Physicist Giovanni Fazio and astronomers at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics have spotted what appear to be tornadoes in space. Fazio believes the spirals may be the first step in the formation of a new star. The structure, observed with NASA's Spitzer infrared telescope developed by Fazio, 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 field.
"I was responsible for building one of the cameras on board there that took this picture of the tornado," Fazio, told reporters. "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.
Fazio added that 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."
Fazio's efforts as principal investigator was key to the successful development of the Infrared Array Camera (IRAC), one of three instruments on board the Spitzer Space Telescope.
"We faced 20 years of challenges in developing IRAC," said Fazio. "Now that effort is paying off. We're producing spectacular images and new discoveries regularly."
IRAC takes images of celestial objects at near- and mid-infrared wavelengths with over 10 to 100 times the sensitivity, and with better clarity, than any previous infrared space mission. IRAC has revealed wondrous sights from seething realms of star formation to dramatic dust rings within nearby spiral galaxies. Its images rival those of the Hubble Space Telescope for beauty while also providing a wealth of scientific information.
Astronomers expect Spitzer and its instruments to function for at least five years, until its supply of liquid helium coolant is exhausted. Researchers will spend many more years analyzing the flood of data from Spitzer.
"I think there will be more surprises to come from IRAC," said Fazio. "I predict that the most exciting things we'll see are the unpredicted - things we never would have expected."
Posted by Casey Kazan.