by Andrew Fazekas
June 13, 2011
A star is born:
Swirling gas and dust
fall inward, spurring polar jets,
shown in blue in this
Illustration courtesy NASA/Caltech
Seven hundred and fifty light-years from
Earth, a young, sunlike star has been found with jets that blast
epic quantities of water into interstellar space, shooting out
droplets that move faster than a speeding bullet.
The discovery suggests that protostars may be seeding the universe
These stellar embryos shoot jets of
material from their north and south poles as their growth is fed by
infalling dust that circles the bodies in vast disks.
"If we picture these jets as giant
hoses and the water droplets as bullets, the amount shooting out
equals a hundred million times the water flowing through the
Amazon River every second,"
Lars Kristensen, a postdoctoral astronomer at Leiden
University in the Netherlands.
"We are talking about velocities reaching 200,000 kilometers
[124,000 miles] per hour, which is about 80 times faster than
bullets flying out of a machine gun," said Kristensen, lead
author of the new study detailing the discovery, which has been
accepted for publication in the journal Astronomy &
Water Vanishes, Only
Located in the northern
constellation Perseus, the
protostar is no more than a hundred thousand years old and remains
swaddled in a large cloud - gas and dust from which the star was
Using an infrared instrument on the European Space Agency's
Herschel Space Observatory, researchers were able to peer
through the cloud and detect telltale light signatures of hydrogen
and oxygen atoms - the building blocks of water - moving on and
around the star.
After tracing the paths of these atoms, the team concluded that
water forms on the star, where temperatures are a few thousand
But once the droplets enter the
outward-spewing jets of gas, 180,000-degree-Fahrenheit
(100,000-degree-Celsius) temperatures blast the water back into
Once the hot gases hit the much cooler surrounding material - at
about 5,000 times the distance from the sun to Earth - they
decelerate, creating a shock front where the gases cool down
rapidly, condense, and reform as water, Kristensen said.
Sprinkler Nourishes Galactic "Garden"
What's really exciting about the discovery is that it appears to be
a stellar rite of passage, the researchers say, which may shed new
light on the earliest stages of our own sun's life - and how water
fits into that picture.
"We are only now beginning to
understand that sunlike stars probably all undergo a very
energetic phase when they are young," Kristensen said. "It's at
this point in their lives when they spew out a lot of
high-velocity material - part of which we now know is water."
Like a celestial sprinkler system, the
star may be enriching the interstellar medium - thin gases that
float in the voids between stars.
And because the hydrogen and oxygen in
water are key components of the dusty disks in which stars form,
protostar sprinklers may be
encouraging the growth of further stars, the study says.
The water-jet phenomenon seen in Perseus is,
"probably a short-lived phase all
protostars go through," Kristensen said.
"But if we have enough of these sprinklers going off throughout
the galaxy - this starts to become interesting on many levels."