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Scientists spot one of the longest known structures in the Milky Way

A massive filament named "Maggie" could become a hotbed for star formation.

Side partial side view of the Milky Way shows the location of the filament Maggie as marked by the box. 
ESA/Gaia/DPAC, CC BY-SA 3.0 IGO & T. Müller/J. Syed/MPIA

According to NASA, our home Milky Way galaxy is about 100,000 light-years across. That's beyond ginormous for humans who typically measure big things in relation to the height of the Eiffel Tower. So when astronomers say they've found "one of the longest known structures in the Milky Way," they mean they've found something truly monumental.

The structure is notable not just for its size, but for what it might tell scientists about where stars come from.

A team led by astronomers at the Max Planck Institute for Astronomy (MPIA) discovered a "surprisingly long" filament of atomic hydrogen gas that extends 3,900 light-years and is 130 light-years wide. A paper published in the January issue of the journal Astronomy & Astrophysics details the find.

An analysis of the data showed the filament to be a coherent structure. Study co-author Juan Soler, formerly of MPIA and now with the Istituto Nazionale di Astrofisica in Rome, named the filament "Maggie" as a tribute to the Rio Magdalena in his home country of Colombia.

If you were to make a recipe for stars, hydrogen would at the top of the ingredient list. "Astronomers find [hydrogen] in the form of atoms and molecules, in which two atoms are joined together," MPIA explained. "Only molecular gas condenses to relatively compact clouds, which develop frosty regions where new stars finally emerge." What's still mysterious is how hydrogen transitions from the atomic form to the molecular.    

The astronomers found some areas of Maggie where hydrogen gas converges. "They conclude that the hydrogen gas accumulates at those locations and condenses into large clouds," MPIA said. "The researchers also suspect that those are the environments where the atomic gas gradually changes into a molecular form." That means Maggie could host regions of future starbirth. 

There's still plenty of investigation left to do as astronomers continue to dig into the data on the massive structure. For a glimpse at what the future may hold for Maggie, check out this stunning simulation of star formation.