Washington: Astronomers have started mapping the location of the most massive and mysterious objects in our galaxy - the giant gas clouds where new stars are born.
Using a telescope at Coonabarabran that narrowly escaped devastation in a recent bushfire, the University of New South Wales led team identifies the galactic clouds of molecular gas - which can be up to 100 light years across - from the carbon monoxide they contain.
Team leader Professor Michael Burton, of the UNSW School of Physics, said that on Earth, carbon monoxide is poisonous - a silent killer but in space, it is the second most abundant molecule and the easiest to see.
He said that one of the largest unresolved mysteries in galactic astronomy is how these giant, diffuse clouds form in the interstellar medium and this process plays a key role in the cosmic cycle of birth and death of stars.
The carbon monoxide survey of the Southern Milky Way is being carried out with the 22 metre Mopra millimetre wave telescope at Coonabarabran. While the adjoining workshop, office, and accommodation wing were destroyed in the bushfire in January, the telescope`s control room survived because it was encased in brick.
The international team is also searching for "dark" galactic gas clouds - unseen clouds that contain very little carbon monoxide. It is assumed these clouds are mostly made up of molecular hydrogen which is too cold to detect.
The team is using telescopes in Antarctica and Chile to search for these dark clouds, based on the presence of carbon atoms, rather than carbon molecules, in the clouds.
The study has been published in the journal Publications of the Astronomical Society of Australia.