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Astronomy from the Stratosphere: New Research by CIERA Postdoc Fabio Santos

Understanding how stars and planets are created is one of the main challenges of modern astronomy. The study of stellar birth is one of the key science goals for HAWC+, a new camera operating on the SOFIA airborne observatory (NASA/DLR). HAWC+ was designed to study the oscillation pattern of infrared light waves, a property known as polarization. This property can be used to map with a great level of detail the magnetic fields across large clouds of dust and gas which are the birthplaces of stars and planets. Magnetic fields are a crucial piece of the puzzle because the field strength and geometry can affect how quickly new stars and planets are formed, as well as determining the stellar masses and the architectures of the corresponding planetary systems.

In new research by CIERA Postoctoral Fellow Fabio Santos, he investigated Rho Ophiuchi, one of the closest stellar nurseries to our Solar System – only about 420 light-years away. The image above shows a detailed view of the magnetic field geometry in the central parts of the cloud. For the first time, Santos and his collaborators observed systematic variations across the cloud of the polarization as a function of infrared wavelengths, a property known as the polarization spectrum. These variations are in agreement with a model known as Radiative Torques, or RATs, that explains how dust particles become magnetically aligned within interstellar clouds. Testing such models is critical for understanding the role of magnetic fields in star formation.

Northwestern Professor Giles Novak explains, “SOFIA polarimetry is opening completely new windows on the universe – windows that Fabio and his collaborators are exploiting to probe the physics of magnetic grain alignment with fundamental implications for star formation studies.”

Tune in at minute 15:18 of the AAS press conference video for Fabio Santos.
After following link, click on “Press Conference: Astronomy from the Stratosphere (Tuesday, 9 January, 10:15 am EST)”

Read the BBC News article, “Flying telescope yields insights into birth of stars” by Paul Rincon.

Additional Coverage by:
NASA, “Astronomy from the Stratosphere: Results from NASA’s SOFIA Airborne Telescope“.
Astronomy, “The 231st Meeting of the American Astronomical Society: Day 1” by Allison Klesman.