Glowing stellar nurseries in a web of cosmic filaments

Observations by the European Space Agency’s Herschel space observatory indicate vast, ubiquitous filaments of gas and dust in the plane of the Milky Way may reflect a common mechanism at work building stars.

In dense strands, gas making up the filaments tends to gather in clumps due to gravitational interactions. If dense enough, material can collapse, heat up and form new stars. In relatively nearby star-forming regions, within about 1,500 light years of the Sun, the filaments appear to be roughly the same width, about a third of a light year across, suggesting a common mechanism in their origin.

The filaments and stars seen here are in the Carina neighborhood some 7,500 light years from the Sun.

A rich star-forming region in the plane of the Milky Way, as captured by the European Space Agency’s now-defunct Herschel space observatory. Star-forming regions show up in bright filaments while lower-temperature clouds appear reddish brown. Astronomers believe a common mechanism is at work generating such filaments and thus a direct link between the structures and star formation. Image: ESA/Herschel