Science 3 min read

NASA Image Reveals a 'Cosmic Candy Cane' in the Milky Way

Radio Arc and the Sagittarius A* features | Image credit NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center

Radio Arc and the Sagittarius A* features | Image credit NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center

NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center built a bolometer camera, called the Goddard-IRAM Superconducting 2-Millimeter Observer (GISMO).

GISMO is used at a 30m radio telescope located on Pico Veleta (Spain) operated by the Institute for Radio Astronomy in the Millimeter Range (IRAM) in France.

IRAM 30m telescope, thanks to GISMO, gained significant imaging sensitivity and mapping speed improvement. This spectral range itself (2 mm wavelength) provides a unique way to study star formation in the earliest active dusty galaxies.

Now, a GISMO composite image reveals a unique structure at the heart of our galaxy, which looks like a candy cane.

The Cosmic Candy Cane

The Milky Way’s center is home to Sagittarius A*, our resident supermassive black hole. The galaxy’s center also holds the largest and densest clouds of dust and gas. It’s these vast and cold clouds that provide basic molecules for stars, which also need some gravity magic to form.

GISMO’s new image captures these molecular clouds with an easily discernible feature resembling a candy cane.

This cosmic candy cane spans 190 light-years or over 1,000 trillion miles. It is a long strand of ionized gas scientists call filaments, which emit radio waves. GISMO spotted what’s known as the Radio Arc, the most prominent radio filament forming the straight part of the cosmic candy cane.

“It was a real surprise to see the Radio Arc in the GISMO data,” said Richard Arendt, a GISMO team member at Goddard. “Its emission comes from high-speed electrons spiraling in a magnetic field, a process called synchrotron emission. Another feature GISMO sees, called the Sickle, is associated with star formation and may be the source of these high-speed electrons.”

Two research teams published papers about GISMO’s image in The Astrophysical Journal. The first was led by Arendt at the University of Maryland and the second by Johannes Staguhn at Johns Hopkins.

“We’re very intrigued by the beauty of this image; it’s exotic. When you look at it, you feel like you’re looking at some really special forces of nature in the universe,” Staguhn says.

In the image, blue and cyan hues reveal the presence of cold dust in molecular clouds. In other words, here, the star formation process is still in its infancy.

Yellow features, like the filaments making up the candy cane’s handle, reveal ionized gas. The presence of ions means “well-developed star factories.”

Regions with red and orange are full of synchrotron radiation, such as in the prominent Radio Arc and the galactic center churned by a supermassive black hole.

Read More: Hoag’s Object: The Mysterious “Matryoshka Doll” Galaxy

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Zayan Guedim

Trilingual poet, investigative journalist, and novelist. Zed loves tackling the big existential questions and all-things quantum.

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