”

The LMC has a low abundance of elements other than hydrogen or helium [3]. The research team suggests that this very different galactic environment has affected the molecule-forming processes taking place surrounding the newborn star ST11. This could account for the observed differences in chemical compositions.

It is not yet clear if the large, complex molecules detected in the Milky Way exist in hot molecular cores in other galaxies. Complex organic molecules are of very special interest because some are connected to prebiotic molecules formed in space. This newly discovered object in one of our nearest galactic neighbours is an excellent target to help astronomers address this issue. It also raises another question: how could the chemical diversity of galaxies affect the development of extragalactic life?


[1] ST11’s full name is 2MASS J05264658-6848469. This catchily-named young massive star is defined as a Young Stellar Object. Although it currently appears to be a single star, it is possible that it will prove to be a tight cluster of stars, or possibly a multiple star system. It was the target of the science team’s observations and their results led them to realise that ST11 is enveloped by a hot molecular core.

[2] Hot molecular cores must be: (relatively) small, with a diameter of less than 0.3 light-years; have a density over a thousand billion (1012) molecules per cubic metre (far lower than the Earth’s atmosphere, but high for an interstellar environment); warm in temperature, at over -173 degrees Celsius. This makes them at least 80 degrees Celsius warmer than a standard molecular cloud, despite being of similar density. These hot cores form early on in the evolution of massive stars and they play a key role in the formation of complex chemicals in space.

[3] The nuclear fusion reactions that take place when a star has stopped fusing hydrogen to helium generate heavier elements. These heavier elements get blasted into space when massive dying stars explode as supernovae. Therefore, as our Universe has aged, the abundance of heavier elements has increased. Thanks to its low abundance of heavier elements, the LMC provides insight into the chemical processes that were taking place in the earlier Universe.


Source: European Southern Observatory – ESO

Research References:

  1. Takashi Shimonishi, Takashi Onaka, Akiko Kawamura, Yuri Aikawa. THE DETECTION OF A HOT MOLECULAR CORE IN THE LARGE MAGELLANIC CLOUD WITH ALMA. The Astrophysical Journal, 2016; 827 (1): 72 DOI: 10.3847/0004-637X/827/1/72
Posted in Space on September 29, 2016