A "Tornado" in Space
With the discovery of
Herbig Haro objects, or “jetted stars”, astronomers have
scrambled for explanations. But these stars, now observed by
the hundreds, only accent a common and fundamental
misunderstanding of space.
The image above
appeared as the “Astronomy Picture of the Day”
on Feb 3, 2006.
The caption identifies this stellar jet as a “cosmic
tornado” light-years in length, with gases moving at
100-kilometers per second. “Though such energetic outflows
are well known to be associated with the formation of young
stars, the exact cause of the spiralling structures
apparent in this case is still mysterious”.
astronomers express great astonishment at such formations.
Gravitational models featured in twentieth century astronomy
never envisioned narrow jets of anything streaming
away from stellar bodies. Neither gravity nor standard gas
laws would allow it.
So the problem
grows worse the more we discover. To see the problem
clearly, just consider the language used to describe the
stellar jets of “Herbig Haro objects” such as that imaged
above. The words typically employed are taken from the
behavior of wind and water on a rocky planet we call
“Earth”—a body that stands out as an exception in a universe
that is 99.99 percent plasma and dominated by
electric currents and their induced magnetic fields. A
bizarre example of the outmoded language is the description
of stellar jets on NASA’s Hubble Telescope website—the very
page to which the APOD caption links for an explanation of
“such energetic outflows”.
begins with these words: “Stellar jets are analogous to
giant lawn sprinklers. Whether a sprinkler whirls,
pulses or oscillates, it offers insights into how its tiny
mechanism works. Likewise stellar jets, billions or
trillions of miles long offer some clues to what's happening
close into the star at scales of only millions of miles,
which are below even Hubble's ability to resolve detail”.
Those who know
what a plasma discharge is might say, “if you think a lawn
sprinkler offers a good analogy for the picture above, put a
sprinkler in space and try it”. Any attempt to understand
stellar jets across light years of space in terms of
a nozzle on one end should be a career-ending
To explain the
narrow tornado-like jet, the Hubble page says: “Material
either at or near the star is heated and blasted into space,
where it travels for billions of miles before colliding with
interstellar material." Does a star have the ability to
create collimated jets across (not billions, but)
trillions of miles by merely 'heating' material in its
vicinity? The matter in the jet is hot and it is
moving through a vacuum. If one is to use an analogy
with water, the better example would be a super-heated steam
hose. It will not form a jet of steam for more than a few
feet before the steam disperses explosively.
explanation not only contradicts simple observation and
experiment, it contradicts the century-old gravitational
theory on which the entire page is based. Under the popular
theory of star formation, it is matter "falling" inward
under the influence of gravity that creates stars. No one
proposing this “nebular hypothesis” ever imagined, in
advance of recent discoveries, that after gravity
accomplished its mass-gathering feat, it would give way to a
more powerful force evident in the jet. (As for the
reference to collisions with interstellar material, that is
based entirely on the bizarre explanation itself, not on
anything actually observed.)
“Why are jets so
narrow?” the NASA writers ask. “The Hubble pictures increase
the mystery as to how jets are confined into a thin beam”.
Then, after noting that the Hubble pictures tends to rule
out the idea (popular just a few years ago) that a disk
around the star could provide the needed “nozzle”, the
authors note: “One theoretical possibility is that magnetic
fields in the disk might focus the gas into narrow beams,
but there is as yet no direct observational evidence that
magnetic fields are important”.
virtual dismissal of magnetic fields, the authors pose two
questions which bear directly on the role of magnetic
fields, though they are clearly unaware of the connection.
“What causes a jet’s beaded structure”, they ask. And “why
are jets ‘kinky’”? They do not realize that they have just
cited two of the most easily recognized features of plasma
discharge—“beading” and “kink instabilities”. But rather
than enter the world of electrified plasma, so unfamiliar to
astronomers, the web page takes us into “waterworld”. “…The
beads are real clumps of gas plowing through space like a
string of motor boats”. And the “kinks along their path of
motion” can be seen as evidence for a stellar companion, one
that “pulls on the central star, causing it to wobble, which
in turn causes the jet to change directions, like shaking a
It is statements
such as this that cause plasma experts—those who have spent
a lifetime observing the unique behavior of electric
currents and electric discharge in plasma—to wonder about
the future of theoretical science. For the cosmic
electricians there is nothing out of the ordinary in stellar
jets. Their counterparts appear regularly in the plasma
laboratory. They can be modeled in computer simulations.
Their analogies can be seen in
Earth’s upper atmosphere, in
dust devils, in the volcanoes
Jupiter’s moon Io, on Saturn’s
tails of comets, in the
sunspots—and even in the vast
polar jets now
seen exploding from distant galaxies.
electrical theorists are correct, those offering
conventional answers to newly discovered objects in space
need a crash course on plasma and electricity.