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A box-shaped cloud of opaque dust located at the center of our galaxy has long puzzled scientists, and observations revealing new details about its formation are deepening the mystery — and perhaps upending what is known about how stars form.
The cloud, nicknamed the “brick” for its optical impenetrability and rectangular appearance, previously existed. estimated To carry more than 100,000 times the mass of the sun. Such a dense blob should produce massive new stars, based on researchers’ current understanding of star formation.
But it is not.
Bricks are largely inert. The latest observations made with the James Webb Space Telescope did not reveal any hidden young stars.
Instead, new Webb data reveals that bricks aren’t just made of gas. They are also full of frozen carbon monoxide – much more than previously expected – according to A Stady Published on Monday in Astrophysical Journal. There is more ice forming deep within the bricks.
The findings could have radical implications for how scientists analyze this region in the future. Having more carbon monoxide ice inside the bricks could significantly change how researchers study and measure the dark clouds at the center of the Milky Way.
“We are (now) closer to understanding exactly what is going on in the bricks and where the cluster is,” said University of Florida astronomer Adam Ginsburg, lead author of the study. “But we opened more questions than we closed with this.”
Among those questions: Why and where does carbon monoxide freeze and turn into ice?
Other looming mysteries in this region also remain unanswered: Why don’t we see any new stars forming? Aren’t bricks as dense as scientists previously thought? What are the strange ridge-like and thread-like features that appear within the bricks?
“We have more to investigate before we can really be sure what’s going on,” Ginsburg said. “I would say we are in the hypothesis-forming stage, not the conclusion-drawing stage.”
Ginsburg and his fellow researchers, who include graduate students at the University of Florida, obtained Webb’s new data for the first time in September 2022.
It was a defining moment. As the most powerful space telescope ever built, Webb could provide never-before-seen insights into the bricks. But from the beginning, Ginsberg and his team found that the data needed a lot of work. The Webb telescope orients itself using a map, determining which direction to point by indicating its position relative to known stars.
The problem was that “there are so many stars in the center of the galaxy that it gets cluttered,” Ginsberg said. Therefore, the researchers had to spend months cleaning up the data and orienting it to line up correctly with existing sky maps.
Then, when they looked at the bricks, they found that the images from Webb were showing the wrong color.
“All the stars were coming out a little blue,” Ginsburg Which led the researchers to wonder if there was something wrong with the data.
But he said it turns out the problem lies in their assumptions. Scientists did not expect there to be so much carbon monoxide ice, and that was the reason for the color change, according to the study.
Knowing the existence of ice could have widespread ripple effects on all types of research at the center of the Milky Way, said Dr. Natalie Butterfield, an associate scientist at the National Radio Astronomy Observatory, who was not involved in the study.
Butterfield said her own research — which includes studying supernovas and radiation between stellar systems — could be changed forever by understanding the presence of carbon monoxide ice. It could change the way scientists estimate the mass of all the clouds at the center of the galaxy.
There are several puzzling things about all this carbon monoxide ice. For example, the region is fairly warm — about 60 Kelvin (minus 351.67 degrees Fahrenheit) — while carbon monoxide normally freezes at 20 Kelvin.
The dust inside the bricks can be much colder than the gas, causing the carbon monoxide around the dust particles to turn into a solid state. Or, Ginsburg said, the water could be freezing, trapping carbon monoxide inside.
The answer matters.
All the ice in a region like the Breck could give scientists new insight into our solar system, and even our home planet.
For example, ice and water on Earth likely got here via comets. So, where ice is found in the universe and how it forms could help researchers understand where these comets come from and how to collect the material they deposited.
Then there’s the big mystery of why there’s so little star formation inside the bricks.
Scientists already know that new stars are made up of dust clouds and hydrogen molecules. But scientists cannot directly observe hydrogen moleculesInside bricks – or anywhere else in the universe – because they are not visible to telescopes.
However, scientists also know that for every hydrogen molecule, there is likely to be a certain amount of carbon monoxide. Carbon monoxide is visible, so scientists can measure it as an alternative to determine how many hydrogen molecules are present in a given area.
Researchers use this method to measure hydrogen moleculesFor 50 years, Ginsburg said.
But they always assumed the carbon monoxide was a gas, not solid ice, as Webb’s data revealed. This discovery opens a whole new can of worms, Ginsburg said.
Ginsburg noted that it is important for researchers to understand the state of matter in which carbon monoxide exists — gaseous or solid — to arrive at the right answers.
Each new piece of information about the brick and its composition better explains why this dim cloud is not producing stars, even though – by most accounts – it should be one of the most active star nurseries in the galaxy.
“It’s a really natural place for new stars,” Ginsburg said. “But we didn’t find very many, just a very small handful.”
There are some potential answers that Ginsburg and other researchers are keen to explore: Perhaps bricks are more widespread — less compact — than scientists previously thought. Or perhaps it is very young, and the days of star formation lie ahead of it.
These are questions that Webb can continue to help researchers answer, Ginsberg and Butterfield said.
“It’s just an impressive telescope,” Butterfield said. “I believe this is just the first of many unique results that will come out of the Galactic Center’s James Webb Space Telescope.”
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