Characterizing molecular clouds in the earliest phases of high-mass star formation
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High-mass stars play a key role in the energetics and chemical evolution of molecular clouds and galaxies. However, the mechanisms that allow the formation of high-mass stars are far less clear than those of their low-mass counterparts. Most of the research on high-mass star formation has focused on regions currently undergoing star formation. In contrast, objects in the earlier prestellar stage have been more difficult to identify. Recently, it has been suggested that the cold, massive, and dense Infrared Dark Clouds (IRDCs) host the earliest stages of high-mass star formation. The chemistry of IRDCs remains poorly explored. In this dissertation, an observational program to search for chemical variations in IRDC clumps as a function of their age is described. An increase in N2H+ and HCO+ abundances is found from the quiescent, cold phase to the protostellar, warmer phases, reflecting chemical evolution. For HCO+ abundances, the observed trend is consistent with theoretical predictions. However, chemical models fail to explain the observed trend of increasing N2H+ abundances. Pristine high-mass prestellar clumps are ideal for testing and constraining theories of high-mass star formation because their predictions differ the most at the early stages of evolution. From the initial IRDC sample, a high-mass clump that is the best candidate to be in the prestellar phase was selected (IRDC G028.23-00.19 MM1). With a new set of observations, the prestellar nature of the clump is confirmed. High-angular resolution observations of IRDC G028.23-00.19 suggest that in order to form high-mass stars, the detected cores have to accrete a large amount of material, passing through a low- to intermediate-mass phase before having the necessary mass to form a high-mass star. The turbulent core accretion model is inconsistent with this observational result, but on the other hand, the observations support the competitive accretion model. Embedded cores have to grow in mass during the star-formation process itself; the mass is not set at early times as the turbulent core accretion model predicts. The observed gas velocity dispersion in the cores is transonic and mildly supersonic, resulting in low virial parameters (neglecting magnetic fields). The turbulent core accretion model assumes highly supersonic linewidths and virial parameters $sim$1, inconsistent with the observations, unless magnetic fields in the cores have strengths of the order of 1 mG.