A new map of the Milky Way reveals a huge star nursery wave. This large structure is made up of many interconnected “nurseries” where stars are born.

Harvard University astronomers have discovered a huge wave of gaseous star nursery. This may be the largest structure found in our galaxy.

The long, thin filament of gas, dubbed “Radcliffe Wave”, is about 9,000 light-years long and 400 light-years wide. It includes some 800 million stars and is dense with active star-forming gas. This gaseous filament lies about 500 light-years from us, which is pretty close in astronomical terms.

“What we’ve observed is the largest coherent gas structure we know of in the galaxy,” said study co-author João Alves, a professor of astrophysics at the University of Vienna. “The sun lies only 500 light-years from the wave at its closest point. It’s been right in front of our eyes all the time, but we couldn’t see it until now.”

Alves and an international team of colleagues discovered the Radcliffe Wave while assembling a 3D map of the Milky Way. To do that, the team analyzed data from the European Gaia space telescope, launched in 2013. They noticed the strange filament of gas and stars around Orion when looking at an object known as the Gould Belt, which was first detected more than 100 years ago.

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For a century, astronomers have thought many of the star-forming regions found in the Radcliffe Wave were part of a structure called Gould’s Belt that was around 3,000 light-years (20 quadrillion km) wide. But when the researchers began digging into the Gaia data, they found Gould’s Belt is just a piece of the much larger Radcliffe Wave.

“We don’t know what causes this shape but it could be like a ripple in a pond as if something extraordinarily massive landed in our galaxy,” Alves said.

Previous studies suggested that perhaps a gigantic blob of dark matter crashed into the young gas cloud millions of years ago, warping the galaxy’s gravity and scattering the nearest stars into the pattern seen today.

“What we do know is that our sun interacts with this structure,” Alves said.

Stellar velocity data suggests that our solar system passed through the Radcliffe Wave some 13 million years ago. In about another 13 million years, it will cross into it again.

The researchers published their work Tuesday (Jan. 7) in the journal Nature.

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