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The Milky Way Galaxy's Stellar Nursery Captured in Spectacular New Images

First Posted: Oct 06, 2015 10:07 AM EDT
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Astronomers are taking a bit of a closer look at our galaxy's stellar nursery. They've released the most comprehensive images anyone has ever seen of the Milky Way Galaxy's cold interstellar gas clouds where new stars and solar systems are being born.

In the past, researchers have long turned their telescopes to the wide swaths of interstellar medium in order to get a closer look at the formation and birth of stars. Until now, though, the images looked more like weather maps showing storm systems instead of glittering bursts of light that you'd expect from a "star map." The new images, though, show something different.

"These images tell us amazing new things about the Milky Way's star-forming clouds," said Peter Barnes, one of the researchers, in a news release. "For example, they show that we have probably underestimated the amount of material in these clouds by a factor of two or three. This has important consequences for how we measure the star formation activity, not only throughout the Milky Way, but also for all other galaxies beyond. Additionally, it gives us important new insights into the circumstances of the birth of our own solar system, such as the overall temperature, density and mass distribution in these clouds."

The interstellar clouds that this new survey targeted are actually so cold that they are made up of molecules of hydrogen, rather than much warmer clouds where the hydrogen may be atomic or ionized. In fact, they are so cold that the hydrogen itself is undetectable by telescopes. However, the Mopra telescope can map several molecules at once, such as carbon monoxide and cyanogen, which act as tracers for the otherwise hard-to-see hydrogen. This, in turn, created the pictures that scientists are examining today.

The findings are published in the Astrophysical Journal.

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