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Meet the 'Giant Elephant Trunks,' Mysterious Cosmic Structures 10 Times Bigger Than the 'Pillars of Creation'

The Pillars of Creation are towering formations of cosmic gas and dust that lie in the center of the Eagle Nebula. A research team in Japan just discovered Giant Elephant Trunks that are much larger than these pillars.
The Pillars of Creation are towering formations of cosmic gas and dust that lie in the center of the Eagle Nebula. A research team in Japan just discovered Giant Elephant Trunks that are much larger than these pillars.
(Image: © NASA/ESA/Hubble Heritage Team (STScl/AURA))

Ursa Major, the Tadpole Galaxy, the Crab Nebula — when it comes to naming objects in space, it sometimes seems like astronomers wish they'd gone into zoology. Continuing in this long tradition, a researcher has recently identified mammoth column-shaped structures carved from gas and dust that he has called Giant Elephant's Trunks. 

Regular-size astronomical Elephant's Trunks are well-studied entities. When newborn stars are young, they emit colossal amounts of radiation, which can erode nearby interstellar gas and dust. Dense pockets of material are more resistant to this erosion, protecting downstream gas and dust from the radiation pressure and creating long filaments that resemble pachyderm proboscises, according to NASA

Related: 10 Interesting Places in the Solar System We’d Like to Visit

The Giant Elephant Trunks found in two spiral arms of the Milky Way are between 65 and 160 light-years across and may be 10,000 solar masses. It's not clear yet what forms them, but it's possible that these are the sites of large-scale star formation in the galaxy.

(Image credit: Y. Sofue, et al)

Famous examples of such structures include the Horsehead Nebula and the Elephant's Trunk Nebula, as well as the highly photogenic Pillars of Creation found in the Eagle Nebula. Researchers often investigate Elephant's Trunks because they are the sites of star birth and early evolution. 

Using the Nobeyama 45-meter Radio Telescope in Japan, astronomer Yoshiaki Sofue of the University of Tokyo recently conducted a survey of the plane of our Milky Way galaxy. In two minor spiral arms 15,000 to 22,000 light-years away, known as the Scutum and Norma arms, he spotted three Elephant's Trunks, except that they were at least an order of magnitude greater in size and mass than previously seen entities. 

Ordinary Elephant's Trunks are generally a few light-years across and perhaps 10 times the mass of our sun. Sofue observed three objects between 65 and 160 light-years long, each weighing around 1,000 to 10,000 times the mass of the sun. A paper describing the discoveries is set to appear in the Publications of the Astronomical Society of Japan.

Because the smaller column-shaped structures are cradles for newborn stars, Sofue told Live Science that the Giant Elephant's Trunks could be created by large-scale star formation activity in the galaxy. Perhaps they are regions from which low-mass globular clusters — spherical collections of small stars — arise, he suggested.

Now that he has trumpeted these findings, Sofue said he would like to conduct a systematic inspection of his data in the hopes of uncovering more Giant Elephant's Trunks and listing them in an astronomical atlas for other researchers to study. 

Originally published on Live Science.

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