Two NWU astronomers part of star-studded team focusing on previously unknown star bursts

Satellite in space (File, Getty Images)
Satellite in space (File, Getty Images)

Two astronomers from North West University (NWU) are part of a star-studded research team from 15 countries that has observed star bursts – or growth spurts – previously unknown to humankind, providing a rare glimpse into how high-mass stars grow even larger.

Associate professor James O Chibueze, of NWU's Centre for Space Research, said it was a "privilege to be at the cutting edge of humanity's efforts to understand space and celestial bodies, and to have witnessed star behaviour that is entirely new".

Chibueze and Dr SP van den Heever, also from the centre, are part of an international team of astronomers who have been studying the G358-MM1 high-mass protostar, which is a young star located about 22 000 light years from Earth.

The university in a statement said while the two NWU astronomers have been observing this young star from the Hartebeesthoek Radio Astronomy Observatory – a branch of the South African Radio Astronomy Observatory (SARAO), near Krugersdorp – other astronomers have been keeping an eye on it from observatories in Australia, China, Germany, South Korea, Japan, Ireland, Italy, the Netherlands, Poland, Russia, Chile, the UK and US.

"The star event we have been observing is the first of its kind to have been recorded from Earth," Chibueze, a co-author of a letter published in top-rated academic journal Nature Astronomy, explained.

'Maser' emission phenomena

The G358-MMI has been displaying growth spurts that astronomers said were unique. It was different because of the variety of the bursts.

The growth bursts of high-mass protostars like G358 were seldom seen by astronomers as these events were rare and difficult to observe directly, Chibueze said.

In this instance, the global research team has been using what is known as "maser" emission phenomena to study the star.

This is similar to a laser but uses microwaves instead of light waves and can be used to monitor and measure activity in space, allowing astronomers to capture "heatwaves" emanating from the star during what is thought to be growth events.

These waves of heat were found to be only slightly slower than light.

"The team's discoveries are hugely exciting and we are hopeful that further investigation will reveal more about the physical processes taking place within the G358 star," Chibueze said.

"New horizons are opening up in space and it is wonderful that NWU and South Africa are part of it."

 - Compiled by Tammy Petersen

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