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Wave formed by baby stars is moving through the Milky Way

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Researchers have discovered that a mysterious cluster of baby stars is moving through our galaxy in a wavelike fashion. Called the Radcliffe Wave, the phenomenon was discovered in 2018, but it was additional data from 2022 that finally revealed in 3D how the structure is moving through the Milky Way.

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Radcliffe Wave

The Radcliffe Wave was discovered in 2018, using data from the Gaia space telescope, a project that changed the way astronomers studied the three-dimensional properties of the Milky Way.

After putting together a 3D map, they published the results in 2020, revealing that the structure is formed by a 9,000 light-year long chain of wave-shaped gas clouds, which gave rise to star clusters around it. It is just 500 light years from our Solar System.

One of the researchers described the formation as “the largest coherent structure we know” and that it had been there all along, astronomers just couldn't identify it because they couldn't build 3D mappings before the Gaia mission.

However, at the time, researchers didn't have enough data to understand the wave in detail, such as how the baby stars in it moved through the galaxy.

Radcliffe wave moving through the galaxy (Photo: Ralf Konietzka, Alyssa Goodman, Telescope Mundial/Reproduction)

Wave and star movement through the galaxy

Recent data from the 2022 Gaia mission made it possible to discover this.

Using positions of the baby star clusters, scientists were able to discover how the movement of the structure as a whole works: the Radcliffe Wave not only looks like a wave, but behaves like one.

The website Eureka Alert compares the movement to that of an “ola” in a stadium, with the stars going up and down and creating a pattern that allows you to move through the Milky Way. They further explain that they return “down” because of the galaxy’s gravity.

Image of the discovery in 2018 (Photo: Ralf Konietzka, Alyssa Goodman, Telescope Mundial/Reproduction)

How did the wave come about?

  • There is no answer to that yet. Discovering how the wave behaves across the galaxy was the first (or perhaps second) step of the research, allowing scientists to turn their attention to even more challenging questions, such as its formation or why it moves like this;
  • However, there are theories. One is that the wave-like movement may have been caused by supernovae (massive star explosions), which disrupt the surrounding galaxy;
  • Another theory exposed in the article, published in the magazine Natureis a cluster of dark matter contributing to altering the surrounding gravity and influencing the movement of the wave;
  • However, in the publication itself, they make a reservation about this, saying that ordinary gravity (without dark matter) would be enough to make the wave move;
  • Furthermore, they suggest that other structures similar to the Radcliffe Wave may be spread throughout the galaxy.



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