Cold hydrogen could have stopped Milky Way’s star formation

For the first time ionised hydrogen has been detected at the lowest frequency ever towards the centre of our galaxy


The centre of the Milky Way, where ionised hydrogen has been detected at the lowest frequency for the first time. Image credit: NASA

For the first time ionised hydrogen has been detected at the lowest frequency ever towards the centre of our galaxy. The findings originate from a cloud that is both very cold (around -230 degrees Celsius, -382 degrees Fahrenheit) and also ionised, something that has never been detected before. This discovery may help to explain why stars don’t form as quickly as they theoretically could.

Dr. Raymond Oonk (ASTRON/Leiden Observatory/SURFsara) led this study which is published today in the Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society (MNRAS). He said: “The possible existence of cold ionised gas had been hinted at in previous work, but this is the first time we clearly see it.”

Ionisation is an energetic process that strips electrons away from atoms. The atom will become electrically charged and can then be called an ion. This typically happens in gas that is very hot (10,000 degrees Celsius,18,032 degrees Fahrenheit) and where atoms can easily lose their electrons. It was therefore puzzling to discover the ionised hydrogen from very cold gas in this cloud. Normal energy sources, such as photons from massive stars, would not cause this. More exotic energy forms, such as high energy particles created in supernova shockwaves and near black holes, are more likely to be responsible.

Dr. Oonk continues: “This discovery shows that the energy needed to ionise hydrogen atoms can penetrate deep into cold clouds. Such cold clouds are believed to be the fuel from which new stars are born. However, in our galaxy we know that the stellar birth rate is very low, much lower than naively expected. Perhaps the energy observed here acts as a stabiliser for cold clouds, thereby preventing them from collapsing on to themselves and forming new stars.”

A composite image showing our galaxy, the Milky Way, rising above the Engineering Development Array at the Murchison Radio-astronomy Observatory in Western Australia. Image credit: Engineering Development Array image courtesy of ICRAR. Milky Way image courtesy of Sandino Pusta

The observation was made with the Engineering Development Array (EDA), a prototype station of the Square Kilometre Array (SKA), the worlds’ largest radio telescope. Prof. Randall Wayth of Curtin University and ICRAR says: “This detection was made possible by the wide bandwidth of the EDA and the extremely radio quiet location of the Murchison Radio-astronomy Observatory. The low frequency portion of the Square Kilometre Array will be built at this location in the coming years, so this excellent result gives us a glimpse of what the SKA will be capable of once it’s built.”

The data reduction was led by Emma Alexander of the University of Manchester as part of her summer student internship at ASTRON: “It’s a very exciting time to be coming into radio astronomy, and it was great to work on the first high resolution spectroscopic data from this SKA prototype station. The technologies that are being developed for the SKA, and the science results that come from them, will be a driving force for my generation of radio astronomers.”

This work was carried out as a collaboration between the Netherlands Institute for Radio Astronomy (ASTRON), Leiden University, the International Centre for Radio Astronomy Research (ICRAR), University of Manchester and the Square Kilometre Array.

Keep up to date with the latest news in All About Space – available every month for just £4.99. Alternatively you can subscribe here for a fraction of the price!

Tags: , , , , , , , , , ,