Credit: S. Schnee, et al.; B. Saxton, B. Kent (NRAO/AUI/NSF).

This image, which was taken using the Green Bank Telescope (in West Virginia), showcases the complexities of the Great Orion nebula. Astronomers have long known that this stellar nursery is home to many peculiar features, which include “ribbons” of gas and evidence of a black hole lurking in the shadows. Now, astronomers captured the best image yet of one little know filamentary region within the nebula; a place pervaded by cool dust that’s just a few degrees above absolute zero.

Pictured here is a big section of sky (extending about 10 light-years across, seen near the center) close the Orion nebula viewed at infrared and radio wavelengths. The region is as bright as it is impressive, the (new) working theory for this suggests that, unexpectedly, instead of harboring a huge cache of microscopic dust particles (with bits of molecular gas thrown in for good measure), this region likely contains many pebble-sized “seeds.”

“This means that the material in this region has different properties than would be expected for normal interstellar dust,” said Scott Schnee, from the National Radio Astronomy Observatory. “In particular, since the particles are more efficient than expected at emitting at millimeter wavelengths, the grains are very likely to be at least a millimeter, and possibly as large as a centimeter across, or roughly the size of a small Lego-style building block.”

If proven true, the material comprising this filament could be immeasurably important to our planetary formation models, which say that planets slowly coalesce over time; the process beginning when microscopic particles gradually build up to a sizable quantity. Then, larger pieces collide and merge. Introducing larger pebbles to the picture would reduce the time it’s expected to take for planets to take shape.

See a larger image here.

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