Protostar - Heating Due To Gravitational Energy

Heating Due To Gravitational Energy

As the cloud continues to contract it begins to increase in temperature. This is not caused by nuclear reactions but by the conversion of gravitational energy to thermal kinetic energy. As a particle (atom or molecule) decreases its distance from the centre of the contracting fragment this will result in a decrease in its gravitational energy. The total energy of the particle must remain constant so the reduction in gravitational energy must be accompanied by an increase in the particle's kinetic energy. This can be expressed as an increase in the thermal kinetic energy, or temperature, of the cloud. The more the cloud contracts the more the temperature increases.

Collisions between molecules often leave them in excited states which can emit radiation as those states decay. The radiation is often of a characteristic frequency. At these temperatures (10 to 20 kelvins) the radiation is in the microwave or infrared range of the spectrum. Most of this radiation will escape, preventing the rapid rise in temperature of the cloud.

As the cloud contracts the number density of the molecules increases. This will eventually make it more difficult for the emitted radiation to escape. In effect, the gas becomes opaque to the radiation and the temperature within the cloud will begin to rise more rapidly.

The fact that the cloud becomes opaque to radiation in the infrared makes it difficult for us to observe directly what is happening. We must look to longer wavelength radio radiation which does escape even the densest clouds. In addition, theory and computer modelling are necessary to understand this phase.

As long as the surrounding matter is falling onto the central condensation, it is considered to be in protostar stage. When the surrounding gas/dust envelope disperses and the accretion process stops, the star is considered a pre–main sequence star. In the Hertzsprung–Russell diagram, the star would then appear on the stellar birthline.

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