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Interstellar Medium and Star and Planet Formation

All stars and planets, throughout the history of the universe, are formed from gas and dust. This gas and dust are ubiquitous in galaxies and known as interstellar matter (ISM). At the densest locations star and planet formation (SPF) occurs.  The gas comprises atomic hydrogen and helium, as well as molecules like carbon-monoxide, water, methane, and many more. The dust consists of small silicate particles ("sand") and carbonaceous material ("soot"), and forms the material from which planets like Earth are formed.

The horsehead nebula is a dark cloud of dust and gas. When clouds like this get dense enough they will start forming stars. Image Credit: NASA, ESA, and The Hubble Heritage Team
The horsehead nebula is a dark cloud of dust and gas. When clouds like this get dense enough they will start forming stars. Image Credit: NASA, ESA, and The Hubble Heritage Team

Interstellar matter is part of the life and death cycle of stars. At the end of a star’s existence, stars expel gas back into their surroundings in either a giant ‘Supernova’ explosion, a planetary nebula or via stellar winds, and eventually this gas is recycled in a new generation of stars. Supernovae, stellar winds, photons from massive stars, galactic jets, AGN and cosmic rays cause the ISM to experience wide ranges in temperature, density and elemental abundance. As such, interstellar matter forms an integral part of the evolution of galaxies.

The Kapteyn Institute has developed a strong profile in research on the interstellar medium and the formation of stars. More recently, this research line expanded to include planet formation, a hot topic thanks to the discovery of thousands of exoplanets. Some of the key questions that drive current research at Kapteyn in the area of ISM/SPF include:

  • What is the origin of the diversity of stellar masses?
  • How do young stars affect their surroundings and influence future star formation?
  • What is the organic and water content of planet-forming disks?
  • What are the properties of the first stars in the universe?
  • How do dust grains influence the chemical composition of interstellar matter?

Some of the projects, programs and instruments in galaxy research in which the institute is involved:

  • Physics and chemistry of the ISM in our Milky Way and nearby galaxies, using Herschel and ALMA
  • Formation of the first stars and the origin of the stellar mass distribution
  • Herschel and ALMA studies of the chemistry of planet-forming disks
  • Physical structure of high-mass star-forming regions and dense, warm terrestrial-planet-forming regions
  • Chemical processes in interstellar clouds probed by laboratory experiments with the Zernike Institute for Advanced Materials top research school at the University of Groningen.
The Crab nebula is a remnant of a supernova which exploded in 1084. The supernova injected large quantities of energy as well as heave elements into the ISM. The shock waves can trigger star formation and the heavy elements enrich the gas from which future stars are made. Image Credit: NASA, ESA, J. Hester and A. Loll
The Crab nebula is a remnant of a supernova which exploded in 1084. The supernova injected large quantities of energy as well as heave elements into the ISM. The shock waves can trigger star formation and the heavy elements enrich the gas from which future stars are made. Image Credit: NASA, ESA, J. Hester and A. Loll
ALMA is thought to observe planet formation directly around this young star called HL Tau. The concentric rings around the star suggest that planets have swept their orbits clean of dust. Image credit: ALMA, C. Brogan and B. Saxton.
ALMA is thought to observe planet formation directly around this young star called HL Tau. The concentric rings around the star suggest that planets have swept their orbits clean of dust. Image credit: ALMA, C. Brogan and B. Saxton.

The future scientific questions which are at the focus of research at Kapteyn are

  • How are the compositions of proto-planetary disks tied to those of observed exoplanets?
  • Which processes determine the delivery of water and organicmaterial from disks to planets?
  • What are the main interstellar matter reservoirs of galaxies?
  • How do the ISM properties of galaxies determine their star formation rates?

Kapteyn staff have leading roles in the observing program on NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope (to be launched in 2018), in on-going ALMA development efforts, in APEX/SEPIA, and in the definition of the SAFARI spectrograph for SPICA, the next-generation far-infrared telescope (launch goal 2028).

Scientific staff working in this field are: Baryshev, Helmich, Kamp, Shipman, Spaans, van der Tak

Laatst gewijzigd:27 september 2016 15:05