Skip to main content

Thank you for visiting You are using a browser version with limited support for CSS. To obtain the best experience, we recommend you use a more up to date browser (or turn off compatibility mode in Internet Explorer). In the meantime, to ensure continued support, we are displaying the site without styles and JavaScript.

A Galactic-scale gas wave in the solar neighbourhood

Matters Arising to this article was published on 15 July 2020


For the past 150 years, the prevailing view of the local interstellar medium has been based on a peculiarity known as the Gould Belt1,2,3,4, an expanding ring of young stars, gas and dust, tilted about 20 degrees to the Galactic plane. However, the physical relationship between local gas clouds has remained unknown because the accuracy in distance measurements to such clouds is of the same order as, or larger than, their sizes5,6,7. With the advent of large photometric surveys8 and the astrometric survey9, this situation has changed10. Here we reveal the three-dimensional structure of all local cloud complexes. We find a narrow and coherent 2.7-kiloparsec arrangement of dense gas in the solar neighbourhood that contains many of the clouds thought to be associated with the Gould Belt. This finding is inconsistent with the notion that these clouds are part of a ring, bringing the Gould Belt model into question. The structure comprises the majority of nearby star-forming regions, has an aspect ratio of about 1:20 and contains about three million solar masses of gas. Remarkably, this structure appears to be undulating, and its three-dimensional shape is well described by a damped sinusoidal wave on the plane of the Milky Way with an average period of about 2 kiloparsecs and a maximum amplitude of about 160 parsecs.

Your institute does not have access to this article

Relevant articles

Open Access articles citing this article.

Access options

Buy article

Get time limited or full article access on ReadCube.


All prices are NET prices.

Fig. 1: Sky map of targeted star-forming regions towards the anti-centre of the Milky Way.
Fig. 2: 3D distribution of local clouds.

Data availability

The datasets generated and/or analysed during the current study are publicly available on the Harvard Dataverse: the distances to the major star-forming clouds are available at and the tenuous connections at

Code availability

The software used to determine the distances to star-forming regions is publicly available on Zenodo ( and The code used for model fitting is available from J.S.S. ( on reasonable request.


  1. Herschel, J. F. W. Results of Astronomical Observations Made During the Years 1834, 5, 6, 7, 8, at the Cape of Good Hope; Being the Completion of a Telescopic Survey of the Whole Surface of the Visible Heavens, Commenced in 1825 (Smith, Elder and Company, 1847).

  2. Gould, B. A. On the number and distribution of the bright fixed stars. Am. J. Sci. 38, 325–333 (1874).

    ADS  Article  Google Scholar 

  3. Bobylev, V. V. The Gould belt. Astrophysics 57, 583–604 (2014).

    ADS  Google Scholar 

  4. Palouš, J. & Ehlerová, S. in Handbook of Supernovae (eds Alsabti, A. W. & Murdin, P.) 2301–2311 (Springer, 2016).

  5. Maddalena, R. J., Morris, M., Moscowitz, J. & Thaddeus, P. The large system of molecular clouds in Orion and Monoceros. Astrophys. J. 303, 375–391 (1986).

    ADS  CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  6. Lombardi, M., Lada, C. J. & Alves, J. Hipparcos distance estimates of the Ophiuchus and the Lupus cloud complexes. Astron. Astrophys. 480, 785–792 (2008).

    ADS  Article  Google Scholar 

  7. Schlafly, E. F. et al. A large catalog of accurate distances to molecular clouds from ps1 photometry. Astrophys. J. 786, 29 (2014).

    ADS  Article  Google Scholar 

  8. Chambers, K. C. et al. The Pan-STARRS1 surveys. Preprint at (2016).

  9. Brown, A. G. A., Vallenari, A., Prusti, T. & de Bruijne, J. H. J. Gaia Data Release 2: summary of the contents and survey properties. Astron. Astrophys. Suppl. Ser. 616, A1 (2018).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  10. Zucker, C. et al. A large catalog of accurate distances to local molecular clouds: the Gaia DR2 edition. Astrophys. J. 879, 125 (2019).

    ADS  CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  11. Reipurth, B. (ed.) Handbook of Star Forming Regions, Volume I: The Northern Sky Vol. 4 (ASP, 2008).

