Astronomers discover the largest structure in the Milky Way

Astronomers have discovered the largest structure in the Milky Way — a hydrogen filament called Maggie

‘Maggie’ spans some 16 trillion miles across our universe and is 55,000 light-years from Earth.

Formed more than 13 billion years ago, this massive hydrogen filament is 3,900 light-years long (one light-year equals 9.44 trillion km) and 130 light-years wide.

The discovery was made by an international team led by astronomers from the Max Planck Institute of Astronomy (MPIA) using the European Space Agency’s (ESA) Gaia satellite.

Co-author Juan Soler found the first clue to this object a year ago and named it ‘Maggie’ after the longest river in his home country of Colombia, the Río Magdalena.

‘Maggie was already recognisable in earlier evaluations of the data. But only the current study proves beyond doubt that it is a coherent structure,’ Soler said in a statement.

Hydrogen was formed about 380,000 years after the Big Bang and is the most widespread substance in the universe.

It is the main ingredient in the formation of stars but detecting individual clouds of hydrogen gas is a demanding task. This makes the discovery of the long filament of hydrogen exceptionally exciting.

‘The location of this filament has contributed to this success,’ said Jonas Syed, a PhD student at MPIA and first author of the paper published in the journal Astronomy & Astrophysics.

‘We don’t yet know exactly how it got there. But the filament extends about 1600 light-years below the Milky Way plane,’ he added.

As a result, the radiation from the hydrogen, which is at a wavelength of eight inches, stands out clearly against the background, making the filament visible.

‘The Maggie filament discloses a hub-like feature in the east, on which smaller-scale filaments appear to converge, and a tail that thins out toward the west,’ says the published study.

Based on previously published data, the team also estimated that Maggie contains eight per cent molecular hydrogen by a mass fraction.

‘Many questions remain unanswered,’ Syed told Universe Today. ‘Additional data, which we hope will give us more clues about the fraction of molecular gas, are already waiting to be analyzed.’

After a deeper analysis of Maggie, the team found the gas converges at some points along the filament, which are likely areas where the hydrogen accumulates and condenses into larger clouds.

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