A discovery made in January 2020 brought a huge change in the way we see our galaxy. Scientists managed to discover a large structure they dubbed the Radcliffe wave, and the impact it made is quite significant.
The Radcliffe wave is a structure in the Milky Way made up of hundreds of different clouds of dust and gas. It is coherent, and it stretches across over 9,000 light-years, making it the largest such structure ever seen in our galaxy. It is also surprisingly close to the Sun, being only 400 light-years away from it in its closest part.
The Discovery Of The Radcliffe Wave
A team of astronomers from Harvard discovered it, and it completely re-draws the map of our part of the Milky Way. It also makes scientists question how exactly stars and nebulae move and form throughout the galaxy. The discovery of the Radcliffe wave was made possible by using the data collected by the Gaia space observatory. Since the wave is not visible in 2D, new techniques were required to view it.
Scientists used 3D methods of mapping the matter in space to reveal the wave pattern that makes up the Radcliffe wave. The thing that caught scientists by surprise the most was how close to the Sun the structure was. The name Radcliffe wave was given to this structure because the astronomers that discovered it, are based in the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
The Formation Of The Radcliffe Wave
It is still unknown how the Radcliffe wave was formed, and scientists are still trying to figure that out. Some suggested that it came to be as a result of a smaller galaxy crashing into the Milky Way, and that collision left behind ripples that formed this structure. Others suggest that it is somehow related to dark matter.
An interesting thing astronomers managed to find out about this structure is that inside of it, gas can be compressed so much that it can create new stars. This has led to the suggestion that the Sun may have originated from the Radcliffe wave, which would, if proven to be accurate, be a significant discovery.
Previously, astronomers believed that the stars that form the Radcliffe wave were a part of the Gould Belt, a huge ring that circles around the solar system. However, with the discovery of the Radcliffe wave, we know that the ring does not exist at all, it is just an enormous wave.
80% of the clouds that were previously believed to be a part of the Gould Belt are actually a part of the Radcliffe wave. Those include the Taurus Molecular cloud, the Perseus Molecular cloud, the Orion Molecular Cloud Complex, and the Cepheus OB2. There are several other structures that we now know are placed in the Radcliffe wave as well, such as the Canis Major OB1 and the Cygnus X.
These structures are, however, much farther away from our planet. The discovery of the Radcliffe wave is an enormous step forward for humanity. It allows us to understand our galaxy better and brings us even closer to the understanding of the universe.