New Map of Milky Way's Star Factories

Astronomers have produced the clearest map to date of giant star factories in our Milky Way.

The factories are gas clouds that were mapped by tracking a rare form of carbon monoxide. The clouds are displayed on a wide panorama of the galaxy.

The researchers are seeing hints of dark, cold molecular clouds in the earliest stages of star development.

"Data from the Galactic Ring Survey have shown that these clouds are the counterparts to active, bright star-forming clouds, but because they have not yet been heated by the embedded stars, they are much colder and quieter," said James Jackson, astronomy professor at Boston University and lead investigator of the study. "Follow-up studies of these clouds will provide additional important clues about the origin of stars since we'll be able to examine them at an earlier point in their life."

All of the molecular clouds examined in the new view so far have similar lumpy structures, regardless of their size, mass, and star-forming activity. These lumps will eventually become stars, and the researchers say this similarity suggests that all clouds form stars of various masses in roughly the same proportion.

The eight-year project that led to the map is called the Boston University-Five College Radio Astronomy Observatory (FCRAO) Galactic Ring Survey (GRS).

The gas was mapped with a large radio telescope operated by the FCRAO of the University of Massachusetts. The work is detailed in the March issue of the Astrophysical Journal Supplement.

"Ironically, because we live inside the Milky Way, we know more about the shapes of far more distant galaxies better than our own," Jackson said. "The GRS map helps us better understand the configuration of our home galaxy and its components."

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