Herschel images present a stunning insight into the distribution of matter in our galaxy
Three stunning newimages from ESA's Herschel Space Observatory are providing newinsights into how matter is distributed in our galaxy. Observationsmade by the orbital telescope have led astronomers to conclude thatour galaxy is threaded with filamentary structures similar to thosefeatured in the newly-released images, the smallest of whichstretches across 170 light years of space.
Launched in May 2009,Herschel is essentially a giant infrared telescope with a primarymirror measuring 3.5 m (11.5 ft) indiameter. The observatory has been instrumental in discoveringa series of vast filaments that appear to pervade the Milky Way.Herschel is particularly suited to seeking out the structures as theinterstellar material from which they are composed shines brightlyin the infrared medium.
Three filaments arecaptured in Herschel's newest images – G64, G47, and G49. Thefilaments are essentially enormous formations of gas and dust that,when imaged in false color, display beautiful and complex internalstructures.
In Herschel'sfalse-color images, cooler structures of gas and dust are pictured asred and yellow, while smaller blue and violet clumps of matterrepresent prime star birthing regions where the next generation ofstellar behemoths are being created in a maelstrom of formation.
The three filamentscaptured by Herschel are truly enormous. Filament G49 is the largestof the newly-discovered formations, sitting roughly 18,000 lightyears away from Earth, and stretching an incredible 280 light yearsin length, and 5 light years in diameter. It is estimated that G49has a total mass of around 80,000 times that of our Sun.
G47 stretches animpressive 250 light years, with a diameter of 10 light years and amass of 20,000 Suns. Finally, G64, the most trivial of Herschel's mostrecent offering, still measures 170 light years in length with adiameter of 9 light years, and has a mass the equivalent of 5,000times that of our parent star.
Thanks to Herschel,several of these unbelievably massive filaments have now beendiscovered in our own Milky Way. Astronomers believe that they wereamong the first structures to coalesce as interstellar matterclumped together, and that they represent a key element of the starcreation process.