Green Bank Telescope produces image of star-forming Orion gas filament

R. Friesen, Dunlap Institute; J. Pineda, MPIP; GBO/AUI/NSF
A composite image of this 50 light-year long filament of star-forming gas in the Orion Nebula was produced using data from West Virginia’s Green Bank Telescope and NASA’s orbiting Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer infrared telescope.

Scientists using the Green Bank Telescope in Pocahontas County to study a 50 light-year long filament of star-forming gas moving through the northern portion of the Orion Molecular Cloud have released a striking new image of the nursery, showing it teeming with bright young stars and illuminated by glowing reaches of hot gas.

The image was made by using the GBT to detect and track the faint radio signals naturally emitted by ammonia molecules as they gradually pass through interstellar clouds. By tracing the movement and temperature of the ammonia — a compound associated with dense, star-forming gases — scientists can learn more about the conditions that bring about the birth of new stars like our sun and planets like Earth.

The observations that led to the creation of the image were included in the first release of data from the Green Bank Ammonia Survey, a major research campaign that involves mapping all star-forming ammonia concentrations and other tracer molecules in the Gould Belt, a ribbon of bright, massive stars stretching nearly 3,000 light-years in an arc across the sky. Four distinct Gould Belt clouds, including the one in the northern segment of the Orion Molecular Cloud that produced the accompanying image, were included in the initial data release, recently accepted for publication in the Astrophysical Journal.

“We hope to use these data to understand better how large clouds of gas in our galaxy collapse to form new stars,” said Rachel Friesen, one of the collaboration’s co-principal investigators, and a Dunlap Fellow at the Dunlap Institute for Astronomy and Astrophysics at the University of Toronto until May 31.

“The new data are critical to assessing whether certain gas clouds and filaments are stable and enduring features, or if they are undergoing collapse and forming new stars.”

“These data provide a unique view of the cold, dense gas involved in forming stars like our sun,” said Jaime E. Pineda, the collaboration’s other co-principal investigator, with the Max Planck Institute for Extraterrestrial Physics in Garching, Germany. “We hope they can also help us determine how much rotation is present in the regions that will form stars — this is crucial to understand how protoplanetary disks are formed.” Proto-planetary disks are thin, rotating discs of dust and dense gas surrounding newly formed stars that may eventually form planets.

The new GBT image of the Orion Nebula’s stellar nursery is combined with an infrared image of the same location, taken from NASA’s orbiting Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer (WISE) telescope. The composite image shows how star-forming gas in this area, located 1,200 light-years distant from Earth, relates to the bright stars and dark, dusty regions of the nebula. In the image produced by the GBT, the filament of ammonia molecules appears red, while the background Orion Nebula gases, shown in the imagery from the WISE telescope, appear blue.

The 100-meter GBT, the world’s largest fully steerable radio-telescope, is operated by the Green Bank Observatory with support from the National Science Foundation.

Reach Rick Steelhammer at rsteelhammer@wvgazettemail.com, 304-348-5169, or follow @rsteelhammer on Twitter.

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