ALMA Catches Curious Chemistry in an Extragalactic Stellar Cocoon


29 September, 2016

Scientific Paper ALMA Kids Publication

A hot and dense mass of complex molecules, cocooning a newborn star, has been discovered by a Japanese team of astronomers using the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA). This unique hot molecular core is the first of its kind to have been detected outside the Milky Way galaxy. It has a very different chemical composition from similar objects in our own galaxy — a tantalizing hint that the chemistry taking place across the Universe could be much more diverse than expected.

A team of Japanese researchers have used the power of ALMA to observe a massive star known as ST111 in our neighboring 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 seen before outside of the Milky Way — a hot molecular core2.

Takashi Shimonishi, an astronomer at Tohoku University, Japan, and the paper’s lead author says 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.”


Fig.1 Artist’s concept image of the hot molecular core discovered in the Large Magellanic Cloud. Credit: FRIS/Tohoku University. The figure is a derivative work of 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) | Download image

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 chemical compositions of materials that form stars and planets are much more diverse than we expected.”


Fig.2 Left: Distributions of molecular line emission from a hot molecular core in the Large Magellanic Cloud observed with ALMA. Emissions from dust, sulfur dioxide (SO2), nitric oxide (NO), and formaldehyde (H2CO) are shown as examples. Right: An infrared image of the surrounding star-forming region (based on the 8 micron data provided by the NASA/Spitzer Space Telescope). Credit: T. Shimonishi/Tohoku University, ALMA (ESO/NAOJ/NRAO) | Download image

The LMC has a low abundance of elements other than hydrogen or helium3. 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 neighbors 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?

Additional information

This research was presented in a paper published in the Astrophysical Journal on August 9, 2016, entitled The Detection of a Hot Molecular Core in the Large Magellanic Cloud with ALMA.

The team is composed of Takashi Shimonishi (Frontier Research Institute for Interdisciplinary Sciences & Astronomical Institute, Tohoku University, Japan), Takashi Onaka (Department of Astronomy, The University of Tokyo, Japan), Akiko Kawamura (National Astronomical Observatory of Japan, Japan) and Yuri Aikawa (Center for Computational Sciences, The University of Tsukuba, Japan)

The Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA), an international astronomy facility, is a partnership of the European Organisation for Astronomical Research in the Southern Hemisphere (ESO), the U.S. National Science Foundation (NSF) and the National Institutes of Natural Sciences (NINS) of Japan in cooperation with the Republic of Chile. ALMA is funded by ESO on behalf of its Member States, by NSF in cooperation with the National Research Council of Canada (NRC) and the National Science Council of Taiwan (NSC) and by NINS in cooperation with the Academia Sinica (AS) in Taiwan and the Korea Astronomy and Space Science Institute (KASI).

ALMA construction and operations are led by ESO on behalf of its Member States; by the National Radio Astronomy Observatory (NRAO), managed by Associated Universities, Inc. (AUI), on behalf of North America; and by the National Astronomical Observatory of Japan (NAOJ) on behalf of East Asia. The Joint ALMA Observatory (JAO) provides the unified leadership and management of the construction, commissioning and operation of ALMA.

  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 realize that ST11 is enveloped by a hot molecular core.
  2. Hot molecular cores must be: (relatively) small, with a diameter of less than half a light-year; have a density over a hundred billion molecules per cubic meter (far lower than on Earth, 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.