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Jodrell Bank Astronomers Spy Giant Alcohol Cloud

An image in radio wavelengths of a giant methyl alcohol cloud surrounding a stellar nursery. Image credit: Digitized Sky Survey, ESA/ESO/NASA FITS Liberator
by Staff Writers
Leicester England (SPX) Apr 3, 2006
Astronomers at the Jodrell Bank Observatory have discovered a giant cloud of methyl alcohol wrapped around a stellar nursery. The gas cloud could improve the understanding of how the most massive stars are formed.

The cloud, which spans about nearly 300-billion miles, was imaged by the newly upgraded MERLIN radio telescope array. The astronomers studied an area called W3(OH), a region in the Milky Way galaxy where stars are being formed by the gravitational collapse of a cloud of gas and dust. The observations revealed giant filaments of gas emitting as masers, in which molecules in the gas amplify and emit beams of microwave radiation in the same way as a laser emits beams of light.

The filaments of masing gas form giant bridges between maser spots in W3(OH) that had been observed previously. The largest is 288 billion miles (463 billion kilometers) long. Observations show the entire gas cloud appears to be rotating as a disc around a central star, just as accretion discs rotate around young stars to form planets. The maser filaments occur at shock boundaries where large regions of gas are colliding.

"Our discovery is very interesting because it challenges some long-accepted views held in astronomical maser research, said Lisa Harvey-Smith, the study's principal investigator. "Until we found these filaments, we thought of masers as point-like objects or very small bright hotspots surrounded by halos of fainter emission."

The upgrade of the MERLIN network has allowed astronomers to image methanol masers with a much higher sensitivity and, for the first time, obtain a complete picture of all the radiation surrounding maser sources.

Speaking at a meeting of the Royal Astronomical Society, Harvey-Smith said her team examined the motion of the W3(OH) star-forming region in three dimensions. They also measured the physical properties of the gas including temperature, pressure and the strength and direction of the magnetic fields.

Harvey-Smith said the information is considered vital to test theories about how stars are born from the primordial gas in stellar nurseries. "There are still many unanswered questions about the birth of massive stars because the formation centers are shrouded by dust," she said. "The only radiation that can escape is at radio wavelengths and the upgraded MERLIN network is now giving us the first opportunity to look deep into these star forming regions and see what is really going on."

The many different types of interactions between molecules in star- forming regions lead to emissions in many different wavelengths. The astronomers plan future observations of masers at other frequencies to complete the complex picture the observations have revealed.

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