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Star formation is the first step on the cosmological road to life as we know it, but understanding the process of star formation is incredibly difficult. The process takes millions of years, so we can only learn so much from scouring the heavens, and simulating it requires hugely complex replicas. That’s where STARFORGE comes in handy. This new simulation is 100 times larger than previous star formation models, and it’s accurate enough that it could help scientists understand the nuances of star birth and distribution. 

STARFORGE, which stands for “STAR FORmation in Gaseous Environments,” comes from a group of scientists from institutions like Caltech, Northwestern, and the University of Toronto. The project’s goal was to create a more powerful star formation model that could be used to answer specific questions about the process. For example, why do stars end up with the mass they do? And, Why do stars form in clusters, and how do these clusters assemble?

Previous models were not capable enough to provide insight into these investigations. However, STARFORGE can model star formation, evolution, and solar dynamics while accounting for how the star’s radiation, solar wind, and even nearby supernovae could affect the environment. Some older simulations could model a part of a gas cloud while incorporating one type of stellar feedback, but STARFORGE can accurately depict an entire gas cloud with all these factors simultaneously. This process is explained in two papers, one of which focuses on the effect of jets (or “protostellar outflows”) was published by Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society in February 2021. The other, which covers STARFORGE more generally, was just accepted for publication in the same journal.

The team built STARFORGE with the help of a physics-based simulation code known as Gizmo. This powerful platform allowed the researchers to reach a spatial resolution of just 10 AU — one AU (astronomical unit) is the distance between Earth and the sun. Clearly, that would be too rough to model something on the planetary scale, but it’s perfect for simulating the evolution of stars. 

This comprehensive model won’t run on just any computer — STARFORGE sims can take up to three months to run on one of the world’s most powerful supercomputers in the Texas Advanced Computing Center. You can see some examples of the simulations in the videos above. In addition to being the most accurate facsimile of protostellar dust clouds in the world, they’re also stunning. Already, STARFORGE has shown the importance of jets. Without the jets, STARFORGE produces stars that are ten times too large. The jets appear to disrupt the inflow of gas toward the star, which could be an important factor in real star formation. There’s still much more to learn about star formation, and STARFORGE could become one of the primary tools scientists use to answer those questions.

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