The Universe was very different when it was young. Recently, astronomers discovered that the complex physics of the young cosmos may have led to the development of supermassive stars, each weighing up to 100,000 times the mass of the Sun.
We currently have no observations of the formation of the first stars in the Universe which are thought to have occurred when our cosmos was only a few hundred million years old.
To understand this momentous epoch, astronomers turned to sophisticated computer simulations to test models of how the first stars formed.
For years, astronomers have wrestled with the question of what the typical sizes of the first stars were. Some early estimates suggested that the first stars could be hundreds of times more massive than our Sun today, while later simulations showed them to be more normal sized.
Recently, a research team has put together a new round of simulations and came to a very surprising conclusion. Their simulation specifically observed a phenomenon known as cold accretion. To build a big star, we have to pull a lot of material into a very small volume very quickly.
And we have to do that without increasing the temperature of the material, because the warmer material will prevent itself from collapsing. So, some method is needed to remove heat from the material because the material will collapse very quickly.
Previous simulations had found the appearance of dense pockets within early galaxies that cooled rapidly due to emitting radiation, but lacked the resolution needed to follow later evolution.
New research takes it a step further by examining how the cold dense pockets that originally formed in the early universe behaved.
These simulations reveal that large streams of cold, dense matter can strike the accretion disk at the center of a giant clump of matter. The moment that happened, a shockwave would form. The shockwave quickly destabilized the gas and triggered the instantaneous collapse of the large pockets of matter.
The massive pocket can be tens of thousands of times more massive than the Sun, and in some cases even 100 thousand times more massive than the Sun. With nothing to stop their collapse, they soon form giant stars, known as supermassive stars.
Astronomers don’t yet know whether supermassive stars formed in the early universe. They hope future observations using the James Webb Space Telescope will reveal clues about the formation of the first stars and galaxies and determine whether these monsters appeared in the ‘infant’ Universe.
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