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Is the Perseus Arm a single structure?

Submitted by Kevin Jardine on 8 December, 2013 - 18:15

Zhang, Reid, 2013 contributed two more accurate radio parallax distance measurements for star formation regions in the Perseus arm and then made the very interesting comment:

We have found almost no H2O maser sources in the Perseus arm for 50° < l < 80°, suggesting that this ≈6 kpc section of the arm has little massive star formation activity.

This attracted my attention because as you can see from the image below, there are also gaps in atomic hydrogen and molecular clouds in this direction:

This image is taken from the Velocity Explorer, which represents velocity data from atomic and molecular surveys in polar coordinates.

The highlighted part at the top shows the atomic hydrogen velocity associated with the Perseus arm in this direction. The part at the bottom shows the same data for molecular clouds.

As you can see, there are similar results for both atomic and molecular data and they show a major gap between the warm clouds associated with the Perseus arm in the outer galaxy and the warm clouds associated with the Perseus arm in the inner galaxy. Within this gap there is one isolated warm cloud and a bit of emission associated with the direction in which the Perseus arm appears to cross the solar circle.

We should keep in mind that velocity data near the solar circle may be associated with the local movement of hydrogen clouds near the sun rather than galactic rotation, so the solar crossing emission shown above may not be associated with the Perseus arm.

The wide gap in star formation regions, atomic hydrogen and molecular clouds raises the question of whether the inner and outer Perseus arms are perhaps separate structures.

This question becomes even more interesting when we consider the Cygnet spur, a bridge between the Norma and Perseus arms in the outer galaxy described here. Instead of considering the Cygnet velocity structure as a spur, it may actually reveal that the outer Perseus arm branches off the Norma arm.

I show the two distinct parts of the Perseus arm in the face-on image I described in my previous blog post.

New face-on image

Submitted by Kevin Jardine on 7 December, 2013 - 16:05

Earlier this year, I published a face-on map of the Milky Way in atomic hydrogen and added a large new section to this site explaining how it was derived from radio parallax and atomic hydrogen surveys..

As that section explains, visual and atomic hydrogen maps of galaxies are related but different. Atomic hydrogen surveys reveal complex structures that are sometimes visually obscured by dust in visual images.

I'm often asked for a face-on image of the Milky Way as it would appear from a spacecraft hovering far above the galactic centre. We don't have enough data yet to construct such an image in full detail, but NASA illustrator Robert Hurt has produced a schematic that does a good job combining a lot of available data. I've mentioned before that there are some inaccuracies in the Hurt image, and now that I have an atomic hydrogen map, I decided to produce a revised version of Hurt's image.

I started with Nick Risinger's version of the Hurt image, which adds more detail from real galaxies to make the Hurt image appear more realistic. I then warped the arm locations to conform to my atomic hydrogen map and added more details such as the complex network of spurs and bridges in our region of the galaxy. I've also split the Perseus arm into two distinct segments based on the evidence I presented in this blog post.

The result is below. You can download a full resolution (2528x2360) image here.

An integrated nebula catalog

Submitted by Kevin Jardine on 7 November, 2013 - 18:03

In my last blog post, I announced that I had completed my commentaries on the Sharpless, RCW and Gum nebulae and pointed out that there is considerable overlap between the three catalogs.

It was a logical next step to create an integrated catalog combining all three catalogs, removing duplicates and adding cross references.

I've gone further than that, however. The new integrated catalog attempts to identify all the extended areas of nebulosity visible in Douglas Finkbeiner's full sky hydrogen-alpha map. This is not a complete hydrogen-alpha nebula catalog, however, for three main reasons:

  • the Finkbeiner map combines three very sensitive but low resolution hydrogen-alpha surveys and so smaller nebulae are often not visible unless they are very bright,
  • there is at least some hydrogen-alpha emission visible in every region of the sky and the cut-off point for inclusion in a catalog is arbitrary, and
  • these are clouds, after all, with indistinct boundaries and complex internal structures - where one nebula stops and another begins is unclear, especially in the absence of detailed distance data.

Neverthless, I was able to expand considerably beyond the 483 distinct objects listed in the Sharpless, Gum and RCW catalogs. There are 733 nebulae listed in the full integrated catalog.

