Dr. Grace Wolf-Chase

Dr. Grace Wolf-Chase

A research team led by Dr. Grace Wolf-Chase, an Adler Planetarium astronomer and scholar active in the religion and science dialogue, has discovered new evidence of stars forming in our Milky Way Galaxy.

The team used a telescope equipped to detect infrared light invisible to our eyes and the findings reveal how stars, including our very own Sun, grow up within clusters and groups. The findings were published in The Astrophysical Journal in a paper titled, “MHOs toward HMOs: A Search for Molecular Hydrogen Emission-Line Objects toward High-Mass Outflows.”

Wolf-Chase is a public advocate for citizen science and education, and earlier this year spoke to attendees at the Ecumenical Roundtable on Science, Technology and the Church hosted at the Churchwide offices of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America). Wolf-Chase told her story of coming out of her physics studies at Cornell University thinking that faith and science couldn’t mix. As a grad student at the University of Arizona she met a remarkable group of “brilliant people who were scientists and Christians.”

She is a science consultant on the Clergy Letter project, affiliated faculty member of the Zygon Center for Religion and Science at the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago, vice president for Center for Advanced Study in Religion and Science (CASIRAS) and on the steering committee of the Albertus Magnus Society at Dominican University in River Forest. Her astronomy research today focuses on protostars, protostellar outflows and the impact of outflows on the evolution of molecular clouds.

The Adler team led by Wolf-Chase found huge gas clouds moving outward from areas where “baby” stars are forming, using a new way of disentangling these outflows from other processes in densely-populated stellar nurseries. These stellar nurseries can produce dozens or even hundreds of stars with different sizes and masses, according to Adler.

“The Sun, though isolated from other stars today, is thought to have formed in a cluster with many other stars, so the environments we’re studying can tell us a lot about the origin of our own Solar System,” said Wolf-Chase.

Stars form when cold, rotating clouds of gas and dust in space are pulled together by gravity into flattened “disks” that spin faster as they shrink, similar to what happens when twirling figure skaters pull their outstretched arms in toward their bodies. In order for a star to form at the center of a spinning disk, the rotation of the disk must slow down. This happens through powerful outflows of gas that are channeled into tight streams, known as “jets.”

Researchers peered into 26 dusty clouds thought to be forming clusters containing massive stars. Using a combination of infrared filters that allowed them to distinguish jets from infant stars from other types of light produced by the radiation in these massive stellar nurseries, they identified 36 jets across 22 of the regions. These results provide compelling evidence that, like their lower-mass siblings, massive stars also launch powerful jets. The jet shuts off shortly after radiation from the massive star begins to disrupt its environment.

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