Where do stars come from? We already know from earlier chapters that stars must die because ultimately they exhaust their nuclear fuel. We might hypothesize that new stars come into existence to replace the ones that die. In order to form new stars, however, we need the raw material to make them. It also turns out that stars eject mass throughout their lives (a kind of wind blows from their surface layers) and that material must go somewhere. What does this “raw material” of stars look like? How would you detect it, especially if it is not yet in the form of stars and cannot generate its own energy?
One of the most exciting discoveries of twentieth-century astronomy was that our Galaxy contains vast quantities of this “raw material”—atoms or molecules of gas and tiny solid dust particles found between the stars. Studying this diffuse matter between the stars helps us understand how new stars form and gives us important clues about our own origins billions of years ago.
- 20.1: The Interstellar Medium
- About 15% of the visible matter in the Galaxy is in the form of gas and dust, serving as the raw material for new stars. About 99% of this interstellar matter is in the form of gas—individual atoms or molecules. The most abundant elements in the interstellar gas are hydrogen and helium. About 1% of the interstellar matter is in the form of solid interstellar dust grains.
- 20.2: Interstellar Gas
- Interstellar gas may be hot or cold. Gas found near hot stars emits light by fluorescence, that is, light is emitted when an electron is captured by an ion and cascades down to lower-energy levels. Most hydrogen in interstellar space is not ionized and can best be studied by radio measurements of the 21-centimeter line. Some of the gas in interstellar space is at a temperature of a million degrees, even though it is far away in hot stars.
- 20.3: Cosmic Dust
- Interstellar dust can be detected: (1) when it blocks the light of stars behind it, (2) when it scatters the light from nearby stars, and (3) because it makes distant stars look both redder and fainter. These effects are called reddening and interstellar extinction, respectively. Dust can also be detected in the infrared because it emits heat radiation. Dust is found throughout the plane of the Milky Way.
- 20.4: Cosmic Rays
- Cosmic rays are particles that travel through interstellar space at a typical speed of 90% of the speed of light. The most abundant elements in cosmic rays are the nuclei of hydrogen and helium, but electrons and positrons are also found. It is likely that many cosmic rays are produced in supernova shocks.
- 20.5: The Life Cycle of Cosmic Material
- Interstellar matter is constantly flowing through the Galaxy and changing from one phase to another. At the same time, gas is constantly being added to the Galaxy by accretion from extragalactic space, while mass is removed from the interstellar medium by being locked in stars. Some of the mass in stars is, in turn, returned to the interstellar medium when those stars evolve and die.
- 20.6: Interstellar Matter around the Sun
- The Sun is located at the edge of a low-density cloud called the Local Fluff. The Sun and this cloud are located within the Local Bubble, a region extending to at least 300 light-years from the Sun, within which the density of interstellar material is extremely low. Astronomers think this bubble was blown by some nearby stars that experienced a strong wind and some supernova explosions.
Thumbnail: This image, taken by the Hubble Space Telescope, shows the young star cluster NGC 3603 interacting with the cloud of gas from which it recently formed. The bright blue stars of the cluster have blown a bubble in the gas cloud. The remains of this cloud can be seen in the lower right part of the frame, glowing in response to the starlight illuminating it. In its darker parts, shielded from the harsh light of NGC 3603, new stars continue to form. Although the stars of NGC 3603 formed only recently, the most massive of them are already dying and ejecting their mass, producing the blue ring and streak features visible in the upper left part of the image. Thus, this image shows the full life cycle of stars, from formation out of interstellar gas, through life on the main sequence, to death and the return of stellar matter to interstellar space. (credit: modification of work by NASA, Wolfgang Brandner (JPL/IPAC), Eva K. Grebel (University of Washington), You-Hua Chu (University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign))
Contributors and Attributions
Andrew Fraknoi (Foothill College), David Morrison (NASA Ames Research Center), Sidney C. Wolff (National Optical Astronomy Observatory) with many contributing authors. Textbook content produced by OpenStax College is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution License 4.0 license. Download for free at https://openstax.org/details/books/astronomy).