Context. The hierarchical process of star formation has so far mostly been studied on scales from thousands of au to parsecs, but the smaller sub-1000 au scales of high-mass star formation are still largely unexplored in the submillimeter regime.
Aims. We aim to resolve the dust and gas emission at the highest spatial resolution to study the physical properties of the densest structures during high-mass star formation.
Methods. We observed the high-mass hot core region G351.77-0.54 with the Atacama Large Millimeter Array with baselines extending out to more than 16 km. This allowed us to dissect the region at sub-50 au spatial scales.
Results. At a spatial resolution of 18/40 au (depending on the distance), we identify twelve sub-structures within the inner few thousand au of the region. The brightness temperatures are high, reaching values greater 1000 K, signposting high optical depth toward the peak positions. Core separations vary between sub-100 au to several 100 and 1000 au. The core separations and approximate masses are largely consistent with thermal Jeans fragmentation of a dense gas core. Due to the high continuum optical depth, most spectral lines are seen in absorption. However, a few exceptional emission lines are found that most likely stem from transitions with excitation conditions above 1000 K. Toward the main continuum source, these emission lines exhibit a velocity gradient across scales of 100-200 au aligned with the molecular outflow and perpendicular to the previously inferred disk orientation. While we cannot exclude that these observational features stem from an inner hot accretion disk, the alignment with the outflow rather suggests that it stems from the inner jet and outflow region. The highest-velocity features are found toward the peak position, and no Hubble-like velocity structure can be identified. Therefore, these data are consistent with steady-state turbulent entrainment of the hot molecular gas via Kelvin-Helmholtz instabilities at the interface between the jet and the outflow.
Conclusions. Resolving this high-mass star-forming region at sub-50 au scales indicates that the hierarchical fragmentation process in the framework of thermal Jeans fragmentation can continue down to the smallest accessible spatial scales. Velocity gradients on these small scales have to be treated cautiously and do not necessarily stem from disks, but may be better explained with outflow emission. Studying these small scales is very powerful, but covering all spatial scales and deriving a global picture from large to small scales are the next steps to investigate.
- stars: formation
- stars: massive
- stars: individual: G351.77-0.54
- stars: winds, outflows
- instrumentation: interferometers