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Honeycomb found in galaxy nearest us.

Like bees attracted to a field of wildflowers, swarms of astronomers over the past five years have been drawn to our nearest galactic neighbor, the Large Magellanic Cloud. Researchers have had good reason to study this galaxy, since it is home to supernova 1987A, the first such exploding star visible to the naked eye since 1604.

Now, however, Magellanic Cloud watchers are abuzz with other news about the galaxy: It harbors a remarkable honeycomb of gas bubbles 30 light-years wide by 90 light-years long.

Astronomers have seen gas bubbles -- gas swep up in the aftermath of a stellar explosion or blown by a strong stellar wind -- in the Large Magellanic Cloud and other galaxies many times before. But no other set of bubbles ever observed has a highly uniform, honeycomb shape, says Lifan Wang of the University of Manchester in England. Wang announced his findings earlier this month in a press release issued by the Royal Astronomical Society in London.

Most surprising, Wang notes, each of the 20-odd bubbles that form the honeycomb has roughly the same diameter--10 light-years. In contrast, he says, astronomers have typically observed either individual "superbubbles" some 15 to 20 times larger or irregular clusters of smaller bubbles that have one-tenth the diameter.

Wang speculates that the streaming motion of gas from a cluster of massive stars created winds strong enough to sculpt the honeycomb. In order to account for the network of similar-size bubbles, however, the stars must have formed at the same time, had the same initial mass, and have continued to evolve at the same rate. Wang suggests that a single violent event, such as a supernova explosion that occurred several thousand years earlier than supernova 1987A, could have triggered the simultaneous formation of massive stars. Wang notes that the honeycomb lies at the edge of a superbubble of gas that could have been produced by such a supernova.

The astronomer made his discovery last January while using the European Southern Observatory's New Technology Telescope in La Serena, Chile, to examine hydrogen gas surrounding supernova 1987A. Wang got his picture of the supernova, but he also noticed the unusual honeycomb structure in one corner of his image. He proposes that the outlines of the honeycomb were visible because radiation from massive stars ionized hydrogen gas at the edges of the bubbles. Wang plans to study the honeycomb further in January.
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Title Annotation:Large Magellanic Cloud contains mass of gas bubbles 30 light-years wide by 90 light-years long
Author:Cowen, Ron
Publication:Science News
Article Type:Brief Article
Date:Nov 21, 1992
Words:397
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