Gas Cloud on Collision Course with the Milky Way

by Fraser Cain on January 11, 2008

Don’t panic, but there’s a giant cloud of hydrogen gas on a collision course with the Milky Way. When it hits, 40 million years from now, it should generate vast regions of star formation. In fact, we don’t even need to wait; the leading edge of this gas cloud is already starting to interact with our galaxy. The fireworks are about to begin.

The cloud is called Smith’s Cloud, after the astronomer who discovered it in 1963. It’s 11,000 light-years long and 2,500 light-years wide, and contains enough hydrogen to make a million stars with the mass of the Sun.

Felix J. Lockman, of the National Radio Astronomy Observatory (NRAO) announced their latest observations of Smith’s Cloud at the Winter meeting of the American Astronomical Society in Austin, Texas. According to Lockman, the cloud is located 8,000 light-years from the Milky Way’s disk, and hurtling towards us at 240 km/second (150 miles/second).

“This is most likely a gas cloud left over from the formation of the Milky Way or gas stripped from a neighbor galaxy. When it hits, it could set off a tremendous burst of star formation. Many of those stars will be very massive, rushing through their lives quickly and exploding as supernovae. Over a few million years, it’ll look like a celestial New Year’s celebration, with huge firecrackers going off in that region of the galaxy,” Lockman said.

Until this latest research, astronomers were never sure if Smith’s Cloud was actually part of the Milky Way, being blown out of the galaxy, or something falling in.

Lockman and his colleagues made 40,000 individual pointings of the Green Bank radio telescope to pull together the data for their observations. This was necessary because the cloud is so vast.

“If you could see this cloud with your eyes, it would be a very impressive sight in the night sky,” Lockman said. “From tip to tail it would cover almost as much sky as the Orion constellation. But as far as we know it is made entirely of gas – no one has found a single star in it.”

Original Source: NRAO News Release


Fraser Cain is the publisher of Universe Today. He's also the co-host of Astronomy Cast with Dr. Pamela Gay.

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