Two theoretical physicists at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute described the motion of interstellar shock waves violent events associated with the birth of stars and planets.
The findings, published recently in the Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society, could provide astronomers with important information on the history of the solar system, the formation of stars, and the creation of chemicals that may have formed the basis for planets and even life on Earth.
“Shock waves can teach us valuable information about the history of our solar system,” said Wayne Roberge, lead author and professor of physics, applied physics, and astronomy at Rensselaer. “If we can understand shock waves how they move, what leads to their formation, their temperature we can begin to understand where we came from and what our galaxy went through five billion years ago.”
Focusing on Shock Waves in Plasma
As shock waves travel, they heat and condense interstellar plasma, forming new chemical compounds through intense heat and pressure. The motion of shock waves also distributes the chemical products around the galaxy. On Earth, shock waves are commonly associated with supersonic aircraft and explosions. In space, shock waves are commonly associated with the birth or death of a star.
When stars are born, they often emit jets of matter moving at hundreds of thousands of miles per hour. The impact of these jets onto surrounding material creates an extreme and sudden disturbance. This material does not have time to react to the sudden pile-up of energy and mass. Shock waves lash out into the surrounding plasma to expel the sudden force. These shock waves spread material through space, potentially “seeding” new solar systems with chemicals that may be important for life.
Unlike many previous studies of its kind, the researchers focused specifically on shock waves in plasma, which move matter in very different ways than the uncharged air on Earth. The mathematical solution developed by Roberge and his colleague, adjunct professor Glenn Ciolek, reveals the force and movement of shock waves in plasma, the neutral and charged matter that makes up the dilute “air” of space.