Astronomers find stream of gas — 2.6 million light-years long

Scientists normally find gas inside galaxies, but here half of the gas — 15 billion times the mass of the Sun — is in the bridge.
By | Published: August 8, 2014 | Last updated on May 18, 2023
Arecibo gas bridge
The bridge of gas (shown in green) stretches from the large galaxy at the bottom left to the group of galaxies at the top. A third nearby galaxy to the right also has a shorter stream of gas attached to it. The three insets show expanded views of the different galaxies and the green circle indicates the Arecibo telescope beam.
Rhys Taylor/Arecibo Galaxy Environment Survey/The Sloan Digital Sky Survey Collaboration
Astronomers and students have found a bridge of atomic hydrogen gas 2.6 million light-years long between galaxies 500 million light-years away. They detected the gas using the William E. Gordon Telescope at the Arecibo Observatory, a radio astronomy facility of the U.S. National Science Foundation in Puerto Rico.

The stream of atomic hydrogen is the largest known, a million light-years longer than a gas tail found in the Virgo Cluster by another Arecibo project a few years ago. “This was totally unexpected,” said Rhys Taylor from the Czech Academy of Sciences. “We frequently see gas streams in galaxy clusters where there are lots of galaxies close together but to find something this long and not in a cluster is unprecedented.”

It is not just the length of the stream that is surprising, but also the amount of gas found in it. “We normally find gas inside galaxies, but here half of the gas — 15 billion times the mass of the Sun — is in the bridge,” said Roberto Rodriguez from the University of Puerto Rico in Humacao. “That’s far more than in the Milky Way and Andromeda galaxies combined!”

The team is still investigating the origin of the stream. One notion surmises that the large galaxy at one end of the stream passed close to the group of smaller galaxies at the other end in the past and that the gas bridge was drawn out as they moved apart, while a second notion presumes that the large galaxy plowed straight through the middle of the group, pushing gas out of it. The team plans to use computer simulations to find out which of these ideas can best match the shape of the bridge that is seen with the Arecibo Telescope.

The bridge was found in data taken between 2008 and 2011 for the Arecibo Galaxy Environment Survey, which is using the power of the Arecibo Telescope to survey a large area of sky with a high level of sensitivity.