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Science and Innovations

Flagstaff Astronomer Explains Mystery of Star-Forming Dwarf Galaxy

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National Radio Astronomy Observatory and ALMA Observatory
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Dwarf galaxies create new stars just like bigger galaxies do – but for decades researchers haven’t been able to find the same star-forming ingredients inside of them. An astronomer at Lowell Observatory helped explain the mystery.

In galaxies, dense cold clouds of molecules act as nurseries for new stars. Astronomers detect these clouds by looking for carbon monoxide.

Lowell Observatory astronomer Deidre Hunter studies dwarf galaxies. “They’re forming stars, so we expect them to have molecular clouds,” she says, “but this molecular material has been very hard to detect.”

Hunter and her colleagues mapped a nearby dwarf galaxy called WLM with a telescope array in Chile. They discovered tiny molecular clouds hidden inside – much smaller than they expected.

Hunter says, “I tell kids, when I tell them about this project: we looked in this bowl expecting to see a peach and instead we saw half a dozen raisons.”

Hunter says all dwarf galaxies might form stars this way. The next step is look for these overlooked pockets of carbon monoxide elsewhere in the universe.

The research appeared last month in Nature.

Melissa joined KNAU's team in 2015 to report on science, health, and the environment. Her work has appeared nationally on NPR and been featured on Science Friday. She grew up in Tucson, Arizona, where she fell in love with the ecology and geology of the Sonoran desert.
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