January 21, 2022

Beyond Going Long

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Astronomers have discovered one of the largest structures ever observed in the Milky Way

About 13.8 billion years ago, our universe was born in a gigantic explosion that gave rise to the first subatomic particles and the laws of physics as we know them.

About 370,000 years later, hydrogen, the building block of stars, was formed, which combined hydrogen and helium in the interior to form all of the heavy elements. While hydrogen remains the most abundant element in the universe, isolated clouds of hydrogen gas are difficult to detect in the interstellar medium (ISM).

This makes it difficult to research the early stages of star formation, which would provide information about the evolution of galaxies and the universe.

An international team led by astronomers from Max Planck Institute for Astronomy (MPIA) recently observed the presence of massive fibers of atomic hydrogen in our galaxy. The name of this structureMaggie, which is about 55,000 light-years away (on the opposite side of the Milky Way) and is one of the tallest structures ever seen in our galaxy.

(ESA / Gaia / DPAC / T.Muller / J.Syed / MPIA)

Above: Part of the Milky Way, measured by the ESA Gaia satellite (above). The box indicates the location of the “MagI” fiber and the false color image of the atomic hydrogen distribution (bottom), the red line indicates the “MagI” fiber.

A study describing their findings recently appeared in the journal Astronomy and astrophysics, Jonas Syed, Ph.D. He studied at MPIA School.

He was joined by scientists from the University of Vienna, Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics (CFA), Max Planck Institute for Radio Astronomy (MPIFR), University of Calgary, University of Heidelberg, and Center for Astrophysics and Planetary Sciences, the Argelander Institute of Astronomy, NASA Indian Institute of Science and Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL).

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Based on search data HI / OH / recombinant Milky Way line scan (THOR), a monitoring software based on Carl G. Jansky’s Collection Extra Large (VLA) in New Mexico.

Using the VLA’s centimeter-wave radio antenna, the project studies the formation of molecular clouds, the conversion of atoms into molecular hydrogen, the galaxy’s magnetic field, and other issues related to the ISM and star formation.

The ultimate goal is to determine how the two most common hydrogen isotopes converge to form dense clouds moving toward new stars. Isotopes include atomic hydrogen (H), which consists of a proton, an electron and no neutrons, and molecular hydrogen (H2) – or deuterium – consisting of a proton, a neutron and an electron.

The latter condenses only into relatively compact clouds, from which frosty regions develop, where new stars eventually appear.

The process of converting atomic hydrogen into molecular hydrogen is still largely unknown, making these extremely long fibers a particularly exciting discovery.

While the largest known clouds of molecular gas are about 800 light-years long, Magi is 3,900 light-years long and 130 light-years wide. As Syed explained in a recent MPIA press releaseAnd

“The location of this subject has contributed to this success. We don’t know how it got there yet. But the fibers extend about 1,600 light-years below the plane of the galaxy. The observations allowed us to determine the velocity of hydrogen gas. This allowed us to show that the velocities along the fibers are approximately the same “.

The team’s analysis showed that the average mass velocity in the fibers was 54 km/s.-1, which he determined mainly by analogy against the rotation of the Milky Way’s disk. This means that the radiation has a wavelength of 21 cm (akahydrogen line”) was visible against the cosmic background, which made the structure visible.

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“The observations also allowed us to determine the rate of hydrogen gas,” said Heinrich Bother, THOR president and co-author of the study. “This allowed us to show that the velocities along the fibers are about the same.”

This led the researchers to conclude that the Magi were a coherent structure. These findings confirmed what Juan de Soler, an astrophysicist at the University of Vienna and co-author of the article, said.

When he saw the thread, he named it the longest river in his native Colombia: the Río Magdalena (English: Margaret or “Maggie”). While Maggie could have been identified in a previous evaluation of THOR’s Solar data, only the current study clearly shows that this is a coherent structure.

Based on previously published data, the team also estimated that Magi was made up of 8 percent by weight of molecular hydrogen.

Upon closer examination, the team found that the gas converged at various points along the fibers, leading them to conclude that hydrogen gas was accumulating in large clouds at these locations. They further hypothesize that the atomic gas will gradually condense into molecular form in these environments.

“But many questions remain unanswered,” Syed said. “The additional data, which we hope will provide us with more information about the molecular gas fraction, is already awaiting analysis.”

Fortunately, many space and ground-based observatories with telescopes equipped to study these fibres will soon be operational. These include: James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) and radio surveys such as Square kilometers (SKA), which will allow us to see the closest space period (“cosmic dawn‘) and the first stars in our universe.

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