David Kirkpatrick

January 23, 2010

Beautiful space image — a rare double-tailed gas cloud

Here you go:

MSU’s Megan Donahue was part of an international team of astronomers that viewed this rare double-tailed gas cloud. Their paper on the subject is in the publication Astrophysical Journal. Photo courtesy of the Chandra X-Ray Observatory

Head below the fold for the release accompanying the image.

MSU contributes to new research on star formation

EAST LANSING, Mich. — “Crazy” and “cool” are two of the words Michigan State University astronomer Megan Donahue uses to describe the two distinct “tails” found on a long tail of gas that is believed to be forming stars where few stars have been formed before.

Donahue was part of an international team of astronomers that viewed the gas tail with a very long, new observation made by the Chandra X-ray Observatory and detailed it in a paper published this month in the publication Astrophysical Journal.

“The double tail is very cool – that is, interesting – and ridiculously hard to explain,” said Donahue, a professor in MSU’s Department of Physics and Astronomy. “It could be two different sources of gas or something to do with magnetic fields. We just don’t know.”

What is also unusual is the gas tail, which is more than 200,000 light years in length, extends well outside any galaxy. It is within objects such as this that new stars are formed, but usually within the confines of a galaxy.

“This system is really crazy because where we’re seeing the star formation is well away from any galaxy,” Donahue said. “Star formation happens primarily in the disks of galaxies. What we’re seeing here is very unexpected.”

This gas tail was originally spotted by astronomers three years ago using a multitude of telescopes, including NASA’s Chandra X-ray Observatory and the SOuthern Astrophysical Research telescope, a Chilean-based observatory in which MSU is one of the partners. The new observations show a second tail, and a fellow galaxy, ESO 137-002, that also has a tail of hot X-ray-emitting gas.

How these newly formed stars came to be in this particular place remains a mystery as well. Astronomers theorize this gas tail might have “pulled” star-making material from nearby gases, creating what some have called “orphan stars.”

“This system continues to surprise us as we get better observations of it,” Donahue said.

The gas tail is located in the southern hemisphere near a constellation called Triangulum Australe, in a giant cluster of galaxies called Abell 3627. It is associated with a galaxy known as ESO 137-001 which is about 219 million light years from our own Milky Way Galaxy.

Star formation is a continuous process throughout the universe, where there are estimated to be billions of galaxies, each of which contains billions of stars. Stars are formed from clouds of dusty, cool, dense molecular gas. Molecular gas clouds prefer to inhabit galaxies, particularly the disks of galaxies like the Milky Way.

Our sun, a star located within the Milky Way Galaxy, is an average-size star estimated to be about 4.6 billion years old.


Michigan State University has been advancing knowledge and transforming lives through innovative teaching, research and outreach for more than 150 years. MSU is known internationally as a major public university with global reach and extraordinary impact. Its 17 degree-granting colleges attract scholars worldwide who are interested in combining education with practical problem solving.

1 Comment »

  1. It is an interesting phenomenon
    enjoyed reading your article
    I just want to know whether it is possible to see this with naked eyes,
    because on 26 Jan morning around 5 am in Chennai in India I saw a two tailed bright illuminous object in the sky. I want to know whether this is ESO 137-001. pl clarify
    Mrs.Selvi Panneerselvam -star gazer

    Comment by Selvi Panneerselvam — January 29, 2010 @ 4:06 am

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