Giant 'Singing' Cloud in Space Imaged in 3D

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A 3D model of Musca's cloud. Aris Tritsis

From our vantage point here on Earth, the universe stretches out in all directions around us. But it can be difficult to get a handle on just what that universe looks like in three dimensions, since depth perception in space gets tricky.

A new paper published in the journal Science has tackled that challenge through an oddly musical examination of a cloud of interstellar gas. They find that what astronomers believed was a thin, needle-like cloud of gases is actually a giant flat disk. That means it contains about 10 times as much stuff as scientists had previously realized. It just happens to be perfectly aligned with Earth so that we see it edge-on.

The cloud is called Musca, and it's made up of gas and dust. It's also the sort of place where stars are born, which means it's exactly the sort of place astronomers would very much like to learn more about. But that's easier said than done, since these clouds contain lots of hydrogen that blocks out stars in telescopes.

"All sorts of different physical and chemical processes take place in their interior, and as a result, the process of star formation is poorly understood," co-author Konstantinos Tassis, an astrophysicist at the University of Crete in Greece, told the Los Angeles Times.

Tassis and his co-author decided to take a different approach to these clouds, focusing on magnetic waves that interact with the Musca cloud. That interaction leaves visible traces called striations that the astronomers could translate into the cloud's 3D structure—which turned out not to be a narrow strand after all but the edge of a flat disk.

"In much the same way that a piccolo flute makes a much different sound than a tuba (the air vibrates with different frequencies in the two cases because the shape and size of the instruments are very different), a pancake-shaped cloud vibrates in a tune that is very different than that of a needle-shaped cloud," Tassis told the Los Angeles Times. "Musca very clearly vibrates like a pancake, not a needle. It is not a subtle effect, it is eye-popping!"

Giant 'Singing' Cloud in Space Imaged in 3D | Tech & Science