Observations with ESA's Herschel space observatory have revealed that our Galaxy is threaded with filamentary structures on every length scale. From nearby clouds hosting tangles of filaments a few light-years long to gigantic structures stretching hundreds of light-years across the Milky Way's spiral arms, they appear to be truly ubiquitous. The Herschel data have rekindled the interest of astronomers in studying filaments, emphasising the crucial role of these structures in the process of star formation.
In the search for answers, astronomers observe giant molecular clouds, the cosmic incubators where gas and dust are transformed into stars. While these studies are performed using a variety of techniques, one crucial approach is the observation of infrared light, since the interstellar material shines brightly at these long wavelengths.
Prior to Herschel, astronomers had already identified several filaments in interstellar clouds and recognised their potential importance for star formation. However, only with the increased sensitivity and spatial resolution granted by this observatory, combined with its large-scale surveys, could they reveal the full extent of filamentary patterns in the Milky Way.
One of the surveys performed with Herschel – the Gould Belt Survey – focussed on a giant ring of star-forming regions, all located no more than 1500 light-years away from the Sun. The vicinity of these clouds allowed astronomers to obtain exceptionally detailed images using Herschel, unearthing intricate webs of filaments in each region that they examined.
“But there is more: these observations revealed that filaments, which may extend to several light-years in length, appear to have a universal width of about one third of a light year. This suggests that something fundamental is lurking underneath.”
While most filaments are dotted with compact cores, suggesting that stars are readily taking shape in these dense 'fibres' of the interstellar medium, there are also regions that exhibit complex tangles of filaments but no signs of on-going star formation. A study of the most spectacular example of this phenomenon, the Polaris Flare, indicates that filaments must somehow precede the onset of star formation.
Indeed, the universal width of filaments seems to correspond, at least in the nearby clouds of the Gould Belt Survey, to the scale at which interstellar material undergoes the transition from supersonic to subsonic state.
In addition, the material along filaments is not at all static: astronomers have detected what appear to be accretion flows, with the most prominent filaments drawing matter from their surroundings through a network of smaller filaments. A striking example of such processes is seen in the Taurus Molecular Cloud, where the B211/B213 filament exhibits a series of so-called 'striations' perpendicular to the main filament.
This pattern is very similar to that predicted from numerical simulations that model the process of star formation in molecular clouds. According to these simulations, interstellar material flows towards dense filaments along routes that are parallel to the direction of the local magnetic field, as was observed, so the new data indicate the importance of interstellar magnetic fields in shaping these structures.
In particular, a detailed study of the L1641 molecular clouds in the Orion A complex suggests that star formation along filaments is the preferential channel to produce typical solar-type stars, while stars that are born away from these dense, elongated structures tend to have lower masses. This dichotomy could be a result of the greater availability of raw material to protostars that are forming on a filament compared to those that take shape in less dense environments.
“While it is possible that these structures arose from different physical processes than those giving rise to the small-scale filaments observed in the Sun's vicinity, the omnipresent aspect of filamentary structures in the Milky Way is beyond doubt.”
In the post-Herschel era, one thing is certain: filaments play a leading role in the build-up of galactic material, creating favourable hubs for the formation of stars. This is likely a hierarchical process, starting on very large scales and propagating onwards, to smaller and smaller scales, funnelling interstellar gas and dust into increasingly denser concentrations and thus fostering stellar birth across the Galaxy.
Further investigation of the Hi-GAL survey has revealed new and even more prominent filaments, extending over hundreds of light-years and weaving their way through the spiral arms of the Milky Way. The study revealed nine filaments in some very dense, inner regions of the Galactic Plane, detecting these for the first time through the direct emission of dust within them, allowing an accurate determination of their mass, size and physical characteristics. Astronomers believe that almost a hundred similar, gigantic structures are still hiding in the data.
“An increasingly coherent picture is now emerging from combining the analysis of these data with predictions from theory and numerical simulations, as astronomers continue to study the physical processes underlying the fascinating origin of stars and planets.”
Herschel was launched on 14 May 2009 and completed science observations on 29 April 2013.
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CEA/DSM/IRFU Service d'Astrophysique
Centre d'Etudes de Saclay
Gif-sur-Yvette Cedex, France
Herschel Project Scientist
Scientific Support Office
Science and Robotic Exploration Directorate
ESA, The Netherlands