NASA WARNING: A Monstrous Cloud Is Headed Back To Our Galaxy
It has been known for some years that the Sun is located near a cloud known as the Local Fluff, which in turn is inside a vast cavity in the interstellar medium called the Local Bubble. The invisible cloud is plummeting toward our galaxy at nearly 700,000 miles per hour. For more on this, see a previous question. By studying the light from dozens of nearby stars, astronomers have for several decades been able to measure the amount of interstellar gases towards stars within several hundred light years of the Sun, and have found that we are located inside a low-density zone that is about 10 times lower in neutral atoms than the average of 0.5 atoms/cc elsewhere in the Milky Way on average.
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“The cloud is an example of how the galaxy is changing with time,” explained team leader Andrew Fox of the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore, Maryland. “It’s telling us that the Milky Way is a bubbling, very active place where gas can be thrown out of one part of the disk and then return back down into another.
"Our galaxy is recycling its gas through clouds, the Smith Cloud being one example, and will form stars in different places than before. Hubble’s measurements of the Smith Cloud are helping us to visualize how active the disks of galaxies are,” Fox said.
Astronomers have measured this comet-shaped region of gas to be 11,000 light-years long and 2,500 light-years across. If the cloud could be seen in visible light, it would span the sky with an apparent diameter 30 times greater than the size of the full moon.
Astronomers long thought that the Smith Cloud might be a failed, starless galaxy, or gas falling into the Milky Way from intergalactic space. If either of these scenarios proved true, the cloud would contain mainly hydrogen and helium, not the heavier elements made by stars. But if it came from within the galaxy, it would contain more of the elements found within our sun.
“While there had been hints that something was changing in the environment of the sun, when we finally put all the historical data together it became clear that one can make a strong scientific statement that this change has actually occurred,” says Frisch. What the change means is still up for debate. We could be nearing the cloud’s edge, or we could still be in the thick of it, pushing our way through an interstellar storm.
Though hundreds of enormous, high-velocity gas clouds whiz around the outskirts of our galaxy, this so-called “Smith Cloud” is unique because its trajectory is well known. New Hubble observations suggest it was launched from the outer regions of the galactic disk, around 70 million years ago. The cloud was discovered in the early 1960s by doctoral astronomy student Gail Smith, who detected the radio waves emitted by its hydrogen.
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This will be one bad cloud.
For worrywarts, comets and asteroids have been the bugbears of choice in recent years. An asteroid, after all, is thought to have wiped out the dinosaurs, and the statistical threat of another strike motivates NASA’s Near Earth Object Program, which aims to locate most of the bodies more than 1 kilometer in diameter that swing close to Earth. In contrast, a galactic disaster is almost certain not to occur in our lifetime, but if one did, it would make a stray asteroid look like child’s play. A giant interstellar cloud would mess up the entire solar system for decades.
Until recently, worry about such events rested on mere speculation. During the past decade, however, astronomers have found real hazards associated with actual objects in the sky. For example, according to recent calculations, the sun will soon be getting a visit from a stellar neighbor—a visit that might send a rain of comets hurtling toward Earth. And the edge of that possibly disastrous cloud of interstellar gas is less than four light-years away.
As a result, astronomers have had to resort to a form of binocular vision called astrometry. Images of the sky are recorded about six months apart, during which time the perspective changes due to Earth’s motion around the sun along its orbit, 186 million miles in diameter. Each photo acts something like the image from one of our eyes. By laboriously measuring the slight shift in a star’s apparent position from January to July, astronomers can calculate its distance. The precision of this work is extraordinary: The difference in motion between stars 30 and 40 light-years away is a mere eight-millionths of a degree, or the width of a mite on a catcher’s eyelash as seen from the center-field bleachers.
However, atmospheric distortion creates so many errors that beyond the first handful of nearest stars, figuring distances to other objects in the galaxy amounts to educated guesswork. That’s why a consortium of European nations launched the Hipparcos satellite back in 1989. Working far above the atmosphere, Hipparcos took picture after picture of a million stars, tracking how they swayed back and forth across the sky over the course of four years. Computers, which excel at grunt work, then calculated the distances to an accuracy as much as a thousand times better than anything previously done. Finally, astronomers were able to put most of the stars they can see in their three-dimensional place.
On top of the back-and-forth movement caused by Earth’s orbit around the sun, Hipparcos picked up another kind of motion, one caused by the stars themselves. The sun (as well as all the other stars in the Milky Way, for that matter) is in orbit about the galaxy’s core, and no two stars follow exactly the same path. Each year the sun travels 5 billion miles through space while all the other stars move a bit more or less, and in slightly different directions, so that comparing photographs of the sky taken decades apart is something like watching a movie of a snowstorm one frame at a time.
The solar system is, apparently, moving along a path that is certain to take us closer to the Sco-Cen expanding superbubble. The 'wall' between the Local Bubble and the Sco-Cen bubble now seems to consist of an increasing density of cloudlets of varying size and density. The Sun, after apparently spending many hundreds of millennia in quieter regions of the Local Bubble, is apparently now moving nearer one wall of this cavity towards us from the direction of Scorpio/Centaurus. Rather than a smooth wall of material, it consists of many individual pieces and cloudlets. When the solar system enters such a cloud, the first thing that will happen will be that the magnetic field of the Sun, which now extends perhaps 100 AU from the Sun and 2-3 times the orbit of Pluto, will be compressed back into the inner solar system depending on the density of the medium that the Sun encounters. When this happens, the Earth may be laid bare to an increased cosmic ray bombardment. To make matters worse, the Earth's magnetic field is itself decreasing as we enter the next field reversal era in a few thousand years. If the Earth's field is 'down' during the same time that the solar system has wandered into the new could, the cosmic ray flux at the Earth's surface could be many times higher than it now is.
The dust layer would hover around Earth, reducing the amount of sunlight reaching the planet while letting terrestrial heat escape into space, creating a snowballing chill.
"There are indications from 600 to 800 million years ago that at least two of four glaciations were snowball glaciations," Pavlov said. "The big mystery revolves around how they are triggered."
Mass extinctions have occurred in Earth's past. That much is clear, from the fossil record. But what cause them is less certain. A widespread die-off 65 million years ago, which wiped out the dinosaurs and many other species, is thought by most scientists to have been caused by an asteroid impact.
Other extinctions have been attributed to impacts, climate change, cosmic rays, exploding stars, increased volcanic activity and even global warming. Multiple events may have conspired to make life difficult in any one of the five known worst mass extinctions.
Moderately dense space clouds, the sort that might destroy the ozone layer, are huge, Pavlov points out, and the solar system could take up to 500,000 years pass through one. Extra cosmic rays produced during such an event, owing to interactions of the interstellar dust with the Sun, would break up nitrogen molecules in Earth's atmosphere, leading to ozone destruction.
The biological effects can be very severe. We just don't really know. Fossil records show that in previous field reversals, there was hardly a sign of any biological impact caused by species extinctions or mutations. We don't really know when the last time it was that our solar system found itself in a dense interstellar cloud, so we cannot look at the fossil record to see what effects this might have had. Since all of the major extinctions seem to be related to tectonic activity, or to asteroid impacts, there isn't much left over to argue that there will be a dire effect of the next cloud passage upon the biosphere. If you believe our knowledge of the solar vicinity, the next cloud passage could happen within 20 – 50,000 years. I guess we will just have to wait and be ready.
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