Image: Mysterious gas cloudl
NASA/Spitzer/Benjamin et al., Churchwell et al.
In this image, taken by NASA's Spitzer Space Telescope, the mysterious gas cloud G0.253+0.016 is the black object on the left. The Milky Way's center is the bright spot at right.
updated 1/14/2013 6:13:23 PM ET 2013-01-14T23:13:23

Astronomers have finally solved a longstanding cosmic mystery — why a super-dense gas cloud near our Milky Way galaxy's core isn't churning out many new stars.

The gas cloud, known as G0.253+0.016, is simply swirling too fast, researchers said. And it lacks the requisite pockets of even denser material, which eventually collapse under their own gravity to form stars.

The results suggest that star formation is more complex than astronomers had thought and may help them better understand the process, researchers said.

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An oddly barren cloud
G0.253+0.016, which is about 30 light-years long, defies the conventional wisdom that dense gas glouds should produce lots of stars. [ 8 Baffling Astronomy Mysteries ]

The cloud is 25 times more dense than the famous Orion Nebula, which is birthing stars at a furious rate. But only a few stars are being born in G0.253+0.016, and they're pretty much all runts.

"It's a very dense cloud and it doesn't form any massive stars, which is very weird," study lead author Jens Kauffmann, of Caltech in Pasadena, said in a statement.

Kauffmann and his colleagues determined to find out why. Using the Submillimeter Array, a set of eight radiotelescopes atop Mauna Kea in Hawaii, they found that G0.253+0.016 possesses very few ultra-dense nuggets that could collapse to form stars.

"That was very surprising," said co-author Thushara Pillai, also of Caltech. "We expected to see a lot more dense gas."

Spinning out of control
The researchers then probed the cloud with another network of telescopes, the Combined Array for Research in Millimeter-wave Astronomy in California.

CARMA data showed that gas within G0.253+0.016 is zipping around 10 times faster than gas in similar clouds. G0.253+0.016 is on the verge of flying apart, with its gas churning too violently to coalesce into stars.

Further, the team found that the cloud is full of silicon monoxide, a compound typically produced when fast-moving gas smashes into dust particles. The abnormally large amounts of silicon monoxide suggest that G0.253+0.016 may actually consist of two colliding clouds, whose impact is generating powerful shockwaves.

"To see such shocks on such large scales is very surprising," Pillai said.

G0.253+0.016 may eventually be able to churn out stars. But its position near the center of the Milky Way could make it tough for the cloud to settle down, as it may smash into other clouds or be ripped apart by the immense gravitational pull near the galaxy's central black hole, researchers said.

The study has been accepted for publication in the Astrophysical Journal Letters. The team also presented the results last week at the 221st meeting of the American Astronomical Society in Long Beach, Calif.

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Photos: Month in Space: January 2014

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  1. Southern stargazing

    Stars, galaxies and nebulas dot the skies over the European Southern Observatory's La Silla Paranal Observatory in Chile, in a picture released on Jan. 7. This image also shows three of the four movable units that feed light into the Very Large Telescope Interferometer, the world's most advanced optical instrument. Combining to form one larger telescope, they are greater than the sum of their parts: They reveal details that would otherwise be visible only through a telescope as large as the distance between them. (Y. Beletsky / ESO) Back to slideshow navigation
  2. A balloon's view

    Cameras captured the Grandville High School RoboDawgs' balloon floating through Earth's upper atmosphere during its ascent on Dec. 28, 2013. The Grandville RoboDawgs’ first winter balloon launch reached an estimated altitude of 130,000 feet, or about 25 miles, according to coaches Mike Evele and Doug Hepfer. It skyrocketed past the team’s previous 100,000-feet record set in June. The RoboDawgs started with just one robotics team in 1998, but they've grown to support more than 30 teams at public schools in Grandville, Mich. (Kyle Moroney / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  3. Spacemen at work

    Russian cosmonauts Oleg Kotov, right, and Sergey Ryazanskiy perform maintenance on the International Space Station on Jan. 27. During the six-hour, eight-minute spacewalk, Kotov and Ryazanskiy completed the installation of a pair of high-fidelity cameras that experienced connectivity issues during a Dec. 27 spacewalk. The cosmonauts also retrieved scientific gear outside the station's Russian segment. (NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  4. Special delivery

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  5. Accidental art

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  6. Supersonic test flight

    A camera looking back over Virgin Galactic's SpaceShipTwo's fuselage shows the rocket burn with a Mojave Desert vista in the background during a test flight of the rocket plane on Jan. 10. Cameras were mounted on the exterior of SpaceShipTwo as well as its carrier airplane, WhiteKnightTwo, to monitor the rocket engine's performance. The test was aimed at setting the stage for honest-to-goodness flights into outer space later this year, and eventual commercial space tours.

    More about SpaceShipTwo on PhotoBlog (Virgin Galactic) Back to slideshow navigation
  7. Red lagoon

    The VLT Survey Telescope at the European Southern Observatory's Paranal Observatory in Chile captured this richly detailed new image of the Lagoon Nebula, released on Jan. 22. This giant cloud of gas and dust is creating intensely bright young stars, and is home to young stellar clusters. This image is a tiny part of just one of 11 public surveys of the sky now in progress using ESO telescopes. (ESO/VPHAS team) Back to slideshow navigation
  8. Fire on the mountain

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  9. Where stars are born

    An image captured by NASA's Spitzer Space Telescope shows the Orion Nebula, an immense stellar nursery some 1,500 light-years away. This false-color infrared view, released on Jan. 15, spans about 40 light-years across the region. The brightest portion of the nebula is centered on Orion's young, massive, hot stars, known as the Trapezium Cluster. But Spitzer also can detect stars still in the process of formation, seen here in red hues. (NASA / JPL-Caltech) Back to slideshow navigation
  10. Cygnus takes flight

    Orbital Sciences Corp.'s Antares rocket rises from NASA's Wallops Flight Facility on Wallops Island, Va, on Jan. 9. The rocket sent Orbital's Cygnus cargo capsule on its first official resupply mission to the International Space Station. (Chris Perry / NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  11. A long, long time ago...

    This long-exposure picture from the Hubble Space Telescope, released Jan. 8, is the deepest image ever made of any cluster of galaxies. The cluster known as Abell 2744 appears in the foreground. It contains several hundred galaxies as they looked 3.5 billion years ago. Abell 2744 acts as a gravitational lens to warp space, brightening and magnifying images of nearly 3,000 distant background galaxies. The more distant galaxies appear as they did more than 12 billion years ago, not long after the Big Bang. (NASA / NASA via AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  12. Frosty halo

    Sun dogs are bright spots that appear in the sky around the sun when light is refracted through ice crystals in the atmosphere. These sun dogs appeared on Jan. 5 amid brutally cold temperatures along Highway 83, north of Bismarck, N.D. The temperature was about 22 degrees below zero Fahrenheit, with a 50-below-zero wind chill.

    Slideshow: The Year in Space (Brian Peterson / The Bismarck Tribune via AP) Back to slideshow navigation
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