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Discovery of molecular hydrogen in a high-velocity cloud of the Galactic halo


The Milky Way's halo contains clouds of neutral hydrogen with high radial velocities which do not follow the general rotational motion of the Galaxy1. Few distances to these high-velocity clouds are known2,3, so even gross properties such as total mass are hard to determine. As a consequence, there is no generally accepted theory regarding their origin. One idea4,5 is that they result from gas that has cooled after being ejected from the Galaxy through fountain-like flows powered by supernovae; another is that they are composed of gas, poor in heavy elements, which is falling onto the disk of the Milky Way from intergalactic space6,7. The presence of molecular hydrogen, whose formation generally requires the presence of dust (and therefore gas, enriched in heavy elements), could help to distinguish between these possibilities. Here we report the discovery of molecular hydrogen absorption in a high-velocity cloud along the line of sight to the Large Magellanic Cloud. We also derive for the same cloud an iron abundance which is half of the solar value. From these data, we conclude that gas in this cloud originated in the disk of the Milky Way.

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Figure 1: The spectral region between 1,006 and 1,012 Å in the ORFEUS spectrum of HD269546.
Figure 2: Comparison between the H2 absorption profile (top panel) and the H I emission profile (bottom panel) for the HVC gas in the direction of HD269546.
Figure 3: Map of the peak intensities for neutral hydrogen emission.


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We thank M. Putman and C. Brüns for providing part of the HIPASS data.

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Correspondence to P. Richter.

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Richter, P., de Boer, K., Widmann, H. et al. Discovery of molecular hydrogen in a high-velocity cloud of the Galactic halo. Nature 402, 386–387 (1999).

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