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“The primary response was disbelief”: Calgary researchers uncover the magnetic construction within the Milky Manner

It is a discovery of cosmic proportions: a never-before-seen glimpse into the magnetic structure of the Milky Way.

The heavenly breakthrough came from two students at the University of Calgary, Russell Shanahan and Stephen Lemmer, who initially thought their results were a mistake.

Lemmer described the magnetic field in the galaxy as the muscles of the body.

“It gives you the structure. It stops other things [like] the material in the galaxy, the material in all of space, ”said Lemmer.

The picture shows a section of the Milky Way that the group analyzed. It is located in the sky in the constellation Aquila (the eagle). The mists in the picture are all hidden by dark clouds. Only infrared and radio waves can pass through these clouds.

Courtesy Jeroen Stil / University of Calgary

“The initial reaction was disbelief, a little skeptical if this was a real signature or a false detection of noise,” said U of C graduate student Shanahan.

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The couple worked with data from an international survey called the THOR Project, a comprehensive survey of data on interstellar gas in the Milky Way.


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Lemmer was an astrophysics student in the radio astronomy group at the time and noticed the unusually high values.

“The structure we have is a combination of a galaxy’s magnetic field and plasma within the galaxy. We’ve seen a surge in data that we didn’t expect, so it’s happening in a place that we didn’t expect before, ”he said.

But the math is checking out. What Shanahan and Lemmer found was an invisible magnetic field in the galaxy’s archery arm.


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Astronomers said the discovery was significant because it provides a clearer picture of the composition of our galaxy and has astronomical implications for understanding how stars are formed.

“How star formations are formed is still unknown. This discovery of the peak and rotation measure may indicate that magnetic fields play a more important role in star formations, ”Shanahan said.

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The graceful, winding arms of the majestic spiral galaxy M51 (NGC 5194) act like a large spiral staircase that leads through the room.

Courtesy Jeroen Stil / University of Calgary

The couple’s discovery came while working with radio astronomer and associate professor Jereon Stil on a research project. Stil has been a radio astronomer for 30 years and has been surveying for about 15 years.

“It’s kind of humble to push these people to the limit of science, [push] the limit and say, “Wow, we have to tell the world about this,” said Stil.

Technological advances made this discovery possible. Scientists have been searching in this area since the 1980s, but the telescopes were not yet equipped.


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“The radio telescopes weren’t equipped to see this high, powerful effect,” Shanahan said.

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“Only when we had more sophisticated telescopes and technology that we could actually observe [this] fine signature. “

The picture shows the THOR-only image of a section of the Milky Way.

The picture shows the THOR-only image of a section of the Milky Way.

Courtesy Jeroen Stil / University of Calgary

Five years of research has finally paid off. The result was published in the Astrophysical Journal, which aroused more international interest and initiated additional research. Shanahan and Stil even went to Germany to present their results.

“We met in Berlin and shared what we did and what we found. When we presented this result to our colleagues, there was an audible gasp. How is that? B.because the thought wasn’t that we would find anything like that. It was shocking, ”Shanahan said.

Stil said the discovery sparked a lot of follow-up action.

“The larger international team makes suggestions for the observation time of the telescopes. There is theoretical work and we have a few more students studying and taking the effects into account [in the future]”Said style.

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“People think scientific discoveries are like Eureka and what we’ve been doing in the last five minutes. It is a long process. Russell has worked on it for the past five years, processing a lot of data and doing imagery and technical analysis. What was special about this point? At that point we said, “What is this?”

“The real surprise and the Eureka moment was when we thought, ‘This has to be the arm. ‘It’s very exciting. “

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