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A magnetic torsional wave near the Galactic Centre traced by a ‘double helix’ nebula

Nature volume 440, pages 308310 (16 March 2006) | Download Citation



The magnetic field in the central few hundred parsecs of the Milky Way has a dipolar geometry and is substantially stronger than elsewhere in the Galaxy, with estimates ranging up to a milligauss (refs 1–6). Characterization of the magnetic field at the Galactic Centre is important because it can affect the orbits of molecular clouds by exerting a drag on them, inhibit star formation, and could guide a wind of hot gas or cosmic rays away from the central region. Here we report observations of an infrared nebula having the morphology of an intertwined double helix about 100 parsecs from the Galaxy's dynamical centre, with its axis oriented perpendicular to the Galactic plane. The observed segment is about 25 parsecs in length, and contains about 1.25 full turns of each of the two continuous, helically wound strands. We interpret this feature as a torsional Alfvén wave propagating vertically away from the Galactic disk, driven by rotation of the magnetized circumnuclear gas disk. The direct connection between the circumnuclear disk and the double helix is ambiguous, but the images show a possible meandering channel that warrants further investigation.

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M.M. is grateful to S. Cowley and S. Stolovy for discussions. This work is based on observations made with the Spitzer Space Telescope, which is operated by the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, California Institute of Technology, under a contract with NASA. Partial support for this work was provided by NASA through an award issued by JPL/Caltech. This research also made use of data products from the Midcourse Space Experiment, available via the NASA/IPAC Infrared Science Archive.

Author information


  1. Department of Physics and Astronomy, University of California, Los Angeles, California 90095-1547, USA

    • Mark Morris
    •  & Tuan Do
  2. Center for Radiophysics and Space Research, Cornell University, Space Sciences Building, Ithaca, New York 14853-6801, USA

    • Keven Uchida


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Competing interests

Reprints and permissions information is available at npg.nature.com/reprintsandpermissions. The authors declare no competing financial interests.

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Mark Morris.

Supplementary information

Word documents

  1. 1.

    Supplementary Discussion

    Alternatives to thermal dust emission to account for the spectral energy distribution of the Double Helix Nebula. While these alternative mechanisms are unlikely, they warrant consideration.

  2. 2.

    Supplementary Table

    MSX surface brightnesses and parameter fits for seven representative nebular positions. The reported MSX fluxes and their excesses relative to the local background are given for all four MSX bands. The best-fit power-law indices and blackbody temperatures are also shown for two assumptions about the grain emissivity.

  3. 3.

    Supplementary Figure Legend

    Text describing the details of the supplementary figure, stating the purpose of each panel and clarifying the nomenclature used in the figure.

PDF files

  1. 1.

    Supplementary Figure

    Four views of the cylindrical channel segments that lie along the hypothesized channel connecting the circumnuclear disk (CND) with the Double Helix Nebula (DHN). These are shown as four panels with different color scales.

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