Nessie Nebula

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Nessie Nebula

A dark ribbon of gas and dust may be about to light up like a sequence of camera flashes. That’s because it could begin giving birth to new stars, with each star triggering the birth of more stars.

The ribbon is called the Nessie Nebula — named for its resemblance to the Loch Ness monster. It’s the longest ribbon of its type yet seen in the Milky Way — about 300 light-years long, but only three light-years across. It’s chilled to about 20 degrees above absolute zero. And for every light-year of its length, there’s enough gas and dust to make 200 stars as massive as the Sun.

While Nessie itself is dark, it has a bright “head” — a bubble of hot gas. The bubble contains young, heavy stars. The stars are blowing away the gas around them, forming the bubble. It’s ramming into Nessie’s dark “body.” And that appears to be triggering the birth of another heavy star.

That could set off the chain reaction. As a big star is born, it produces powerful winds. They push material away from the star, forming a bubble that squeezes the surrounding gas and dust. If this material is squeezed tightly enough, it collapses to form a new star. The newborn, in turn, produces its own bubble, triggering the birth of more stars, and so on.

Because Nessie is so long, it’ll take millions of years for that process to play out. Eventually, though, the dark nebula may be replaced by the glow of thousands of stars.

Script by Damond Benningfield

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