Astrophysics: A cosmic double helix

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Astrophysics: A cosmic double helix
Astrophysics: A cosmic double helix
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A Cosmic Double Helix

Nature cultivates its models of success. Astronomers have discovered a nebula close to the heart of our galaxy, which at first glance is reminiscent of the double-helix structure of the hereditary molecule DNA. A coincidence that scientists hope will shed light on magnetic fields and what is happening in the hearts of galaxies.

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The infrared images taken by a team of scientists led by Mark Morris from the University of California in Los Angeles using the Spitzer Space Telescope could have a great career ahead of them. The images, taken near the center of the Milky Way, reveal something we all know from biology class: a double helix. But this double helix is not in a cell nucleus, but surrounded by stars in the middle of space. DNA in space - this is what the new hit could look like in esoteric circles. After severe disappointments with Martian canals, Martian faces and Martian microbes, the hope for a higher order is now shimmering in the infrared, which creates the same structures in galaxies as in cells and thus wants to give people a signal for whatever. Cosmic DNA on book covers, posters, coffee mugsā€¦Nevertheless pretty to look at.

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The Double Helix Nebula should also soon enjoy increased attention in real science. Because although it has no more to do with DNA than a twisted shoelace, it shows the astrophysicists something that they would otherwise hardly have seen so clearly: the course of a dynamic magnetic field near the galactic center. And with it the behavior of a decisive influencing variable that is around a thousand times stronger in that region than in the fringes of the Milky Way, where our solar system is located. Such strong magnetic fields direct the flow of gas and dust particles in interstellar space, control cosmic rays, disrupt star formation and possibly even affect the core of the galaxy itself. No wonder, then, that indicators of the magnetic workings are most welcome.

The Double Helix Nebula is such an indicator. At a distance of only about 300 light-years from the gigantic black hole in the center of the Milky Way, it juts out into space about 80 light-years perpendicular to the galactic plane, in which most of the stars lie. "We know that the galactic center has a strong magnetic field that is very orderly, with field lines oriented perpendicular to the plane of the galaxy," says Morris. Usually, however, it is not so clearly visible. Only the Double Helix Nebula makes it possible to take photos of the magnetic course.

And it reveals powerful dynamics, because the twisted structure is probably due to the rotation of the magnetic field."If you twist the magnetic field lines at their base, it creates a torsional wave," Morris explains. As with a rope, one end of which we swing in a circle, the movement continues through the entire structure - in fog at almost 1000 kilometers per hour. Still, we won't see any changes from our perch on the edge of the Milky Way, because a full rotation takes 10,000 years-too long even for patient scientists.

Swinging a rope is one thing, stirring a powerful galactic magnetic field is on a whole other level. What could be responsible for its rotation? The central black hole? This assumption may be obvious, but Morris believes that there is at least no direct connection. He sees the massive disk of gas surrounding the black hole as the origin of the field lines. It rotates around the center at the appropriate speed. If this assumption is correct, the nebula would provide us with interesting information about what is happening in the innermost region of the Milky Way. And thus maybe even over all or at least very many similarly built star systems.

The twisted nebula may thus help us unravel the processes at the heart of galaxies. But if he falls short of expectations, then we still have the coffee mugs with his beautiful likeness - if he should actually be successful outside of science.

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