New images using data from retired ESA (European Space Agency) and NASA missions show the dust that fills the space between stars in four galaxies closest to our own Milky Way. The striking images also provide insights into how dramatically the density of dust clouds can vary within a galaxy.
Cosmic dust has a consistency similar to smoke. It is created by dying stars and is also the material that forms new stars. According to NASA, space telescopes observe dust clouds constantly being shaped and shaped by exploding stars, stellar winds and the effects of gravity. It also notes that understanding this cosmic substance is the key to understanding our own universe.
The work of ESA’s Herschel Space Craft Observatory, which operated from 2009 to 2013, made the new observations possible. The super-cold instruments were able to detect the thermal glow from dust emitted as infrared light. Herschel’s images of the cosmic dust gave rise to fine details in these clouds.
But how the telescope could not detect light from more scattered and diffuse clouds, especially in the outer parts of galaxies, where gas and dust become sparser.
This meant that Herschel missed up to 30 percent of all light emitted by dust in nearby galaxies. To fill the gaps in the dust maps created with Herschel, astronomers used data from three retired missions: ESA’s Planck Observatory and NASA’s Infrared Astronomical Satellite (IRAS) and Cosmic Background Explorer (COBE).
In the pictures you can see the Andromeda Galaxy (known as M31), the Triangulum Galaxy (M33) and the large and small Magellanic clouds, which are dwarf galaxies that orbit the Milky Way and do not have Andromeda’s spiral structures and Triangulum galaxies. All these four galaxies are within three million light-years from our planet.
According to NASA’s JPL lab, the red color in the images indicates hydrogen. Bubbles of empty space in the images indicate regions where stars were recently formed and blew away the surrounding dust and gas due to their instantaneous wind. The green light around the edges of the bubble indicates the presence of cold dust that has accumulated as a result of these winds. Warmer dust shown in blue indicates where stars are forming and other processes that can heat the dust.
Carbon, oxygen, iron and other heavy substances can get stuck in dust grains and the presence of these different substances changes how dust absorbs starlight. “These enhanced Herschel images show us that the” ecosystem “of dust in these galaxies is very dynamic,” said Christopher Clark, an astronomer at the Space Science Telescope Institute in Maryland, and leader of the work to create these images, in a press release.
Researchers studying interstellar space and star formation are trying to better understand these ongoing cycles. The newly created images have shown that the ratio of dust to gas can vary by up to a factor of 20 within a single galaxy, much more than previously estimated.
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