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.
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 constella-tion of Orion, which is most prominent in the night sky during northern hemisphere winter and southern hemisphere summer.
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.
Meanwhile back on Earth, we have sunshine and the odd wisp of cloud today in Southern Spain with 17 Centigrade and 35% humidity. Wind: 14 KPH from the West. How are conditions on your part of the planet? Comment below, including your location. It is always great to hear the local perspectives from our global community.
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