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Galactic Track

July 27, 2014

Big clouds of gas and dust appear to be taking a roller-coaster ride around the center of the Milky Way galaxy. The oval track is about 600 light-years long by 400 light-years wide, with a big hump on each side of the track.

The track was discovered a few years ago in images from the Herschel space telescope, which looked at the infrared glow of the galaxy’s heart. Cool clouds of gas and dust shine brightest in the infrared.

The observations revealed several big clouds that outline the ring-like structure. The clouds are moving along the track at a couple of hundred thousand miles per hour. In all, they contain enough gas and dust to make about 30 million stars as massive as the Sun.

In fact, new stars are already being born at the ends of the track. In those locations, the outer edges of the gas clouds may interact with clouds that orbit a little farther from the galactic center. That may create shock waves that ripple through the clouds. The shock waves can squeeze knots of gas within the clouds, causing them to collapse to make new stars.

One of the biggest clouds is still dark — it’s given birth to only a few stars at most. And in the turbulent center of the galaxy, it may remain dark. But it could also turn into one of the most impressive stellar nurseries in the entire Milky Way — a cluster of thousands of stars lighting up the busy galactic center. We’ll have more about that tomorrow.


Script by Damond Benningfield, Copyright 2014

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