Image: A mysterious ring of celestial microwaves

Image: A mysterious ring of celestial microwaves
Credit: ESA and the Planck Collaboration

Fifty years ago, astronomers discovered a mystery. They called it Loop I. Today, we still have not fully resolved the mystery of how this giant celestial structure formed but we do now have the best image of it, thanks to ESA's Planck satellite.

Loop I is a nearly circular formation that covers one third of the sky. In reality, it is probably a spherical 'bubble' that stretches to more than 100º across, making it wider than 200 full Moons. Its absolute size, however, is extremely uncertain because astronomers do not know how close it is to us: estimates to the centre of the bubble vary from 400 light-years to 25 000 light-years.

What they do know is that the structure shows up in many different wavelengths, from radio waves to gamma rays. Planck sees Loop I in . This image's colours reflect the polarisation – the direction in which the microwaves are oscillating.

Our eyes are not sensitive to this information in the visible light, where we perceive only the intensity and colour. Planck, however, can detect all three of these characteristics in the microwaves it targets.

The microwaves detected by Planck are emitted by electrons that are being accelerated by the Galaxy's .

Loop I is most visible in the sky's northern hemisphere. Astronomers refer to this portion as the north polar spur. It can be seen in this image as the yellow arc. This fades to purple and can be traced into the southern hemisphere, completing the circle. The blue band spanning the image horizontally is the Galactic Plane.

The most popular interpretation places Loop I close to us. If this is correct, it could be related to the 'Scorpius–Centaurus OB Association', a region of high-mass star formation that has been active for over 10 million years. Loop I could well be a supernova remnant, a giant bubble hollowed out by the explosion of stars in the OB association.

It is likely that the stars responsible for Loop I have long since dispersed, so what we see is the 'smoke' rather than the 'fire' of the explosions.

High-mass stars burn their nuclear fuel so quickly that they live only a few million years before exploding. As these titanic supernovas bloom, their blast waves carve bubbles in the surrounding gas. This compresses the Galaxy's magnetic field into the bubble 'walls', making it stronger and more efficient at accelerating the electrons to produce the observed radiation.

Loop I could well be the combined super-bubble from a number of such cataclysms. As the electrons lose energy and diffuse into the wider Galaxy, so Loop I will eventually fade and disappear. This is likely to take a few million years.

If the loop is more distant, then it could conceivably be the result of an outburst from around the black hole at the centre of the Galaxy.

Explore further

Rings and loops in the stars—Planck's stunning new images

More information: Planck Collaboration. Planck 2015 results. XXV. Diffuse low-frequency Galactic foregrounds, Astronomy & Astrophysics (2016). DOI: 10.1051/0004-6361/201526803
Journal information: Astronomy & Astrophysics

Citation: Image: A mysterious ring of celestial microwaves (2016, June 7) retrieved 18 June 2019 from
This document is subject to copyright. Apart from any fair dealing for the purpose of private study or research, no part may be reproduced without the written permission. The content is provided for information purposes only.

Feedback to editors

User comments

Jun 08, 2016
The microwaves detected by Planck are emitted by electrons that are being accelerated by the Galaxy's magnetic field.

Why is it that nearly every plasma process results in a mystery? Oh right, ignorance.
"Students using astrophysical textbooks remain essentially ignorant of even the existence of plasma concepts, despite the fact that some of them have been known for half a century. The conclusion is that astrophysics is too important to be left in the hands of astrophysicists who have gotten their main knowledge from these textbooks. Earthbound and space telescope data must be treated by scientists who are familiar with laboratory and magnetospheric physics and circuit theory, and of course with modern plasma theory." Hannes Alfvèn

Jun 10, 2016
"Students using astrophysical textbooks remain essentially ignorant of even the existence of plasma concepts
repeating a lie doesn't make it more true - it only helps assuage the beliefs of the fanatical religious followers who already believe the lie

this BS oft-repeated lie is demonstrably false and i've proven this with the following links on many occasions

Jun 12, 2016
With ever improving detection and resolution capabilities, one day it will become obvious that the supposed centre of the galaxy is actually the partner of Sol, and that the Milky Way is a shared dust disk, similar to this arrangement:

Jun 13, 2016
Nice, @Phys1, thanks for hunting it up. Worth mentioning to increase understanding of readers of the paper that "free-free emission" is also known as bremsstrahlung; that is, deceleration of charged particles by interaction of their charges with others, resulting in emitted microwave photons to preserve conservation of energy.

One of the next things they want to do is try to quantify the amount of free-free and synchrotron emission both to allow it to be subtracted from measurements of the CMB and to learn more about the interstellar medium (the bremsstrahlung is a probe of that) and the galactic magnetic field (the synchrotron emissions are created by that). These two emissions have a spread spectrum, so they can be measured at frequencies where there isn't much CMB radiation.

We're going to get a lot of information from Planck.

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more