Tracing the Milky Way’s magnetic field

Image: Polarized Emission from Milky Way Dust. Credit: ESA and the Planck Collaboration

Polarized Emission from Milky Way Dust

The interaction between interstellar dust in the Milky Way and the structure of our Galaxy’s magnetic field, as detected by the European Space Agency’s Planck satellite over the entire sky.

Planck scanned the sky to detect the most ancient light in the history of the Universe – the cosmic microwave background. It also detected significant foreground emission from diffuse material in our galaxy which, although a nuisance for cosmological studies, is extremely important for studying the birth of stars and other phenomena in the Milky Way.

Among the foreground sources at the wavelengths probed by Planck is cosmic dust, a minor but crucial component of the interstellar medium that pervades the galaxy. Mainly gas, it is the raw material for stars to form.

Interstellar clouds of gas and dust are also threaded by the galaxy’s magnetic field, and dust grains tend to align their longest axis at right angles to the direction of the field. As a result, the light emitted by dust grains is partly ‘polarized’ – it vibrates in a preferred direction – and, as such, could be caught by the polarization-sensitive detectors on Planck.

Scientists in the Planck collaboration are using the polarized emission of interstellar dust to reconstruct the galaxy’s magnetic field and study its role in the build-up of structure in the Milky Way, leading to star formation.

In this image, the color scale represents the total intensity of dust emission, revealing the structure of interstellar clouds in the Milky Way. The texture is based on measurements of the direction of the polarized light emitted by the dust, which in turn indicates the orientation of the magnetic field.

Credit: ESA and the Planck Collaboration

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I am Webmaster for the Cuyahoga Astronomical Association. I also participate in outreach programming in public observing and occasional presentations on behalf of the CAA and a local college.
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