From European Space Agency – United space in Europe: “Orion A in infrared”

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From European Space Agency – United space in Europe

United space in Europe

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“Orion A in infrared”

Stars form within giant clouds of gas and dust that pervade galaxies like our own Milky Way. This image depicts one such cloud, known as Orion A, as seen by ESA’s Herschel and Planck space observatories.

ESA/Herschel spacecraft active from 2009 to 2013

ESA/Planck 2009 to 2013

At 1350 light years away, Orion A is the nearest heavyweight stellar nursery to us. The cloud is packed full of gas – it contains so much material, in fact, that it would be capable of producing tens of thousands of Suns. Along with its sibling, Orion B, the cloud makes up the Orion Molecular Cloud Complex, a vast star-forming region within the constellation of Orion, which is most prominent in the night sky during northern hemisphere winter and southern hemisphere summer.

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Orion Molecular Cloud Complex. Sun.org

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Orion Molecular Cloud Complex. PLanck

The different colours visible here indicate the light emitted by interstellar dust grains mixed within the gas, as observed by Herschel at far-infrared and sub-millimetre wavelengths, while the texture of faint grey bands stretching across the frame, based on Planck’s measurements of the direction of the polarised light emitted by the dust, show the orientation of the magnetic field.

As evident from images like this, the space that sits between stars is not empty but is instead filled with a cool substance known as the interstellar medium (ISM) – a mix of gas and dust that often clumps together. When these clumps become dense enough they start to collapse under their own gravity and become hotter and hotter and denser and denser until they spark something exciting: the creation of new stars.

Magnetism is an important component of the ISM. Magnetic fields permeate the Universe, and are involved in helping clouds of matter maintain the delicate balance between pressure and gravity that eventually lead to the birth of stars. The mechanisms that oppose the gravitational collapse of star-forming clouds remain somewhat unclear, but a recent study suggests that interstellar magnetic fields play a significant role in guiding the flows of matter in the ISM, and may be a key player in preventing inter-stellar cloud collapse.

The study finds that matter within the ISM is coupled to the surrounding magnetic field and can only move along its lines, creating a sort of ‘conveyor belts’ of field-aligned matter, as expected from the effect of electromagnetic forces. When these interact with an external source of energy – such as an exploding star, or other material moving through the galaxy – these flows along the magnetic field lines converge. The process creates a compressed pocket of higher density that appears to be perpendicular to the field itself. As more and more matter streams inwards, this region becomes increasingly dense, until it eventually reaches the critical density for gravitational collapse and crumples in on itself, leading to the formation of stars.

The data comprising this image were gathered during Planck’s all-sky observations and Herschel’s ‘Gould Belt Survey. Operational until 2013, both Herschel and Planck were instrumental in exploring the cool and the distant Universe, shedding light on many cosmic phenomena, from the formation of stars in our Milky Way galaxy to the expansion history of the entire Universe.

The study was published in Astronomy & Astrophysics (2019) by J. D. Soler, Max Planck Institute for Astronomy (Heidelberg, Germany).

See the full article here .


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The European Space Agency (ESA), established in 1975, is an intergovernmental organization dedicated to the exploration of space, currently with 19 member states. Headquartered in Paris, ESA has a staff of more than 2,000. ESA’s space flight program includes human spaceflight, mainly through the participation in the International Space Station program, the launch and operations of unmanned exploration missions to other planets and the Moon, Earth observation, science, telecommunication as well as maintaining a major spaceport, the Guiana Space Centre at Kourou, French Guiana, and designing launch vehicles. ESA science missions are based at ESTEC in Noordwijk, Netherlands, Earth Observation missions at ESRIN in Frascati, Italy, ESA Mission Control (ESOC) is in Darmstadt, Germany, the European Astronaut Centre (EAC) that trains astronauts for future missions is situated in Cologne, Germany, and the European Space Astronomy Centre is located in Villanueva de la Cañada, Spain.

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