  12. Zucker, C. et al. A compendium of distances to molecular clouds in the star formation handbook. Astron. Astrophys. 633 A51 (2020).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  13. Dame, T. M., Hartmann, D. & Thaddeus, P. The Milky Way in molecular clouds: a new complete CO survey. Astrophys. J. 547, 792–813 (2001).

    ADS  CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  14. Planck Collaboration Planck 2013 results. XI. All-sky model of thermal dust emission. Astron. Astrophys. 571, A11 (2014).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  15. Green, G. M. et al. Galactic reddening in 3D from stellar photometry – an improved map. Mon. Not. R. Astron. Soc. 478, 651–666 (2018).

    ADS  CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  16. Lallement, R. et al. Gaia-2MASS 3D maps of Galactic interstellar dust within 3 kpc. Astron. Astrophys. 625, A135 (2019).

    CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  17. Green, G. M., Schlafly, E. F., Zucker, C., Speagle, J. S. & Finkbeiner, D. P. A 3D dust map based on gaia, Pan-STARRS 1 and 2MASS. Astrophys. J 887, 93 (2019).

    ADS  CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  18. Perrot, C. A. & Grenier, I. A. 3D dynamical evolution of the interstellar gas in the Gould belt. Astron. Astrophys. Suppl. Ser. 404, 519–531 (2003).

    ADS  CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  19. Elias, F., Cabrera-Caño, J. & Alfaro, E. J. OB stars in the solar neighborhood. I. Analysis of their spatial distribution. Astron. J. 131, 2700–2709 (2006).

    ADS  Article  Google Scholar 

  20. Bouy, H. & Alves, J. F. Cosmography of OB stars in the solar neighbourhood. Astron. Astrophys. Suppl. Ser. 584, A26 (2015).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  21. Reid, M. J., Dame, T. M., Menten, K. M. & Brunthaler, A. A parallax-based distance estimator for spiral arm sources. Astrophys. J. 823, 77 (2016).

    ADS  Article  Google Scholar 

  22. Reid, M. J. et al. Trigonometric parallaxes of high mass star forming regions: the structure and kinematics of the Milky Way. Astrophys. J. 783, 130 (2014).

    ADS  Article  Google Scholar 

  23. Honig, Z. N. & Reid, M. J. Characteristics of spiral arms in late-type galaxies. Astrophys. J. 800, 53 (2015).

    ADS  Article  Google Scholar 

  24. D’Onghia, E., Vogelsberger, M. & Hernquist, L. Self-perpetuating spiral arms in disk galaxies. Astrophys. J. 766, 34 (2013).

    ADS  Article  Google Scholar 

  25. Goodman, A. A. et al. The bones of the Milky Way. Astrophys. J. 797, 53 (2014).

    ADS  Article  Google Scholar 

  26. Elmegreen, B. G., Elmegreen, D. M. & Efremov, Y. N. Regularly spaced infrared peaks in the dusty spirals of Messier 100. Astrophys. J. 863, 59 (2018).

    ADS  Article  Google Scholar 

  27. Edelsohn, D. J. & Elmegreen, B. G. Corrugations in galactic discs generated by magellanic-type perturbers. Mon. Not. R. Astron. Soc. 287, 947–954 (1997).

    ADS  Article  Google Scholar 

  28. Matthews, L. D. & Uson, J. M. Corrugations in the disk of the edge-on spiral galaxy IC 2233. Astrophys. J. 688, 237–244 (2008).

    ADS  CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  29. Bally, J. in Handbook of Star Forming Regions Vol. 4 (ed. Reipurth, B.) 459–370 (Astronomical Society of the Pacific, 2008).

  30. Ginsburg, A. PySpecKit: Python spectroscopic toolkit. Astrophysics Source Code Library ascl:1109.001 (2011).

  31. Speagle, J.S. dynesty: a dynamic nested sampling package for estimating Bayesian posteriors and evidences. Preprint at (2019).