The catalog includes the object name, catalog name and galactic coordinates (l and b) for a central point for each object. Tn order to make the catalog more useful for astrophotographers, it also gives the central point in equatorial coordinates (right ascension and declination) as well as a radius in arcminutes and the constellation within which it is located.

I have provided cross reference numbers for the nebulae in the Sharpless, Gum and RCW catalogs. For the primary name I have preferred the Sharpless designation followed by the Gum designation and then finally RCW.

In addition to the Sharpless, Gum and RCW catalogs, the integrated catalog also includes the BFS nebulae and a large number of the nebulae listed in the 1976 paper by Dubout-Crillon as well as a small number of other sources.

There are 78 nebulae that I could not find in any catalog in SIMBAD and for convenience I have designated these GMN 1 to GMN 78 (Galaxy Map Nebula catalog). In some cases these are faint nebulae and in others, nebular regions that encompass a number of the nebulae in the other catalogs. Inclusion in the GMN catalog does not mean that the object is a new discovery as many catalogs still are not available from SIMBAD and many individual studied nebulae have not been gathered into a catalog. At some point I'll write a commentary on the GMN objects and describe what information is available on them.

You can download the integrated catalog in Excel format here.

You can also view the integrated catalog data overlaid on a false colour version of the Finkbeiner map in the Milky Way Explorer. The circles surrounding the nebulae are colour coded:

  • yellow marks a nebula in the Sharpless, Gum, RCW and BFS catalogs,
  • orange marks an HII region in another published catalog,
  • green marks an unknown nebula listed in the Galaxy Map Nebula (GMN) catalog, and
  • cyan (blue-green) marks other prominent objects not in the integrated catalog but visible in the Finkbeiner map: stars, planetary nebulae or galaxies.

Nebula commentaries completed

Submitted by Kevin Jardine on 19 September, 2013 - 09:03

Eight years ago I started work on a commentary on the Sharpless nebula catalog and eventually expanded to the Gum and RCW catalogs as well. Together these catalogs cover almost all of the prominent emission nebulae of the Milky Way visible in hydrogen-alpha. (These catalogs overlook a few fainter large objects and miss many smaller objects. There are other catalogs describing smaller emission nebulae such as the BFS and Bran catalogs. At some point I will look at these.)

It took me longer than expected but today the Sharpless, Gum and RCW commentaries are complete. Over the years the database and Python code I was using to present the commentaries became bitrotted so now I am using a new Haskell-based system to generate static pages from an off-line database. The resulting pages display faster and more reliably.

I have used the new Haskell-based system to improve the format of the commentaries. There are now proper Wikipedia-style footnotes, links to each nebula in the Milky Way Explorer, and a selection of distance estimates from the scientific literature instead of a single estimate. I have updated the commentaries to use the latest research and to improve the images. Of course, updating the commentaries will be an ongoing task.

There are a total of 313 Sharpless objects, 209 RCW objects and 97 Gum objects. There are more objects in the RCW and Gum catalogs than catalog numbers because both of these catalogs describe subnebulae (for RCW in the notes and for Gum in the main catalog). Sometimes these subnebulae identify the brightest parts of a larger object, but often they identify separate objects.

There is considerable overlap between the three catalogs as this Venn diagram shows:

Because of the overlaps, there are 483 distinct objects in the three catalogs. There are actually fewer nebulae than this, because some catalog entries simply designate nebulous regions that contain separate objects described in other catalogs, and in the case of the RCW catalog, there appear to be a number of objects that are unidentifiable or simply do not exist. More details can be found in the commentaries.

Stewart Lane Sharpless (1926 - 2013)

Submitted by Kevin Jardine on 17 September, 2013 - 09:31

Stewart Sharpless, the creator of the Sharpless nebula catalog, died on January 19, 2013 at the age of 86. A bit sadly, I have seen no obituaries in scientific publications yet for Sharpless. I found out about his death recently by accident while searching for information on Sharpless and encountered this guestbook page with the details of his death.

His page at the University of Rochester describing him as a "professor emeritus" has been removed, but I see that he is still listed as of today at the International Astronomical Union and is still described as alive on his English Wikipedia page (but the German version correctly reports his death).

I find it sad when scientists die or retire unacknowledged. I notice that Veta Avedisova has been removed from the staff listing at the Institute of Astronomy, Russian Academy of Sciences. I hope in her case that she has a new job or is perhaps beginning a long and happy retirement!


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