Enjoying EarthSky? Subscribe.

253,216 subscribers and counting ...

A ribbon of ammonia in Orion

Radio telescopes have detected a 50-light-year filament of star-forming gas, zigzagging its way through the northern portion of the Orion Molecular Cloud.

Radio astronomers have been peering toward a 50-light-year-long filament of star-forming gas that’s moving through the northern portion of the great star-forming region in the direction of our constellation Orion, known as Orion Molecular Cloud. Astronomers recognize two distinct parts to the cloud – known as the Orion A and Orion B clouds – and the filament is in Orion A. Astronomers using the Green Bank Telescope in West Virginia were able to create images of the filament by detecting faint radio signals naturally emitted by molecules of ammonia. These sorts of molecules are known to suffuse interstellar clouds. Scientists are able to study these molecules, in order to trace the motions and temperatures of vast swaths of star-forming gas. The Green Bank Observatory said:

These observations are part of the first data release from a large campaign known as the Green Bank Ammonia Survey. Its purpose is to map all the star-forming ammonia and other key tracer molecules in a massive structure known as the Gould Belt.

The Gould Belt is an extended ribbon of bright, massive stars stretching about 3,000 light-years in an arc across the sky. This first release covers four distinct Gould Belt clouds, one located in Taurus, one in Perseus, one in Ophiuchus, and Orion A North in Orion.

Astronomer Rachel Friesen, one of the collaboration’s co-principal investigators, said:

We hope to use these data to understand better how large clouds of gas in our galaxy collapse to form new stars.

Read more from Green Bank Observatory

A ribbon of ammonia — a tracer of star-forming gas — in the Orion Nebula as seen with the Green Bank Telescope. Image via GBO/ AUI/ NSF/ Green Bank Observatory.

Bottom line: Radio astronomers are watching a 50-light-year-long filament of star-forming gas in the Orion Molecular Cloud.

Deborah Byrd