Stars are hot. Space is cold. We’re all familiar with that, right?
Technically, it’s more complicated than that. Space isn’t completely frigid—absolute zero, the temperature at which there is no heat whatsoever, is purely theoretical and not thought to exist in the universe. But it is pretty darn cold.
In general, though, stars are pretty darn hot. Some special types of stars reach up to 200,000 K—that’s 359,540.33℉. Our own sun is about 5,778 K, which much cooler, but still almost ten thousand degrees Fahrenheit.
As a rule, we can think of stars as being much hotter than the space in between…except in the case of coronal gas.
Stars are like headlights in a fog bank that’s impossibly thick in some places, and so thin as to be transparent in others. Sometimes, we get lucky enough for starlight to light up the fog. Other times, stars shine straight through it.
That “fog” is the interstellar medium. I’ve covered it in several posts already. We’ve gone over nebulae, the visible evidence of the stuff between the stars. I’ve talked about ways to study the interstellar medium. And I’ve introduced you to cool clouds, the clouds of mostly neutral hydrogen gas.
Now I want to introduce you to the intercloud medium. It’s different from cool HI clouds in that it’s ionized, rather than neutral.
I’m going to guess, for the sake of this post, that you have. And if you haven’t…well, I think the image above should give you a pretty good idea of what it’s like. Low visibility—you can’t really see anything.
Imagine a fog bank that sort of thickens and thins out as you drive through it. In some areas, it’s so thick you can hardly hope to see the cars around you. In others, you can see for miles ahead.
That’s actually a pretty good description of the interstellar medium…or, at least, the cool clouds between the stars.
If you’ve had the opportunity to observe the night sky from a dark place, far away from the light pollution of the city, on a clear night, you might have seen this before. It’s the Milky Way—our view of our galaxy from the inside.
It’s kind of like if you lived inside a frisbee. Look up toward the flat sides, and there’s not as much material to look through. But peer out at the edges of the disk, and you have to look through a lot more stars.
Most of the stars you see in the night sky are part of the Milky Way. But this is the sight we get when we stare through to the center of the frisbee.
Thing is, though, this is far from the most spectacular sight of the night sky.
I often refer to what we call the interstellar medium as the galaxy’s “backstage,” and I do that for a reason: for the most part, we can’t see it.
The backstage of any theater isn’t part of the show. You, as part of the audience, never see it. But you see evidence of it, when new props appear as the play progresses through scene after scene and the actors interact with their backstage.
The same thing happens with the interstellar medium. It’s not the hidden area behind the stars of the galaxy. (Ha, get it? Stars?) In fact, more often than not it’s actually the one hiding stars from view. But we can’t see it…unless we study how stars interact with it.
One way to do that is to look at reflection nebulae—evidence of the light from bright young stars reflecting off the dust of the nebula. That qualifies as interaction.
And in the case of emission nebulae, hot O-type stars ionize the hydrogen gas of the nebula. I’d say that’s interaction, too.
Even dark nebulae can technically be seen, since we see them as shadowy clouds silhouetted against background nebulae or stars.
But sometimes, it’s not that simple. Sometimes, we have to rely on the galaxy’s props to guess at what must be stored backstage. And that means studying stellar spectra.
Take a wild guess: What do you think this image is showing you?
If you said it looks like a giant black hole in space, I don’t blame you. I also don’t blame you if you thought it looks like a giant outer space blob…and the funny thing is, that’s actually closer to the truth.
This isn’t a hole in space. We can’t see any stars in this region, but not because there aren’t any. In fact, there are just as many there as there are flanking the giant space blob.
What you’re seeing is evidence of the vast interstellar medium, the galaxy’s backstage. The interstellar medium is the stuff between the stars, often invisible since it’s not hot enough to produce its own light.
Sometimes we can see it as a pale blue reflection nebula, or a bright pink emission nebula. But in this case, we’re looking at a dark nebula—visible only because it blocks the light from stars beyond it. It appears to be a hole in space.
It’s closer to being an outer space blob. But what exactly is it?