Cosmic Dust Discs Found To Withstand Extreme Heat

There is much that is enigmatic about the center of our Milky Way, and astronomers based at the University of Bonn have discovered yet another mystery. Focusing the European Southern Observatory’s (ESO) Very Large Telescope (VLT) in the Chilean Atacama desert at specific areas towards the center of our galaxy, the team discovered large clusters of celestial dust and gas, each centering on a massive central star. This is mysterious precisely because the data goes against accepted theories as to the relationship between very large, very hot stars and the gas and dust nearby.

“In such a hostile environment, we did not expect to find any circumstellar discs after more than a few hundred thousand years, and yet we found more than 20 discs in each cluster at ages of a few million years,” says Dr. Stolte who led the investigation – the implication being that the discs should have burned out long, long ago. Because of the intense heat of the stars, it was put forth that said gas and dust particles should have vaporized. The group has come up with a number of competing theories, two of which stand out.

The two possibilities are thus: either the rotating discs of gas are unusually resistant to the heat, or they are being fed by a behind the scenes somebody, periodically recharged as they are continually diminished.

The group at Bonn, along with input from individuals at the University of Heidelberg, Max-Planck-Institute for Astronomy and various United States colleagues, have put forth the latter as the most likely possibility.

Twin star systems may be the answer. When there are two stars, the more massive star tends to give off astronomical fuel to its’ smaller twin, which may in turn help to keep those discs of dust around. But the group has not finalized anything yet. Super heat resistant gas is too tantalizing a possibility to pass up, and the researchers are not crossing it off the list yet.

The large problems lies in the fact that we just don’t know that much about star formation. Happily, the center of the Milky Way provides a rich source of data, of which we can only learn more and more.

You can read the full article in the most recent copy of Astronomy & Astrophysics.