Magnetic fields play a key role new star formation.
ScienceDaily — Astronomers at the Max Planck Institute for Astronomy have, for the first time, measured the alignment of magnetic fields in gigantic clouds of gas and dust in a distant galaxy. Their results suggest that such magnetic fields play a key role in channeling matter to form denser clouds, and thus in setting the stage for the birth of new stars.
The work is being published in the journal Nature.
Stars and their planets are born when giant clouds of interstellar gas and dust collapse. You've probably seen the resulting stellar nurseries in beautiful astronomical images: Colorful nebulae, lit by the bright young stars they have brought forth.
Astronomers know quite a bit about these so-called molecular clouds: They consist mainly of hydrogen molecules -- unusual in a cosmos where conditions are rarely right for hydrogen atoms to bond together into molecules. And if one traces the distribution of clouds in a spiral galaxy like our own Milky Way galaxy, one finds that they are lined up along the spiral arms.
But how do those clouds come into being? What makes matter congregate in regions a hundred or even a thousand times more dense than the surrounding interstellar gas?
One candidate mechanism involves the galaxy's magnetic fields. Everyone who has seen a magnet act on iron filings in the classic classroom experiment knows that magnetic fields can be used to impose order. Some researchers have argued that something similar goes on in the case of molecular clouds: that galaxies' magnetic fields guide and direct the condensation of interstellar matter to form denser clouds and facilitate their further collapse.