An astonishing new three-dimensional view of the dense interstellar gas in our Milky Way

Example of the clouds in a small section of the SEDIGISM survey, each cloud in a different (random) colour. Insert: Schematic display of spiral arms in the Milky Way, with the survey coverage shaded in Grey.
Ana Duarte-Cabral, Alex Pettitt and James Urquhart

An international team including MPIfR scientists used the APEX telescope to map an area of more than 80 square degrees in the Southern Galactic plane. Spectral lines emitted from several molecules, including the rare isotopes 13CO and C18O of the carbon monoxide molecule, probed the moderately dense component of the interstellar medium. The resulting survey reveals a wide range of structures, from individual star-forming clumps to giant molecular clouds and complexes. This survey allows us to constrain the large-scale distribution of cold molecular gas in the inner Galaxy and ultimately unravel the structure of the Milky Way.

Observations of spectral lines of the carbon monoxide molecule allow us to probe the cold and dense molecular phase of the interstellar medium, from which new stars form. In addition, the velocity of the clouds can be measured via their Doppler shift. This allows us to link the clouds to the rotation of the spiral structure of our Milky Way, thereby providing a three-dimensional view of their distribution, which shows a rich variety of structures, such as filaments and cavities, resulting from all the physical effects that shape the interstellar medium.

Using the APEX telescope in the Chilean Andes, an international team of about 50 astronomers has completed the analysis of this observational effort, which covers 84 square degrees of the southern inner Galaxy, ranging in Galactic longitude from -60 to +18 degrees with a resolution of 30 arc seconds, only about 1/60 of the projected moon diameter on the sky. With a velocity resolution of 0.25 km/s, it provides the morphology, distance information and kinematics of all Galactic molecular clouds in approximately 2/3 of the inner Milky Way disk.

The survey is called SEDIGISM (Structure, Excitation and Dynamics of the Inner Galactic Interstellar Medium) and includes data taken in the years 2013-17 that will now be released to the astronomical community together with the first three scientific publications on the full data set.

“With the publication of this unprecedentedly detailed map of cold clouds in our Milky Way a huge observational effort comes to fruition”, says Frederic Schuller from the Max Planck Institute for Radio Astronomy (MPIfR), the principal investigator of the SEDIGISM survey. “The team did a great job in delivering a new roadmap for molecular gas in the Galaxy as legacy of APEX for years to come.”

“Based on these data, a catalog of over 10,000 of these clouds in our Milky Way has been compiled, which show a highly structured Galactic distribution, albeit with relatively homogeneous physical properties, with only hints for potential environmental dependency of some cloud properties”, explains Ana Duarte-Cabral from Cardiff University, the lead author of the second paper. James Urquhart from the University of Kent, the lead author of the third publication, adds: “In conjunction with the previous survey of cold dust emission in the Galaxy (ATLASGAL), the fraction of clouds associated with dense gas could be estimated: only 10% of the clouds are sites of ongoing star formation”.

The observations targeted the rare 13CO and C18O isotopes of the carbon monoxide molecule that allow much more precise mass estimates of the clouds than the much more abundant 12CO, but require a very sensitive telescope. The 12-m APEX telescope (Fig. 2), with its precise mirror surface and a location at one of the world’s best sites for (sub)millimeter astronomy, has been key for the success of the project. Located at 5100m on the dry Chajnantor plateau in Chile, the low water vapour content of the site leads to the very high transparency of the sky that is needed for such observations.

Molecular clouds consist of the raw material from which new stars form. Imaging these clouds is therefore essential to derive important parameters such as the star formation efficiency in our Galaxy. The morphology and physical conditions of the clouds also provide the initial conditions that theories of star formation have to take into account. It is, therefore, crucial to spatially resolve the clouds, which was possible with the high-angular resolution of the survey.

The survey is not only interesting on its own, but also complements a number of other outstanding Galactic plane surveys, conducted in the last decade in the mid- to far-infrared wavelength ranges with space-based telescopes such as Spitzer and Herschel and, at longer wavelengths with APEX itself, which are all lacking the velocity information. The data of these surveys can now be re-analysed in conjunction with the new carbon monoxide line data. This will significantly enhance their role in the ongoing quest to understand the formation of stars, stellar clusters and ultimately the structure and dynamics of the Milky Way.

“Our survey represents a significant step towards understanding the structure of the Galaxy in which we live”, concludes Dario Colombo from MPIfR, co-author of all three publications, who is currently preparing another analysis of the data to establish the influence of spiral arms on molecular cloud properties.

Background Information:

SEDIGISM (Structure, Excitation and Dynamics of the Inner Galactic Interstellar Medium) is a survey of the southern Galactic plane covering an area of 84 square degrees in the sky, ranging in galactic longitude from -60 to +18 degrees with a resolution of 30 arc seconds. Two spectral lines of the carbon monoxide molecule were observed in the less abundant 13CO and C18O isotopologues with the APEX telescope.

ATLASGAL, the APEX Telescope Large Area Survey of the Galaxy, is a collaboration between the Max Planck Institute for Radio Astronomy (MPIfR), the Max Planck Institute for Astronomy (MPIA), and scientists from the ESO community and the University of Chile.

APEX, the Atacama Pathfinder Experiment, is a collaboration between the Max Planck Institute for Radio Astronomy (MPIfR), the European Southern Observatory (ESO) and the Onsala Space Observatory (OSO) to construct and operate, since 2005, a single dish telescope on the Chajnantor plateau at an altitude of 5,100 metres above sea level (Atacama Desert, Chile). The telescope was manufactured by VERTEX Antennentechnik in Duisburg, Germany. The operation of the telescope is entrusted to ESO.

The research team comprises a number of authors, including Dario Colombo, Timea Csengeri, Min-Young Lee, Silvia Leurini, Michael Mattern, Parichay Mazumdar, Sac Medina, Karl Menten, Alberto Sanna, Frederic Schuller, Marion Wienen, Friedrich Wyrowski, all holding a present or recent affiliation with the MPIfR.

Wissenschaftliche Ansprechpartner:

Dr. Friedrich Wyrowski
Max-Planck-Institut für Radioastronomie, Bonn.
Fon: +49 228 525-381

Dr. Dario Colombo
Max-Planck-Institut für Radioastronomie, Bonn.
Fon: +49 228 525-196


“The SEDIGISM survey: first data release and overview of the Galactic structure”, F. Schuller et al., Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society 2020. DOI: 10.1093/mnras/staa2369

“The SEDIGISM survey: Molecular clouds in the inner Galaxy”, A. Duarte-Cabral et al., Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society 2020. DOI: 10.1093/mnras/staa2480

“SEDIGISM-ATLASGAL: Dense Gas Fraction and Star Formation Efficiency Across the Galactic Disk”, J.S. Urquhart et al., Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society 2020. DOI: 10.1093/mnras/staa2512

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Max-Planck-Institut für Radioastronomie

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