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Astronomers spy 288bn mile cloud of alcohol

Make mine a double

The smart choice: opportunity from uncertainty

Astronomers at the UK's Jodrell Bank Observatory have discovered what is surely the strongest argument to date in favour of ploughing huge resources into space exploration: a giant "bridge" of methyl alcohol spanning around 288bn miles, within which is nestled a stellar nursery.

The booze cloud was spotted using the UK's MERLIN radio telescopes in an area of our own galaxy rather uninspiringly called W3(OH). According to the Royal Astronomical Society blurb, this is a region where "stars are being formed by the gravitational collapse of a cloud of gas and dust".

The area is also a hotbed of "maser" activity - "clumps of interstellar gas in which radio waves are amplified many thousands of times, due to the molecular gases being excited by infra-red radiation from the nearby young stars", according to principal investigator Lisa Harvey-Smith, nicely dubbed "Radio Astronomer to the Stars" - and several maser spots had already been observed in W3(OH).

However, the new data shows filaments of masing gas bridging the space between said maser spots. The largest, as noted above, is a whopping 463bn kilometres, for those of you who like your measures in metric, and appears to be "rotating as a disc around a central star, in a similar manner to the accretion discs in which planets form around young stars".

The discovery is important because, as Dr Harvey-Smith put it: "There are still many unanswered questions about the birth of massive stars because the formation centres are shrouded by dust. The only radiation that can escape is at radio wavelengths and the upgraded MERLIN network is now giving us the first opportunity to look deep into these star forming regions and see what's really going on."

Sadly, methyl alcohol is not currently suitable for human consumption, although we have no doubt that by the time mankind develops the technology necessary to reach W3(OH) it will also have evolved the capacity to successfully metabolise this molecule. In which case, last person to the masing gas bridge stumps up for the first round. See you there. ®

More on MERLIN

MERLIN is the UK's radio imaging facility and is run on behalf of the Particle Physics and Astronomy Research Council by the University of Manchester. MERLIN is undergoing an £8m upgrade involving the installation of a 600km dark fibre network and new broadband electronics; the new facility, e-MERLIN, is expected to be complete in 2008.

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