(CNN) — A cloud of opaque dust located at the center of our galaxy has long puzzled scientists, and observations revealing new details about its formation deepen the mystery, and may change what is known about how stars form.
previously estimated The cloud, nicknamed “the brick” for its visual impenetrability and rectangular appearance, has a mass of more than 100,000 times the mass of the sun. Such a dense mass should produce massive new stars, according to researchers’ current understanding of star formation.
But that is not the case.
Brick, for the most part, lies dormant. Recent observations made with the James Webb Space Telescope did not reveal any hidden young stars.
Instead, new Webb data reveals that the cloud isn’t just made of gas. It is also full of frozen carbon monoxide, much more than previously expected, according to A Stady Published on Monday in Astrophysical Journal. More ice is forming in its depths.
These findings could have radical implications for how scientists analyze this region in the future. The presence of more carbon monoxide ice within this cloud could radically change the way researchers study and measure the dark clouds at the center of the Milky Way.
“We are (now) closer to understanding exactly what is going on in the bricks and where the cluster is,” said astronomer Adam Ginsberg of the University of Florida, lead author of the study. “But we opened more questions than we closed with this.”
Among those questions: Why and where does carbon monoxide freeze and turn into ice?
Other mysteries in this region also remain unanswered: Why can’t we see new star formation? Aren’t bricks as dense as scientists think? What are the strange hill-like features and threads that appear within them?
“We have more to investigate before we can really be sure what’s going on,” Ginsburg said. “I would say we are in the stage of formulating hypotheses, not drawing conclusions.”
What Webb revealed
Ginsburg and her fellow researchers, who included graduate students at the University of Florida, first obtained this new data from Webb in September 2022.
It was a defining moment. As the most powerful space telescope ever built, Webb can provide never-before-seen information about bricks. But from the beginning, Ginsburg and her team found that the data needed a lot of work. The Webb telescope orients itself using a map, determining which direction to point by indicating its position relative to known stars.
The problem, Ginsburg said, is that “there are so many stars in the center of the galaxy that it gets confusing.” So the researchers had to spend months cleaning the data and orienting it to line up correctly with existing sky maps.
Then, while looking at the cloud, they discovered that Web’s images were the wrong color.
“All the stars appeared very blue,” Ginsburg said, leading researchers to wonder if there was something wrong with the data.
But it turns out, he says, that the problem was his assumptions. Scientists did not expect there to be so much carbon monoxide ice, and this was the reason for the color change, according to the study.
Dr. Natalie Butterfield, an associate scientist at the National Radio Astronomy Observatory, who was not involved in the study, said learning about the presence of ice could have wide-ranging implications for all types of research at the center of the Milky Way.
Butterfield noted that his research, which includes studying supernovae and radiation between stellar systems, could be changed forever if the existence of carbon monoxide ice is understood. It could change the way scientists estimate the mass of all the clouds at the center of the galaxy.
Why is carbon monoxide important?
There are several puzzling things about all this carbon monoxide ice. For example, the region is very warm (about minus 60 Kelvin (minus 351.67 degrees Fahrenheit), while carbon monoxide generally freezes at 20 Kelvin.
The dust inside the bricks can be much colder than the gas, causing the carbon monoxide around the dust particles to turn into a solid state. Or, according to Ginsburg, the water could be freezing, trapping carbon monoxide inside.
The answer matters.
All the ice in a region like the Break could give scientists a new view of our solar system, and even our home planet.
For example, ice and water on Earth likely got here via comets. So knowing where ice is found in the universe and how it forms can help researchers understand where these comets come from and how to collect the material they deposited.
Where are the stars?
Then there is the big mystery of why there is so little star formation within this region.
Scientists already know that new stars form from clouds of dust and hydrogen molecules. But scientists cannot directly observe hydrogen molecules inside bricks (or anywhere else in the universe) because they are not visible to telescopes.
However, scientists also know that for every hydrogen molecule, there is likely to be a certain amount of carbon monoxide. Carbon monoxide is visible, so scientists can measure it as an indicator to determine how many hydrogen molecules are present in a given area.
Researchers have used this method to measure hydrogen molecules for 50 years, Ginsberg said.
But they always assumed the carbon monoxide was a gas, not solid ice, as Webb’s data revealed. This discovery opens a whole new door, Ginsburg said, noting that it is important for researchers to understand the state of matter in carbon monoxide (gaseous or solid) to arrive at the right answers.
Each new knowledge about the brick and its composition better explains why this dim cloud does not produce stars, even though, by most opinions, it should be one of the most active star nurseries in the galaxy.
“It’s a really natural place for new stars,” Ginsburg said. “But we didn’t find many, just a very small handful.”
There are some potential answers that Ginsburg and other researchers are eager to explore: Perhaps bricks are more widespread (less compact) than scientists previously thought. Or maybe he’s simply too young and his star-making days are ahead of him.
These are questions that Webb can continue to help researchers answer, Ginsberg and Butterfield said.
“It’s just a wonderful, wonderful telescope,” Butterfield said. “I think this is just the first of many unique results that will emerge from [telescopio] JWST to the center of the galaxy.
“Proud web fanatic. Subtly charming twitter geek. Reader. Internet trailblazer. Music buff.”