Scientists 3D-map the massive cosmic bubble surrounding Earth It's 1,000 light years wide and the source of all our star friends.

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It is 1,000 light years wide and is the source of all our star friends.

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An artist’s illustration of a local bubble with star formation occurring on the surface of the bubble. Scientists say that all young stars within 500 light years of the Sun and Earth exist because of this bubble.


Once upon a time in galactic history, a group of stars exploded to form a hypothetical supernova. The explosions were so strong that their sparkly remnant pushed the surrounding shroud of interstellar gas outward until it slammed into a 1,000 light-years-wide cosmic bubble—a giant blob that’s still growing. As you are reading this.

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By mere coincidence, experts say that our own sun flew right into this bubble. Now, we live smack in the middle of it, earning the globule an apt name: the local bubble. And in a paper published Wednesday in the journal Nature, scientists present a novel description of the bubble’s saga using a 3D map of the giant structure.

Most surprisingly, they found that this is the main reason we have an oddly rich neighborhood of young stars.

“It really is an origin story,” study author Katherine Zucker, an astronomer and data visualization specialist at Harvard and the Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, said in a statement.

Astronomers typically study seven locations in space where stars seem to form most often – Zucker’s study saw each sitting on the surface of the local bubble. The team believes that star bubbles are visible throughout the universe, but our position at the center of one is extremely rare.

The concept is comparable to the fabric of space which resembles a cheddar Swiss cheese, with each hole representing a star formation centre. Somehow, we are in one of the lousy holes. Since our home star set up shop inside the local bubble, every time we look up at the sky, we witness the birth of hundreds of stars.

Besides illustrating such spontaneity, the team at Local Bubble’s awesome 3D animation — which you can play here — sheds light on the evolution of the structure.

For example, researchers calculated that about 15 supernovae are responsible for the origin of the blob that occurred about 14 million years ago. The Sun appears to have entered orbit about 5 million years ago, and the bubble was coming ashore at about 4 miles (6.5 kilometers) per second. “It’s lost most of its oomph … and remains largely stable in terms of speed,” Zucker said.

Harvard and Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics and study author Alyssa Goodman called the team’s findings “an incredible detective story driven by both data and theory.” Goodman is also the founder of Glue, the data visualization software that enabled discovery.

In the future, the researchers hope to continue to unlock the secrets of interstellar bubbles such as the Local Bubble by applying their software to 3D-map that lie deep in the universe.

“We can piece together the history of star formation around us using a variety of independent clues: supernova models, stellar motion and excellent new 3D maps of the material surrounding the local bubble,” Goodman said.

Zucker wonders, “Where do these bubbles touch? How do they interact with each other? How do superbubbles drive the birth of stars like our Sun in the Milky Way?”

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