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The Galaxy’s veil of excited hydrogen

Nature Astronomy volume 1, Article number: 0103 (2017) | Download Citation


Many of the baryons in our Galaxy probably lie outside the well-known disk and bulge components. Despite a wealth of evidence for the presence of some gas in galactic halos—including absorption line systems in the spectra of quasars, high-velocity neutral hydrogen clouds in our Galaxy halo, line-emitting ionized hydrogen originating from galactic winds in nearby starburst galaxies and the X-ray coronas surrounding the most massive galaxies—accounting for the gas in the halo of any galaxy has been observationally challenging, primarily because of the low density in these expansive regions. The most sensitive measurements come from detecting absorption due to the intervening gas in the spectra of distant objects, such as quasars or distant halo stars, but these have typically been limited to a few lines of sight to sufficiently bright objects. Extensive spectroscopic surveys of millions of objects provide an alternative approach to the problem. Here, we present evidence for a newly discovered, widely distributed, neutral, excited hydrogen component of the Galaxy’s halo. It is observed as the slight (0.779 ± 0.006%) absorption of flux near the rest wavelength of Hα in the combined spectra of hundreds of thousands of galaxy spectra and is ubiquitous in high-latitude lines of sight. This observation provides an avenue to tracing, both spatially and kinematically, the majority of the gas in the halo of our Galaxy.

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D.Z. and H.Z. acknowledge financial support from NASA (the National Aeronautical and Space Administration) ADAP NNX12AE27G, the National Science Foundation AST-1311326 and the University of Arizona. The authors thank the Sloan Digital Sky Survey III (SDSS-III) team for providing a valuable resource to the community. Funding for SDSS-III has been provided by the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, the Participating Institutions, the National Science Foundation and the US Department of Energy Office of Science. The SDSS-III website is available at SDSS-III is managed by the Astrophysical Research Consortium for the Participating Institutions of the SDSS-III Collaboration, including the University of Arizona, the Brazilian Participation Group, Brookhaven National Laboratory, Carnegie Mellon University, University of Florida, the French Participation Group, the German Participation Group, Harvard University, the Instituto de Astrofisica de Canarias, the Michigan State/Notre Dame/JINA Participation Group, Johns Hopkins University, Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, Max Planck Institute for Astrophysics, Max Planck Institute for Extraterrestrial Physics, New Mexico State University, New York University, Ohio State University, Pennsylvania State University, University of Portsmouth, Princeton University, the Spanish Participation Group, University of Tokyo, University of Utah, Vanderbilt University, University of Virginia, University of Washington and Yale University.

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  1. Steward Observatory, University of Arizona, Tucson, Arizona 85719, USA.

    • Huanian Zhang
    •  & Dennis Zaritsky


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Both authors contributed to the final analysis and interpretation of the results. H.Z. led the data analysis. D.Z. provided the initial motivation for the programme.

Competing interests

The authors declare no competing financial interests.

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Huanian Zhang.

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