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A Galactic-scale gas wave in the solar neighbourhood

Matters Arising to this article was published on 15 July 2020

Abstract

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.

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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 https://doi.org/10.7910/DVN/07L7YZ and the tenuous connections at https://doi.org/10.7910/DVN/K16GQX.

Code availability

The software used to determine the distances to star-forming regions is publicly available on Zenodo (https://doi.org/10.5281/zenodo.3348370 and https://doi.org/10.5281/zenodo.3348368). The code used for model fitting is available from J.S.S. (jspeagle@cfa.harvard.edu) on reasonable request.

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Acknowledgements

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.

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Authors

Contributions

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.

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The authors declare no competing interests.

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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.

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Alves, J., Zucker, C., Goodman, A.A. et al. A Galactic-scale gas wave in the solar neighbourhood. Nature 578, 237–239 (2020). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41586-019-1874-z

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