Astronomers have witnessed a huge burst of wind in space for the first time, after detecting a gas cloud that extends hundreds of thousands of light-years from a galaxy.

It marks the first direct evidence that galactic winds feed the circumgalactic medium (the veil of gas that surrounds galaxies as they float around the universe). The gas cloud was spotted lingering around the galaxy SDSS J211824.06+001729.4 and nicknamed Makani, appropriately named after the Hawaiian for ‘wind.’

Makani 360-degree rotation of KCWI spectral cube from Jim Geach on Vimeo.

Makani is actually the remnant of two galaxies that collided and subsequently stabilized. The late-stage merger was photographed by the Keck Cosmic Web Imager, and further data was provided by the Hubble Space Telescope and the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA).

© Gene Leung (UC San Diego)



“Galaxy mergers often lead to starburst events, when a substantial amount of gas present in the merging galaxies is compressed, resulting in a burst of new star births,” explained astrophysicist Alison Coil of UC San Diego.

“Those new stars, in the case of Makani, likely caused the huge outflows – either in stellar winds or at the end of their lives when they exploded as supernovae.”

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The lingering cloud of hot ionized oxygen spans around 4,900 square kiloparsecs, or roughly 52 billion square light-years, in a two-part hourglass-shaped cloud that reaches temperatures of up to 10,000 Kelvin (17,540 fahrenheit). 

The first part of the gas cloud dates back 400 million years and is travelling at 1,400 kilometres per second (870 miles per second), while the second gas eruption is just 7 million years old, and blowing at up to 2,100 kilometres per second (1,300 miles per second).

“This means that we can confirm it’s actually moving gas from the galaxy into the circumgalactic regions around it, as well as sweeping up more gas from its surroundings as it moves out,” physicist David Rupke of Rhodes College explained.

“And it’s moving a lot of it – at least one to 10 percent of the visible mass of the entire galaxy – at very high speeds, thousands of kilometers per second.”

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