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Harvard Scientists Find Wave of Stellar Nurseries in Milky Way

The Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study is located on Garden Street.
The Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study is located on Garden Street. By Soumyaa Mazumder
By Ethan Lee, Crimson Staff Writer

Astronomers at Harvard’s Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study have discovered a massive wave of stellar nurseries located near the sun through research incorporating data from the European Space Agency’s Gaia mission.

The study — conducted by a team which included five astronomers from Harvard — introduced a collection of gas named the “Radcliffe Wave,” one of the largest coherent gaseous structures ever observed in the Milky Way.

The findings dispute the 150-year-old “Gould’s Belt” theory that nearby stellar nurseries — areas of gas and dust where new stars are formed — exist in a ring around the sun. The Radcliffe Wave, which has a straight, sinusoidal structure, contains stellar nurseries originally believed to be part of Gould’s Belt, disproving the previous theory that they form a ring.

Astronomy professor Alyssa A. Goodman, a member of the research team who serves as co-director for science at Radcliffe, said in a press release that she found the findings surprising.

“No astronomer expected that we live next to a giant, wave-like collection of gas – or that it forms the Local Arm of the Milky Way,” Goodman said. “We were completely shocked when we first realized how long and straight the Radcliffe Wave is, looking down on it from above in 3D – but how sinusoidal it is when viewed from Earth.”

The team’s original intention was not to discover the Radcliffe Wave, but to create an accurate three-dimensional representation of stellar nurseries in the galaxy using data from the European Space Agency’s Gaia mission, according to team member and Astronomy Ph.D. candidate Catherine Zucker.

The research also suggested that the sun has been very close to the Radcliffe Wave for millions of years, and that it may cross through the wave in the future.

“The impact this would have on our solar system is probably minimal, but we can't say for sure,” Zucker wrote.

The team hopes to expand its research to understand how the Radcliffe Wave came into existence and discover whether similar structures exist in the universe.

“We want to understand the origins of this structure, to figure out how it formed,” Zucker wrote. “The waviness implies that there is some sort of collision event, perhaps between the disk of our Galaxy, and another less massive object (like a dwarf galaxy). But there are many other scenarios.

—Staff writer Ethan Lee can be reached at ethan.lee@thecrimson.com.

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