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Star-forming cloud helps Aussie scientists unravel solar system mysteries

Society 11.05.2018 | 15:55

CANBERRA, 11 May (BelTA - Xinhua) - A joint study has shed new light on the mystery of how the solar system was formed in a cloud of gas and dust in space billions of years ago.

The study, led by The Australian National University (ANU) and the University of Crete in Greece, unravelled the mystery when examining a star-forming cloud called Musca, which appears as a needle in the southern sky.

Lead researcher Dr Aris Tritsis, from ANU, said on Friday the study visualized the 3D shape of Musca, which lies hundreds of light years away from the earth.

The large gas cloud, formed mainly of molecular hydrogen and dust, stretches about 27 light years across the plain of the sky, with a depth of about 20 light years and width up to a fraction of a light year.

"We were able to reconstruct the 3D structure of a gas cloud in its very early stages of making new stars and planets, which will ultimately take millions of years to form," said Tritsis, from the ANU Research School of Astronomy and Astrophysics.

"Knowledge of the 3D shape of clouds will greatly improve our understanding of these nurseries of stars and the birth of our own solar system."

The study, which was part of Tritsis' PhD thesis, has made use of data from the European Space Agency's Herschel space telescope.

He said scientists could now use Musca as a model to learn how stars and planets were formed.

"With its 3D shape now determined, Musca can be used as a laboratory for testing star formation, astrochemical and dust-formation theories," Tritsis said.

"We see, for the first time, that this cloud is not a thin, static streak of gas in space, but a vibrating, complex structure. Despite its needle-like appearance, Musca actually resembles a sheet viewed edge-on."

Musca is surrounded by ordered hair-like structures called striations, which are produced by trapped waves of gas and dust caused by the global vibrations of the cloud.

The research team was able to determine the shape of Musca by analysing the spatial frequencies of these vibrations, which were then converted into ringing tones to reveal the "Song of Musca."

"This is a cloud in space that is singing to us - all we had to do was listen. It's actually quite awesome," Tritsis said.

In addition to providing new insights into star and planet formation, the model of Musca cloud can also be used to see how molecules form in gas clouds.

Co-researcher Dr Konstantinos Tassis, from the University of Crete, said Musca was the largest structure in the Milky Way galaxy found to be vibrating as a whole. "There's a whole range of new things we can learn from this model," Tassis said.

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