Forum for Science, Industry and Business

Sponsored by:     3M 
Search our Site:

 

UC Berkeley astronomers find magnetic Slinky in constellation of Orion

13.01.2006


Astronomers announced yesterday (Thursday, Jan. 12) what may be the first discovery of a helical magnetic field in interstellar space, coiled like a snake around a gas cloud in the constellation of Orion.


The Orion Molecular Cloud superimposed on the Orion constellation, with the orange star Betelgeuse at the top corner and Rigel at the bottom. The inset shows the Slinky-like coils of the helical magnetic field surrounding the filamentary cloud.Credit: Saxton, Dame, Hartmann, Thaddeus; NRAO/AUI/NSF



"You can think of this structure as a giant, magnetic Slinky wrapped around a long, finger-like interstellar cloud,’’ said Timothy Robishaw, a graduate student in astronomy at the University of California, Berkeley. "The magnetic field lines are like stretched rubber bands; the tension squeezes the cloud into its filamentary shape.’’

Astronomers have long hoped to find specific cases in which magnetic forces directly influence the shape of interstellar clouds, but according to Robishaw, "telescopes just haven’t been up to the task ... until now."


The findings provide the first evidence of the magnetic field structure around a filamentary-shaped interstellar cloud known as the Orion Molecular Cloud.

Today’s announcement by Robishaw and Carl Heiles, UC Berkeley professor of astronomy, was made during a presentation at the American Astronomical Society meeting in Washington, D.C.

Interstellar molecular clouds are the birthplaces of stars, and the Orion Molecular Cloud contains two such stellar nurseries - one in the belt and another in the sword of the Orion constellation. Interstellar clouds are dense regions embedded in a much lower-density external medium, but the "dense" interstellar clouds are, by Earth standards, a perfect vacuum. In combination with magnetic forces, it’s the large size of these clouds that makes enough gravity to pull them together to make stars.

Astronomers have known for some time that many molecular clouds are filamentary structures whose shapes are suspected to be sculpted by a balance between the force of gravity and magnetic fields. In making theoretical models of these clouds, most astrophysicists have treated them as spheres rather than finger-like filaments. However, a theoretical treatment published in 2000 by Drs. Jason Fiege and Ralph Pudritz of McMaster University suggested that when treated properly, filamentary molecular clouds should exhibit a helical magnetic field around the long axis of the cloud. This is the first observational confirmation of this theory.

"Measuring magnetic fields in space is a very difficult task,’’ Robishaw said, "because the field in interstellar space is very weak and because there are systematic measurement effects that can produce erroneous results.’’

The signature of a magnetic field pointing towards or away from the Earth is known as the Zeeman effect and is observed as the splitting of a radio frequency line.

"An analogy would be when you’re scanning the radio dial and you get the same station separated by a small blank space," Robishaw explained. "The size of the blank space is directly proportional to the strength of the magnetic field at the location in space where the station is being broadcast.’’

The signal, in this case, is being broadcast at 1420 MHz on the radio dial by interstellar hydrogen - the simplest and most abundant atom in the universe. The transmitter is located 1750 light years away in the Orion constellation.

The antenna that received these radio transmissions is the National Science Foundation’s Green Bank Telescope (GBT), operated by the National Radio Astronomy Observatory. The telescope, 148 meters (485 feet) tall and with a dish 100 meters (300 feet) in diameter, is located in West Virginia where 13,000 square miles have been set aside as the National Radio Quiet Zone. This allows radio astronomers to observe radio waves coming from space without interference from manmade signals.

Using the GBT, Robishaw and Heiles observed radio waves along slices across the Orion Molecular Cloud and found that the magnetic field reversed its direction, pointing towards the Earth on the upper side of the cloud and away from it on the bottom. They used previous observations of starlight to inspect how the magnetic field in front of the cloud is oriented. (There is no way to gain information about what’s happening behind the cloud since the cloud is so dense that neither optical light nor radio waves can penetrate it.) When they combined all available measurements, the picture emerged of a corkscrew pattern wrapping around the cloud.

"These results were incredibly exciting to me for a number of reasons,’’ Robishaw said. "There’s the scientific result of a helical field structure. Then, there’s the successful measurement: This type of observation is very difficult, and it took dozens of hours on the telescope just to understand how this enormous dish responds to the polarized radio waves that are the signature of a magnetic field.’’

