Science & Technology

Bubble of secrets: Here’s what the new 3D map of a gigantic cosmic cavity tells us about the universe

The ‘Local Bubble’ is a 1,000-light-year-wide cavity or a superbubble around the Sun

By Rohini Krishnamurthy
Published: Thursday 12 January 2023
Bubble of secrets: Here’s what the new 3D map of gigantic cosmic cavity tells us about the universe
Photo: Theo O'Neill / World Wide Telescope Photo: Theo O'Neill / World Wide Telescope

New research on a giant cosmic cavity that surrounds the solar system could reveal the universe’s secrets, including questions about the origins of stars.

Researchers from the Center for Astrophysics (CfA) | Harvard & Smithsonian have generated a 3D magnetic map of the cavity called Local Bubble, according to a preprint study published in the journal Authorea

The Local Bubble is a 1,000-light-year-wide cavity or a superbubble. Other superbubbles also exist in the Milky Way, according to scientists.

“Space is full of these superbubbles that trigger the formation of new stars and planets and influence the overall shapes of galaxies,” Theo O'Neill, research assistant at CfA, said in a statement. 

Local Bubble is thought to have originated from supernovae roughly 14 million years ago.  Supernova is a cosmic explosion occurring when stars meet their end.

A 2022 study published in Nature found that star-forming regions occur along the bubble’s surface. 

Superbubbles are comparable to holes in swiss cheese. Supernova explosions blow holes in the cheese. New stars form around these holes, according to previous research.

However, mechanisms powering the formation and expansion of the Local Bubble are not well-understood, the researchers wrote in the new preprint study.

Further, there is little information on how magnetic fields likely impact the bubble and local star formation.

“From a basic physics standpoint, we have long known that magnetic fields must play important roles in many astrophysical phenomena,” Alyssa Goodman, Harvard professor and CfA astronomer, said.

So, the team aimed to generate a magnetic map of the Local Bubble. They used Gaia and Planck — space-based observatories launched by the European Space Agency (ESA).

Gaia was used to identify the location and local concentration of cosmic dust. This helped them trace the boundaries of the Local Bubble.

Planck provided information on the magnetic alignment of cosmic dust. This alignment can indicate the orientation of the magnetic field acting on the dust particles, allowing the researchers to generate a 3D magnetic field orientation on the surface of the Local Bubble.

“I hope this map is a starting point for expanding our understanding of the superbubbles throughout our galaxy,” Goodman added.

However, the 3D map is far from perfect, the researchers acknowledged. They expect to improve its accuracy with technology and a clearer understanding of the Local Bubble.

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