The creation of a 3D visualization of a star-forming cloud is helping scientists understand the formation process of our own solar system and the birth of stars and planets.
Led by Aris Tritsis of the Australian National University (ANU) Research School of Astronomy and Astrophysics, a team of scientists from ANU and from the University of Crete in Greece created the 3D visualization as part of their study of Musca, a needle-shaped star-forming cloud in the southern sky located several hundred light years from Earth.
Composed mostly of molecular hydrogen and dust, Musca extends about 27 light years across the plane of the sky. Its depth is approximately 20 light years while its width is just a fraction of a single light year.
“We were able to reconstruct the 3D structure of a gas cloud in its very early stages of making new stars and planets, which will ultimately take millions of years to form,” Tritsis said.
“Knowledge of the 3D shape of clouds will greatly improve our understanding of these nurseries of stars and the birth of our own solar system.”
To create the visualization, the researchers used data collected by the European Space Agency’s (ESA) Herschel space telescope.
Having visualized Musca’s 3D shape, the scientists now know the gas cloud is an active, complex structure surrounded by hair-like features known as striations. The latter are caused by trapped waves of gas and dust produced by the cloud’s vibrations.
“With its 3D shape now determined, Musca can be used as a laboratory for testing star formation, astrochemical, and dust-formation theories,” Tritsis stated.
Studying the model will also give scientists insight into the formation of molecules in gas clouds.
According to Konstantinos Tassis of the University of Crete, Musca was chosen for the study because it is the largest vibrating whole structure in the galaxy.
By analyzing the frequency of these vibrations, the researchers were able to convert them into songs or ringing tones and thereby determine Musca’s shape.
“This is a cloud in space that is singing to us–all we had to do was listen. It’s actually quite awesome,” said Tritsis.
A paper on the study will be published in the journal Science.