The results of these investigations suggested to Robishaw and Heiles that the GBT is not only unparalleled among large radio telescopes for measuring magnetic fields, but it is the only one that can reliably detect weak magnetic fields.

Heiles cautioned that there is one possible alternative explanation for the observed magnetic field structure: The field might be wrapped around the front of the cloud.

"It’s a very dense object,’’ Heiles said. "It also happens to lie inside the hollowed-out shell of a very large shock wave that was formed when many stars exploded in the neighboring constellation of Eridanus.’’

That shock wave would have carried the magnetic field along with it, he said, "until it reached the molecular cloud! The magnetic field lines would get stretched across the face of the cloud and wrapped around the sides. The signature of such a configuration would be very similar to what we see now. What really convinces us that this is a helical field is that there seems to be a constant pitch angle to the field lines across the face of the cloud.’’

However, the situation can be clarified by further research. Robishaw and Heiles plan to extend their measurements in this cloud and others using the GBT. They will also collaborate with Canadian colleagues to use starlight to measure the field across the face of this and other clouds.

"The hope is to provide enough evidence to understand what the true structure of this magnetic field is," said Heiles. "A clear understanding is essential in order to truly understand the processes by which molecular clouds form stars in the Milky Way galaxy.’’

Robert Sanders | EurekAlert!
Further information:
http://www.berkeley.edu

All articles from Physics and Astronomy >>>

The most recent press releases about innovation >>>

Die letzten 5 Focus-News des innovations-reports im Überblick:

Im Focus: New proton record: Researchers measure magnetic moment with greatest possible precision

High-precision measurement of the g-factor eleven times more precise than before / Results indicate a strong similarity between protons and antiprotons

The magnetic moment of an individual proton is inconceivably small, but can still be quantified. The basis for undertaking this measurement was laid over ten...

Im Focus: Frictional Heat Powers Hydrothermal Activity on Enceladus

Computer simulation shows how the icy moon heats water in a porous rock core

Heat from the friction of rocks caused by tidal forces could be the “engine” for the hydrothermal activity on Saturn's moon Enceladus. This presupposes that...

Im Focus: Nanoparticles help with malaria diagnosis – new rapid test in development

The WHO reports an estimated 429,000 malaria deaths each year. The disease mostly affects tropical and subtropical regions and in particular the African continent. The Fraunhofer Institute for Silicate Research ISC teamed up with the Fraunhofer Institute for Molecular Biology and Applied Ecology IME and the Institute of Tropical Medicine at the University of Tübingen for a new test method to detect malaria parasites in blood. The idea of the research project “NanoFRET” is to develop a highly sensitive and reliable rapid diagnostic test so that patient treatment can begin as early as possible.

Malaria is caused by parasites transmitted by mosquito bite. The most dangerous form of malaria is malaria tropica. Left untreated, it is fatal in most cases....

Im Focus: A “cosmic snake” reveals the structure of remote galaxies

The formation of stars in distant galaxies is still largely unexplored. For the first time, astron-omers at the University of Geneva have now been able to closely observe a star system six billion light-years away. In doing so, they are confirming earlier simulations made by the University of Zurich. One special effect is made possible by the multiple reflections of images that run through the cosmos like a snake.

Today, astronomers have a pretty accurate idea of how stars were formed in the recent cosmic past. But do these laws also apply to older galaxies? For around a...

Im Focus: Visual intelligence is not the same as IQ

Just because someone is smart and well-motivated doesn't mean he or she can learn the visual skills needed to excel at tasks like matching fingerprints, interpreting medical X-rays, keeping track of aircraft on radar displays or forensic face matching.

That is the implication of a new study which shows for the first time that there is a broad range of differences in people's visual ability and that these...

All Focus news of the innovation-report >>>

Anzeige

Anzeige

Event News

Ecology Across Borders: International conference brings together 1,500 ecologists

15.11.2017 | Event News

Road into laboratory: Users discuss biaxial fatigue-testing for car and truck wheel

15.11.2017 | Event News

#Berlin5GWeek: The right network for Industry 4.0

30.10.2017 | Event News

 
Latest News

IceCube experiment finds Earth can block high-energy particles from nuclear reactions

24.11.2017 | Physics and Astronomy

A 'half-hearted' solution to one-sided heart failure

24.11.2017 | Health and Medicine

Heidelberg Researchers Study Unique Underwater Stalactites

24.11.2017 | Earth Sciences

VideoLinks
B2B-VideoLinks
More VideoLinks >>>