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Rapid star formation and global gravitational collapse




Most young stars in nearby molecular clouds have estimated ages of 1–2 Myr, suggesting that star formation is rapid. However, small numbers of stars in these regions with inferred ages of >rsim5–10 Myr have been cited to argue that star formation is instead a slow, quasi-static process. When considering these alternative pictures it is important to recognize that the age spread in a given star-forming cloud is necessarily an upper limit to the time-scales of local collapse, as not all spatially distinct regions will start contracting at precisely the same instant. Moreover, star-forming clouds may dynamically evolve on time-scales of a few Myr; in particular, global gravitational contraction will tend to yield increasing star formation rates with time due to generally increasing local gas densities. We show that two different numerical simulations of dynamic, flow-driven molecular cloud formation and evolution (1) predict age spreads for the main stellar population roughly consistent with observations and (2) raise the possibility of forming small numbers of stars early in cloud evolution, before global contraction concentrates the gas and the bulk of the stellar population is produced. In general, the existence of a small number of older stars among a generally much younger population is consistent with the picture of dynamic star formation and may even provide clues to the time evolution of star-forming clouds.