Download references


J.A. thanks the Radcliffe Institute, where this work was developed, and where J.A. discovered the work of visual artist A. von Mertens on H. Leavitt’s work, which inspired us to “see more”. We acknowledge the organizers and participants of the ‘The Milky Way in the age of Gaia’ workshop of the 2018 Paris-Saclay International Programs for Physical Sciences, as well as the Interstellar Institute, for discussions at the early stage of this work. We benefited from discussions with T. Dame, M. Reid, A. Burkert and M. Davies. J.A. acknowledges the TURIS and Data Science Research Platforms of the University of Vienna. C.Z. and J.S.S. are supported by the NSF Graduate Research Fellowship Program (grant number 1650114) and the Harvard Data Science Initiative. D.P.F. and C.Z. acknowledge support by NSF grant AST-1614941. E.F.S. acknowledges support by NASA through ADAP grant NNH17AE75I and Hubble Fellowship grant HST-HF2-51367.001-A awarded by the Space Telescope Science Institute, which is operated by the Association of Universities for Research in Astronomy, Inc., for NASA, under contract NAS 5-26555. The computations in this paper used resources from the Odyssey cluster, which is supported by the FAS Division of Science Research Computing Group at Harvard University. The high-dimensional visualization software Glue, which was used to explore, visualize and understand the Radcliffe Wave, was created by A.A.G., T.R., C.Z. and others, and has been supported by US Government contract NAS5-03127 through NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope Mission and NSF awards OAC-1739657 and AST-1908419. We are grateful to A. Johnson and others at Plotly Graphing Library for their help creating the 3D interactive figure, which was output from Glue to Plotly. WorldWide Telescope (WWT), which was used within Glue to visualize the wave, is currently supported by NSF grant 1642446 to the American Astronomical Society. WWT was originally created by C. Wong and J. Fay at Microsoft Research, which supported WWT development before the American Astronomical Society. J.S.S. thanks R. Bleich, and J.A. thanks A. dell’Erba, J. Alves, M. Alves and R. Alves for continuing support.

Author information

Authors and Affiliations



J.A. led the work and wrote most of the text. All authors contributed to the writing of the manuscript. C.Z. and J.S.S. led the data analysis and distance modelling with E.F.S., G.M.G. and D.P.F. C.Z. and J.A. led the kinematics analysis. J.A., C.Z. and A.A.G. led the visualization efforts. J.S.S. led the 3D modelling. J.A., C.Z. and A.A.G. led the efforts to interpret the results. T.R., A.A.G., J.S.S. and C.Z. contributed to the development of the software used in this work.

Corresponding author

Correspondence to João Alves.

Ethics declarations

Competing interests

The authors declare no competing interests.

Additional information

Publisher’s note Springer Nature remains neutral with regard to jurisdictional claims in published maps and institutional affiliations.

Extended data figures and tables

Extended Data Fig. 1 Position–velocity diagram.

a, b, The blue points in a are as in Fig. 1 and the orange points in b represent the predicted positions of the blue points as if they were following a ‘universal’ Galactic rotation curve22. The line segments represent 1σ errors, derived from a Gaussian fitting for the observed velocities and the distance uncertainties for the predicted velocities, and are generally smaller than the symbols. The quasi-linear arrangement in velocity of the Radcliffe Wave complexes suggests that the structure is not a random alignment of molecular cloud complexes, but a kinematically coherent structure. The tentative decoupling between observed and predicted velocities also indicate that the Radcliffe Wave is a kinematically coherent structure. VLSR, velocity in the local-standard-of-rest frame.

Extended Data Table 1 Priors on Radcliffe Wave parameters
Extended Data Table 2 Constraints on Radcliffe Wave parameters
Extended Data Table 3 Physical properties of the Radcliffe Wave

Supplementary information

Supplementary Figure 1 | Interactive 3D visualization of the Radcliffe wave

This Figure is the interactive 3D counterpart to Figure 2 and colours are as in Figure 2. For interactive navigation of the data, ‘click and drag’ the Figure. To zoom in and out, ‘click and drag’ the Figure with two fingers or, on a desktop, use the mouse wheel. Hover over any point to view the cloud name. Complementary data layers are available on the right side of the Figure and can be displayed by selecting/de-selecting a particular layer.

Rights and permissions

Reprints and Permissions

About this article

Verify currency and authenticity via CrossMark

Cite this article

Alves, J., Zucker, C., Goodman, A.A. et al. A Galactic-scale gas wave in the solar neighbourhood. Nature 578, 237–239 (2020).

Download citation

  • Received:

  • Accepted:

  • Published:

  • Issue Date:

  • DOI:

Further reading


By submitting a comment you agree to abide by our Terms and Community Guidelines. If you find something abusive or that does not comply with our terms or guidelines please flag it as inappropriate.


Quick links

Nature Briefing

Sign up for the Nature Briefing newsletter — what matters in science, free to your inbox daily.

Get the most important science stories of the day, free in your inbox. Sign up for Nature Briefing