The gas and debris from the explosion blasted outwards, creating a shell where baby stars are born.
There is a monstrous hole in the universe. Long ago, a star exploded with immense force and destroyed everything in its path. It also pushed tiny specks of space dust out of its way—but in a surprising turn of events, the space dust gathered, collapsed, and eventually gave rise to a cluster of baby stars.
As the saying goes, this is the circle of life.
“This is something that has been suggested in principle, and has also been observed in numerical simulations, but now we think we see it for the first time in observations,” said lead author Samuel Bailey, of the Institute for Theory and Computation. An astrophysicist in Harvard Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics.
The story begins with a several-million-year-old, 500-light-year-wide circular void lurking in outer space. To be clear, this completely empty cavity is absolutely huge. A light year is about 6 trillion miles (9 trillion kilometers), which means that the void could fit 150,000 volumes of our solar system within it.
Such mysterious, seemingly abrupt cavities are sometimes found in the universe. They are sudden holes of empty space. But because astronomers typically study space in two dimensions – with spectrum data, or even photographs – three-dimensional structures can be difficult to find. Even when astronomers detect them, it can still be difficult to understand what’s going on.
“There’s a lot of confusion with the line of sight,” Bailey said. “You don’t know the distance, so sometimes we see different structures and they just look like one structure — or the opposite.”
Bailey’s team solved the problem by using a new power: augmented reality.
He created a mini-version of the giant space-borne cavity, as well as the things around it. Then he toyed with his model in real time to unlock the secrets of the elusive void. Their paper, published Wednesday in The Astrophysical Journal Letters, includes a QR code for the masterpiece. There is also a demo on YouTube.
Basically, you can download their renovated space to your phone and feel like it belongs in your room. “It’s almost like those movies where you have a hologram,” Bailey said.
While surveying their digital sculpture for research purposes—in contrast to the extravagant fun I had while rotating the projection on my coffee table—the team noticed an unusual “shell” of material surrounding a symmetrical, abandoned sphere: the giant cavity. .
They concluded that star explosions about 10 million years old – or multiple star explosions over the course of time – push away surrounding particles, thus creating a capsule of space dust enclosing an uninhabited region of space.
“Imagine… you have a lot of dust coming off the floor,” Bailey explained. “You have a big room, and you just shove some dust into an area — now, in this area … you have a very high dust density.”
When space dust collides with itself, it is known to collapse and compress itself more easily. But perhaps the most surprising discovery is that two famous clouds, Perseus and Taurus, that churn out baby stars like a stellar factory, reside in that shell of dust.
“They were traditionally considered to be just two independent clouds,” Bailey said. “Now with this three-dimensional view and the discovery of this cavity, we understand that they probably formed before the action of a supernova explosion.”
This means that star explosions can set off a chain reaction that eventually leads to the creation of their own descendants.
“I wouldn’t say it’s the only way to make the clouds that make up stars, but it’s a viable method,” Bailey said.
Bailey’s entire project initially began as an examination of the Perseus molecular cloud alone. The researchers were trying to understand star formation and gaps within small regions of space in 2D. Looking at the images, he began to see tiny “spheres” within Perseus.
So, he started zooming out… again… and again.
“We enlarged the map,” Bailey explained. “We eventually started seeing bigger and bigger shells all the way up to this huge shell.”
To encourage the public to see the magic for themselves, by scanning a QR code and searching for the model, Bayley says, the team released its numerical data to the public as a whole. This ensures transparency so that anyone can attempt to draw the same conclusions the team arrived at, but from scratch, if they so desire.
Beyond notable findings about how stars and clouds of stars can be produced, Biali emphasizes that the use of new approaches and methodologies in astrophysics could pave the way for the future of the subject.
“I just used to do science,” Bailey said. “All of a sudden, I’m working with this augmented reality company and an animator and different people.”
AR, in particular, promises a much richer library of scientific literature. Instead of a rough set of encyclopedias, we will turn to digital holograms, which can be called at will.