Take a look at this photo, will you?
Some months ago, the ESO Very Large Telescope (VLT) observed a classical dark globule, Barnard 68 (B68), in front of a dense star field in the Milky Way band.
Yeah, I know… it’s a big black patch in the middle of a bunch of stars. But according to a recent article at io9.com, what appears to be a rather misshapen black area is actually something much weirder. It’s also quite possibly the loneliest, darkest, coldest place in the universe. (And yes, I’ve been to Sudbury!)
As the article points out, B68 is what’s known as a dark molecular cloud. Basically, the dust and gas that makes up the dark cloud is so tightly packed together that it blocks out all the light behind it. The result might look like some alien civilization tore apart the fabric of the universe and opening up a gateway to the howling void, but thankfully – or unfortunately, I guess, depending on how you feel about the howling void – it’s just gas. Make that a lot of gas.
“The eerily dark surroundings help make the interiors of molecular clouds some of the coldest and most isolated places in the universe. One of the most notable of these dark absorption nebulae is a cloud toward the constellation Ophiuchus known as Barnard 68. That no stars are visible in the center indicates that Barnard 68 is relatively nearby, with measurements placing it about 500 light-years away and half a light-year across. It is not known exactly how molecular clouds like Barnard 68 form, but it is known that these clouds are themselves likely places for new stars to form. In fact, Barnard 68 itself has been found likely to collapse and form a new star system.”
Investigating further using ground-based telescopes to confirm the discovery, astronomers found the same phenomena: this patch looks black not because it is a dense pocket of gas but because it is truly empty. Something has blown a hole right through the cloud. “No-one has ever seen a hole like this,” says Tom Megeath, of the University of Toledo, USA. “It’s as surprising as knowing you have worms tunnelling under your lawn, but finding one morning that they have created a huge, yawning pit.”
At the risk being an intergalactic party-pooper, it behooves me to point out that this molecular cloud only looks pitch black in the optical wavelengths that are familiar to us. Venture into different wavelengths, such as infrared, and you can see the stars behind B68 just fine, as you can see here. The new improved look comes courtesy of infrared SOFI images.
SOFI (Son OF ISAAC) is a scaled-down copy of ISAAC, the major VLT instrument that has already produced spectacular observations. SOFI is a unique instrument for the study of extended objects like B68 because of its very sensitive infrared detector and unrivalled large field-of-view.
OK, so maybe technically there probably isn’t a huge hole in the universe.
Still… the idea of someone ripping a hole in the universe is, you have to admit, pretty cool.
Talk about the ultimate cosmic who-done-it!
Here’s my nomination for Prime Suspect!