Feeds

Giant hydrogen cloud menaces Milky Way

Coming (relatively) soon to a galaxy near you

The smart choice: opportunity from uncertainty

A giant cloud of hydrogen gas dubbed "Smith's Cloud" which contains enough gas to create a million stars like our own sun is on a collision course with the Milky Way, the National Radio Astronomy Observatory (NRAO) has announced.

Smith's Cloud. Image: Bill Saxton, NRAOThere is, however, no need to alert Bruce Willis quite yet: the cloud is currently 8,000 light years from our galaxy, and at its current speed of around 150 miles per second, won't make contact for around 40 million years.

When it does, though, scientists expect some fireworks. Felix J Lockman of the National Radio Astronomy Observatory (NRAO), the head of the team of astronomers who used the National Science Foundation's Robert C Byrd Green Bank Telescope (GBT) to study the cloud, explained: "This is most likely a gas cloud left over from the formation of the Milky Way or gas stripped from a neighbor galaxy. When it hits, it could set off a tremendous burst of star formation. Many of those stars will be very massive, rushing through their lives quickly and exploding as supernovae. Over a few million years, it'll look like a celestial New Year's celebration, with huge firecrackers going off in that region of the galaxy."

Smith's Cloud is certainly big enough to promise an impressive interaction with the Milky Way. It's 11,000 light years long (15 degrees in the sky, or 30 times the width of the full moon), and 2,500 light-years wide. Lockman added: "If you could see this cloud with your eyes, it would be a very impressive sight in the night sky. From tip to tail it would cover almost as much sky as the Orion constellation. But as far as we know it is made entirely of gas - no one has found a single star in it."

"Its shape, somewhat similar to that of a comet, indicates that it's already hitting gas in our Galaxy's outskirts," Lockman went on. "It is also feeling a tidal force from the gravity of the Milky Way and may be in the process of being torn apart. Our Galaxy will get a rain of gas from this cloud, then in about 20 to 40 million years, the cloud's core will smash into the Milky Way's plane."

In case you're worried for future generations, the impact will be some way from our own solar system. The NRAO has an artist's conception of Smith's Cloud approaching here. ®

The Power of One Infographic

More from The Register

next story
World Solar Challenge contender claims new speed record
One charge sees Sunswift travel 500kms at over 100 km/h
Vote now for LOHAN's stirring mission patch motto
Does the shed actually know no bounds, or what?
SMELL YOU LATER, LOSERS – Dumbo tells rats, dogs... humans
Junk in the trunk? That's what people have
The Sun took a day off last week and made NO sunspots
Someone needs to get that lazy star cooking again before things get cold around here
Boffins discuss AI space program at hush-hush IARPA confab
IBM, MIT, plenty of others invited to fill Uncle Sam's spy toolchest, but where's Google?
Beancounters tell NASA it's too poor to fly planned mega-rocket
Space Launch System would need another $400m and a lot of time
Jurassic squawk: Dinos were Earth's early FEATHERED friends
Boffins research: Ancient dinos may all have had 'potential' fluff
prev story

Whitepapers

Top three mobile application threats
Prevent sensitive data leakage over insecure channels or stolen mobile devices.
Implementing global e-invoicing with guaranteed legal certainty
Explaining the role local tax compliance plays in successful supply chain management and e-business and how leading global brands are addressing this.
Boost IT visibility and business value
How building a great service catalog relieves pressure points and demonstrates the value of IT service management.
Designing a Defense for Mobile Applications
Learn about the various considerations for defending mobile applications - from the application architecture itself to the myriad testing technologies.
Build a business case: developing custom apps
Learn how to maximize the value of custom applications by accelerating and simplifying their development.