Local bubble: a massive gas structure that contains a map of the solar system for the first time

The Solar System is located inside a structure called the Local Bubble that is about 1,000 light-years across – and a map of its surface shows that it’s the site of star formation.


January 12 2022

Artist’s illustration of a local bubble, with star formation occurring on the surface of the bubble

Lea Hostak (@STScI)

The star-forming regions surrounding our solar system have been mapped for the first time.

These regions appear to lie on a distorted surface extending across 1,000 light-years, called the Local Bubble. The interior of the bubble, where the solar system is located, is mostly empty space. But its atmosphere consists of cold gas and dust, leftovers from exploding stars. New stars are now forming from this material.

We’ve known about the existence of the Local Bubble – and about the star-forming regions closest to the Solar System – for decades. But Catherine Zucker of Harvard University and her colleagues have found a clear link between the two.

They did this using data from the European Space Agency’s Gaia satellite, which determines the positions, distances and motions of stars with high accuracy. This allowed them to build a 3D map of the different star forming regions. The map also used Gaia motion data to plot how the local bubble has evolved over time and created star-forming regions.

“We discovered a common origin for all nearby star formations,” Zucker says. “We can basically explain how each region began forming stars within 500 light-years of our sun.”

When some stars reach the end of their lives, they cause a powerful explosion called a supernova. Our Local Bubble appears to have formed when several shock waves from a supernova swept gas and dust through space, forming the dense envelope of the Local Bubble. Over time, the crust began to form a series of molecular clouds, which are considered the cradle of new stars.

“This result strongly advocates the case that star formation from shell expansion may be more important than previously thought,” says Martin Krause of the University of Hertfordshire, UK.

There is some uncertainty about the exact shape of the bubble: we don’t know whether the top and bottom, with respect to the Milky Way’s disk, are open or closed, for example. But Zucker and her team are confident in the shape of the bubble, where the star-forming regions lie, within a margin of error.

Journal reference: temper nature, DOI: 10.1038/s41586-021-04286-5

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