A bipolar outflow represents two continuous flows of gas from the poles of a star. Bipolar outflows may be associated with protostars (young, forming stars), or with evolved post-AGB stars (often in the form of bipolar nebulae).
In the case of a young star, the bipolar outflow is driven by a dense, collimated jet. The jet is narrower than the outflow and very difficult to observe directly. However, supersonic shock fronts along the jet heat the gas in and around the jet to thousands of degrees. These pockets of hot gas radiate at infrared wavelengths and thus can be detected with telescopes like the United Kingdom Infrared Telescope (UKIRT). They often appear as discrete knots or arcs along the beam of the jet. They are usually called molecular bow shocks, since the knots are usually curved like the bow wave at the front of a ship.
Typically, molecular bow shocks are observed in ro-vibrational emission from hot molecular hydrogen. These objects are known as molecular hydrogen emission-line objects, or MHOs.
Bipolar outflows are usually observed in emission from warm carbon monoxide molecules with millimeter-wave telescopes like the James Clerk Maxwell Telescope, though other trace molecules can be used. Bipolar outflows are often found in dense, dark clouds. They tend to be associated with the very youngest stars (ages less than 10,000 years), and are closely related to the molecular bow shocks. Indeed, the bow shocks are thought to sweep up or "entrain" dense gas from the surrounding cloud to form the bipolar outflow.
Jets from more evolved young stars - T Tauri stars - produce similar bow shocks, though these are visible at optical wavelengths and are called Herbig-Haro objects (HH objects). T Tauri stars are usually found in less dense environments. The absence of surrounding gas and dust mean that HH objects are less effective at entraining molecular gas. Consequently, they are less likely to be associated with bipolar outflows.
The presence of a bipolar outflow shows that the central star is still accumulating material from the surrounding cloud via an accretion disk. The outflow relieves the build-up of angular momentum as material spirals down onto the central star through the accretion disk. Indeed, without the outflow, disk accretion would not be possible and the star would never form.
Bipolar outflows from evolved stars probably start out as spherically-symmetric winds (called post-AGB winds), ejected from the surface of a red giant star as it cools and fades. These are focused into cones of gas by magnetic fields or a binary companion in a process that is not yet well understood. The bipolar outflows from post-AGB stars eventually grow to form a planetary nebula.
In both cases, bipolar outflows consist largely of molecular gas. They can travel at tens or possibly even hundreds of kilometers per second, and in the case of young stars extend over a parsec in length.
- ^ Reipurth B., Bally J. (2001), Herbig-Haro flows: probes of early stellar evolution, Annual Review of Astronomy and Astrophysics, vol. 39, p. 403-455
- ^ Davis C.J., Eisloeffel J. (1995), Near-infrared imaging in H2 of molecular (CO) outflows from young stars, Astronomy and Astrophysics, vol. 300, p. 851-869.
- ^ Kwok S. (2000), The origin and evolution of Planetary Nebulae, Cambridge Astrophysics Series, Cambridge University press.
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