New images from a European space telescope have revealed a stunning glimpse into the forces driving star formation in our galaxy.
The images were taken from the European Space Agency's (ESA) Planck space observatory and give astronomers a new view into the complex physics that shape the dust and gas in our Milky Way.
In these new images, Planck probed two relatively nearby star-forming regions within our galaxy.
Planck's first new image reveals much of the constellation of Orion, home to the well-known Orion nebula that appears as a bright spot to the lower center of the view. The Horsehead nebula, so-called because at high magnifications its pillar of dust resembles a horse's head, stands out just right of the photo's center.
The Orion region is a cradle of star formation, some 1,500 light-years away. It is famous for the Orion nebula, which can be seen by the naked eye as a faint smudge of pink.
The giant red arc of Barnard's Loop is believed to be the blast wave from a star that exploded in the Orion region approximately 2 million years ago. The bubble it created now stretches about 300 light-years across.
In contrast to Orion,the Perseus region is a less vigorous star-forming area, but there was still plenty for Planck to observe.
"Because Planck is mapping the whole sky, we can capture mosaics of huge regions of the Milky Way," said Charles Lawrence, the NASA project scientist for Planck at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif. "We are seeing the coldest material in star-forming regions, where stars are at the very earliest stages of formation."
Stars typically form in cosmic nurseries hidden behind veils of interstellar dust. But the Planck observatory scans the universe at long microwave wavelengths, allowing it to peer through the dust at the newborn stars, as well as study the background radiation of the universe.
The images show three physical processes taking place in the dust and gas of the interstellar medium. Planck has the ability to show each process separately by observing them at different frequencies.
At the lowest frequencies, Planck maps emission caused by high-speed electrons interacting with the galaxy's magnetic fields. Planck can also pick up on spinning dust particles emitting at these frequencies.
At intermediate wavelengths, the emission is primarily from gas heated by newly-formed hot stars.
At higher frequencies, Planck maps the sparse amount of heat given out by extremely cold dust. This can reveal the coldest cores in the clouds, which are approaching the final stages of collapse, before they are reborn as full-fledged stars. These stars then disperse the surrounding clouds.
The delicate balance between cloud collapse and dispersion regulates the number of stars that the galaxy makes. Planck observations will help advance researchers' understanding of this interplay, since it can provide data on several major emission mechanisms at the same time.
The Planck observatory launched into orbit in 2009. It's main mission is dedicated to observing the entire sky at microwave wavelengths in order to map the variations in the ancient radiation left over from the Big Bang that was thought to have started the universe about 13.7 billion years ago.
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