Coming Soon To A Galaxy Near You! A Big, Scary Hydrogen Cloud Is Headed For The Milky Way

Is the Milky Way about to change from a nice, quiet galactic outback where intelligent life dreams of boldly going where no man has gone before to something a bit rougher? According to the astronomers at Hubble Telescope’s ground support, also known as The Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore, Maryland, a hydrogen cloud is 11,000 light years or a little under seven miles long, and is speeding towards the Milky Way in excess of 7,000,000 mph. This large, hurtling mess of dark matter known as the Smith Cloud could turn a corner of the Milky Way into a riot of fireworks on a planetary scale that could spark the formation of as many as two million suns.

Well. There goes the neighborhood.

Information that seems to indicate the imminent death by collision with a big bruiser of a hydrogen cloud and the Milky Way is daunting. What to do first? There’s the Netflix queue to be watched, and that trek along the Appalachian Trail isn’t going to walk itself. How much time do we all have to fulfill every wish on our bucket lists, anyway?

Here’s the good news. According to Andrew Fox, one of the astronomers tracking Smith Cloud’s progress, we have about 30 million years to prepare for Smith Cloud’s return. When it does rumble through, it’s most likely to hit a distant arm of our galaxy. So while we’re not likely to go the way of the dinosaur, we are in for the biggest light show our galaxy has seen since the hydrogen cloud made its previous drive-by some 70 million years ago.

The cloud was first observed by Gail Smith, a graduate astronomy student at Leiden University in the Netherlands. Smith was working under the tutelage of world renowned astronomer, Jan Oort. The technology they employed was the Dingeloo radio dish. In the late 50s, it was the largest collector of extraterrestrial data in the world. By the the time Smith arrived, the equipment was already regarded as venerable, but still serviceable technology.

Theories about the origin of the cloud differ. Jay Lockman, a resident astronomer and researcher for the National Radio Astronomy Observatory, told Discovery that a “dark matter satellite could capture gas as is passes through the Milky Way disk.” His theory is based on mathematical calculations based on observed behavior of mass with similar properties.

Other astronomers have suggested that the mass might be a solar system that fizzled out before it could create the kind of big bang that formed the swirling vortex of stars, planets, and moons we call home. Whatever the origins, observation of the cloud has proven useful to scientists trying to gain a clearer understand of the way galaxies behave.

Dr. Fox explained that research using the Hubble Telescope has enabled his team to gather information about active galaxies billions of light years beyond the Smith Cloud. By measuring the light that can come through the cloud and detecting the presence of sulfur, the team suspects that the starless, hydrogen mass may have gotten its start as a separated part of the Milky Way. Fox says there are similarities on an atomic level that might make the next pass by the Smith Cloud more of a homecoming.

“By measuring sulfur, you can learn how enriched in sulfur atoms the cloud is compared to the sun,” said Fox. Put simply, the presence of sulfur would mean the Smith Cloud was enriched by material from stars. If all astronomers found was hydrogen, that would indicate the cloud was either a failed galaxy or came from outside the Milky Way.

The levels of sulfur in Smith’s Cloud match levels seen in Milky Way’s outer disk.

“Our galaxy is recycling its gas through clouds, the Smith Cloud being one example, and will form stars in different places than before,” said Fox. “Hubble’s measurements of the Smith Cloud are helping us to visualize how active the disks of galaxies are.”

[Photo by NASA/Getty Images]

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