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Space Tornado
Physicists Spot Interstellar Shock Wave Using Spitzer Telescope
May 1, 2006 The spirals of a "space tornado" may be the first step in the formation of a new star. The structure, observed with NASA's Spitzer infrared telescope, is a shock wave created by a jet of material slamming on a cloud of interstellar gas and dust at more than 100 miles per second, heating the cloud and causing it to glow. Physicists say the jet may have been generated by magnetic fields.

CAMBRIDGE, Mass.--They can be destructive and deadly, and they're not just something that happens here on earth! Tornadoes are the most erratic, unpredictable and violent of storms, and now scientists are finding out they happen in the most unusual places!

Physicist Giovanni Fazio has spotted tornadoes in space. With the help of his infrared camera on board NASA's Spitzer Space Telescope, astronomers discovered what looked like a tornado in space.

"I was responsible for building one of the cameras on board there that took this picture of the tornado," Fazio, of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics in Cambridge, Mass., tells DBIS. "We were quite surprised when I saw it. I never saw anything like this before in my life."

The surprise turned out to be a shock-wave created by a jet of material flowing through a vast cloud of interstellar gas and dust. The jet slammed into neighboring dust clouds at more than 100 miles per second, heating the dust and causing it to glow.

"When stars form, they form from the collapse of a cloud of gas and dust. And in the process of the gas and dust falling in, it doesn't fall directly in -- it sort of spirals in slowly," Fazio says.

He adds understanding a star's formation may someday help astronomers understand the formation of our galaxy. "How did we get here, and where are we going? That's what we are trying to understand."

So while tornados on earth can be destructive, tornadoes in space could reveal the mysteries of the universe.

Astronomers say they can only speculate about the source of the spiraling jet. One explanation? Magnetic fields throughout the region might have shaped the tornado-like object.

BACKGROUND: Using NASA's Spitzer Space Telescope, astronomers have discovered a cosmic jet that looks like a giant tornado whirling in space. The "tornado" is actually a shock wave created by a jet of material flowing through a vast cloud of interstellar gas and dust. The jet slams into neighboring dust clouds at a speed of more than 100 miles per second, heating the dust so that it glows with infrared light. The Spitzer telescope detects that light.

WHAT ARE COSMIC JETS: Astronomers believe that cosmic jets form when a massive object, such as a neutron star or black hole, draws in matter, which forms a whirling "accretion disk" around the object. Friction within the disk can heat it to very high temperatures, so that excess energy is vented by ejecting subatomic particles from the poles of the disk at speeds approaching that of light. Scientists believe the jets start out fairly broad and then narrow into a funnel because of the strong magnetic field lines, which rotate and accelerate the jet of particles.

ABOUT THE SPITZER TELESCOPE: The Spitzer Space Telescope was launched on 25 August 2003. Spitzer detects the infrared energy radiated by objects in space. Most of this infrared radiation is blocked by the Earth's atmosphere and cannot be observed from the ground. Spitzer allows us to peer into regions of space that are hidden from optical telescopes. Many areas of space are filled with vast, dense clouds of gas and dust that block our view. Infrared light, however can penetrate these clouds, allowing us to peer into regions of star formation, the centers of galaxies, and into newly forming planetary systems. Infrared also brings us information about the cooler objects in space, such as smaller stars which are too dim to be detected by their visible light, extrasolar planets, and giant molecular clouds. Also, many molecules in space, including organic molecules, have their unique signatures in the infrared.

The American Astronomical Society contributed to the information contained in the TV portion of this report.


Note: This story and accompanying video were originally produced for the American Institute of Physics series Discoveries and Breakthroughs in Science by Ivanhoe Broadcast News and are protected by copyright law. All rights reserved.

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