This sounds like something Captain Kirk and the crew of the Starship Enterprise could investigate in an episode of Star Trek: mysterious and huge clouds that revolve on the outskirts of the galaxy at incredible speeds.
Scientists have known about the existence of these high-speed clouds, which move in the galactic halo, outside the plane of the Milky Way, for quite some time, but until now the researchers did not have the tools to really trace them and study them That has changed thanks to new research from the International Radio Astronomy Research Center (ICRAR), which has published the most detailed maps of the clouds to date.
The maps have been made public, so that anyone can download and study them.
Made with radio telescope data, the maps show clusters and branches within the clouds that have never before been identified. The research also shows the true scale and limits of these rapidly moving gas clouds for the first time, and their size is impressive. Some are millions of times the mass of the Sun and more than 80,000 light years in diameter.
"It's something that was not really visible in the past, and could provide new clues about the origin of these clouds and the physical conditions within them," said Tobias Westmeier, an astronomer who was part of the creation of the maps, in a press release.
The reason why these clouds are so mysterious is that they move independently and are distinguished from the rotation movement of the galaxy itself, and its speed has been synchronized between 43.5 and 56 miles per second. No one knows why they are there or where they come from, but of course there are theories. Perhaps the most widespread notion is that clouds are material left over from the formation of the galaxy, but such a theory still requires an assessment of why clouds move as they do.
It is also possible that the clouds are not from our galaxy at all, but strangers that have been caught in our gravitational embrace as the Milky Way travels through the cosmos. At this moment, nobody knows, that's why this new research is so important.
One clue is that the clouds have compositions different from those normally found in the Milky Way, which seems to suggest that they share a different origin from us. Even so, they cover approximately 13 percent of the night sky, so they are not insignificant.
"These gas clouds are moving towards or away from us at speeds of up to a few hundred kilometers per second," Westmeier said. "They are clearly separated objects."
The research was published in the Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society.