Dark Cloud in the Milky Way
Once in a while a story really grabs my attention, like yesterday’s census of planets in the Milky Way. It really opened up a galaxy of possible worlds to explore. Today, I was sitting in a press conference, listening to astronomers talking about using radio astronomy to study a cloud of gas and dust that they described as the one of the Milky Way’s “bones”, meaning an important part of its structure.
The structure is nicknamed “Nessie” because it bears a resemblance to the Loch Ness Monster. That right there was enough to grab my attention because as CEO of Loch Ness Productions, I’m quite used to being called one of the “Nessies” by our colleagues in the field. So, I approve of my monstrous namesake in the sky!
It’s a cool name and a memorable mental visual.
So, what’s Nessie all about?
Think about our galaxy. It’s what’s known as a barred spiral galaxy. That means it is a typical spiral — with two principal spiral arms wrapping around, and a bar cutting across the middle.
The central region of our the Milky Way has tantalized astronomers since forever, but it’s tough to see because it’s hidden by clouds of gas and dust. However, if you look at it in infrared light or using radio telescopes, you can make out structures not only in the core but along the plane of the Milky Way.
Astronomers have done that using a variety of techniques. In the case of Nessie, they used the Spitzer Space Telescope to probe along the plane (a line drawn across the central region from edge to edge) and found this cloud feature that got nicknamed Nessie by James Jackson of Boston University.
Alyssa Goodman at Harvard Center for Astrophysics and her team looked at Nessie and analyzed it using various data set. It’s really a long tendril of dust and gas that they called a “bone.”
Goodman gave a talk at the AAS today about Nessie. “This is the first time we’ve seen such a delicate piece of the galactic skeleton,” she said, and pointed out that other spiral galaxies also display internal bones or endoskeletons. Observations, especially at infrared wavelengths of light, have found long skinny features jutting between galaxies’ spiral arms. These relatively straight structures are much less massive than the curving spiral arms.
Computer simulations of galaxy formation show webs of filaments within spiral disks. It is very likely that the newly discovered Milky Way feature is one of these “bone-like” filaments.
Radio emissions from clouds of molecular gas in the center of the Milky Way region show that Nessie is in the galactic plane, and is more than 300 light-years long but only 1 or 2 light-years wide. The amount of mass is enough to make about 100,000 Suns. It’s possible that this odd feature bone is part of a spiral arm, or maybe is part of a web connecting other spiral features. Goodman and her colleagues hope to find more of these bones, and once they have enough data, it will give them enough information to create a cool 3D version of the galaxy and its skeleton.