Podcaster: Richard Drumm

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Title: UNAWE Space Scoop – Playing Connect-the-dots Around a Baby Star

Organization: 365 Days Of Astronomy

Link : ;

Description: Space scoop, news for children. 

Have you ever played a connect-the-dots game? 

At first, it looks like a mess. But after you start to connect the points, a pattern appears out of the chaos. Recently, astronomers noticed a mysterious spiral pattern hiding around a baby star. But instead of  dots, the pattern was made up by a strange kind of physics phenomenon called masers! 

Bio: Richard Drumm is President of the Charlottesville Astronomical Society and President of 3D – Drumm Digital Design, a video production company with clients such as Kodak, Xerox and GlaxoSmithKline Pharmaceuticals. He was an observer with the UVa Parallax Program at McCormick Observatory in 1981 & 1982. He has found that his greatest passion in life is public outreach astronomy and he pursues it at every opportunity.

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This is the 365 Days of Astronomy Podcast. Today we bring you a new episode in our Space Scoop series. This show is produced in collaboration with Universe Awareness, a program that strives to inspire every child with our wonderful cosmos.

Today’s story is…

Playing Connect-the-dots Around a Baby Star

Have you ever played a connect-the-dots game? 

At first, it looks like a mess. But after you start to connect the points, a pattern appears out of the chaos. 

Recently, astronomers noticed a mysterious spiral pattern hiding around a baby star. 

But instead of  dots, the pattern was made up by a strange kind of physics phenomenon called masers! 

When young stars form, they are surrounded by a so-called protostellar disk made of gas and dust. 

It’s the disk of material that the star is born from.

Google “conservation of angular momentum” and dive down that rabbit hole!

This is one of the most fundamental laws of physics. 

That disk of gas & dust provides a steady flow of matter for the protostar, the baby star at its center, causing it to grow. 

For a massive protostar – more than 8 times as massive than our Sun, the flow of material is not continuous. 

Instead, clumps of material fall onto the baby star only occasionally. 

This releases bursts of energy that heat up the disk as it moves outwards – and produces maser emissions on the way. 

Maser, you say? What’s a maser?

It’s the kissing cousin of the laser, only instead of laser’s Light Amplification by Stimulated Emission of Radiation, it’s microwaves that are amplified.

Devices that emit from infrared up to X-rays & gamma rays are called lasers, and those that emit in microwaves and lower into the radio wavelengths are called masers.

In astrophysics there are several kinds of masers. They come from various molecules.

Some of the types of molecules are water, methanol, formaldehyde and silicon monoxide.

The maser that our star-of-the-show today has is a methanol maser.

But how do these gas clouds & stars emit maser beams?

What’s really happening inside the atoms & molecules of lasers & masers?

I wish I had time to answer those questions, really I do. 

To really answer them I’d have to write a couple of hour-long episodes. Probably interview some experts.

AFTER I took a physics course at my nearest University.

But for now, go to Wikipedia & do a search for maser, then follow the link there to astrophysical maser and enjoy!

Where was I? I keep going down rabbit holes. 

Deep, deep rabbit holes.

Oh yeah, clumps of matter falling on a baby star, releasing bursts of energy.

Astronomers call these short bursts of energy release, episodic bursts of growth. 

Using VLBI, the Very Long Baseline Interferometry technique, an international team of astronomers at NAOJ, the National Astronomical Observatory of Japan, studied the high-mass protostar G358-MM1 in great detail. 

By connecting the regions that fired a maser emission the researchers could map out the surface of the protostellar disk in that evolving stellar system. 

This new technique is called “heat-wave mapping”. 

Clumps of matter fall onto the baby star, it releases a burst of energy, and this heats the inner part of the disk and this excites the gas to become a maser.

That’s the stimulation in the “stimulated emission of radiation” that is the maser.

The heat from the outburst migrates outward in a wave from the baby star into the disk surrounding it.

However, the surprise doesn’t end here!

As it turns out, this particular baby star doesn’t just have a simple disk around it! 

It has a rotating disk shaped like a spiral, like an octopus – only instead of 8 arms, the disk has 4. 

A quadropus? Hmmm…


Astronomers think that a spiral pattern is a telltale sign of disturbances or “instabilities” in the disk due to gravity. 

This is usually the case where there is formation of massive stars going on.

This discovery also connects spiral arm instabilities to the episodic growth bursts – a key factor for how high-mass stars form. 

To help with the further investigation, astronomers will now start looking for other baby stars with masers around them. 

Maybe they’ll find another spiral. Or something entirely unexpected!

Hey, here’s a cool fact!

The maser was actually invented 7 years before the laser. 

And the laser was first called an Optical Maser.

The term “laser” was coined by a Columbia University grad student named Gordon Gould in November 1957. 

In 1959 he published a paper titled “The LASER, Light Amplification by Stimulated Emission of Radiation” at a conference in Ann Arbor, Michigan.

But he wanted X-ray lasers to be called XASERs and ultraviolet ones to be UVASERs but the idea never took hold.

There was also a push for a while for radio wave masers to be called RASERs.

Just as well, I suppose. Let’s leave it at lasers & masers, Ok?

Thank you for listening to the 365 Days of Astronomy Podcast!

365 Days of Astronomy

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