Contrary to popular belief, space is not empty. The space between the stars is filled with clouds of dust and gas. And this space—the interstellar medium—is incredibly beautiful and fascinating.
I often refer to the interstellar medium as the galaxy’s “backstage.” Why? Because it’s not the part of the universe that astronomy enthusiasts usually think about. And yet, there are whole studies devoted to studying this natural wonder of the universe.
Also, the interstellar medium is largely hidden from us. There are ways we can detect it—when light from a distant star passes through it, for example. And with our eyes, we can see nebulae, the visible evidence of this interstellar expanse.
The backstage of a theater is similar—it’s not the main part of the show, but you sometimes see evidence of it in the forms of new costumes donned as the play progresses and new props brought into play. The audience often forgets about it entirely.
Nevertheless, it’s beautiful. Stars are born out of giant molecular clouds, triggered by compression from expanding bubbles of coronal gas. The interstellar medium spells our beginning.
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.
Meet the Pillars of Creation, a photograph taken by the Hubble Telescope in 1995. These apparent “pillars” of dust and gas are what we call molecular clouds. And this region of clouds in space is aptly named: it’s where stars are created.
Technically, there are two types of molecular clouds—molecular clouds and giant molecular clouds, or GMCs—but I’ll get into that in a second.
Molecular clouds are deep within the interstellar medium. In case you don’t remember the ISM from my “recent” posts (sorry about that), it’s the stuff between the stars. It’s the galaxy’s backstage. Space is in fact not a perfect vacuum—it’s full of the ISM.
So what’s going on with molecular clouds like the Pillars of Creation?
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?
What you see here is the Trifid Nebula, a vast cloud of gas and dust in space.
In my last post, we explored why it looks the way it does. We discovered that the pink hues of emission nebulae are caused when extremely hot nearby stars “excite” the gas of the nebula itself to emit its own light, which our eyes perceive as pink.
The haze of blue to the right, on the other hand, is the result of light from hot young stars nearby getting scattered among the nebula’s dust particles. It looks blue for the same reason the sky looks blue. We call nebulae like this reflection nebulae.
And the black wisps of dark nebulae are hardly as ominous as they look; they’re simply ordinary clouds of gas and dust, ordinary nebulae, that we can only see because they’re silhouetted by brighter objects in the background.
But nebulae, for all their different names, are actually a heck of a lot more similar than you might think.
Okay, okay, I know. You want to know what that actually is. You want to know why it’s there. You want to know why there are colors in space…and why you’ve never noticed such a thing in your own night sky before.
Nebulae are the stuff between the stars. They’re the galaxy’s backstage. They’re the only visible evidence of a vast expanse of gas and dust between the stars, completely invisible to the human eye, called the interstellar medium.
Nebulae are the sites of star birth. Planets form from the dusty particles present in these glowing space clouds. They’re the galaxy’s way of replenishing itself. And they’re pretty cool to look at, too.