for National Geographic News
Two giant loops of cold, dense molecular gas have been seen in the central region of our galaxy, according to researchers based in Japan.
The team says that the features extend for nearly a thousand light years and each loop has a mass about 800,000 times that of our sun.
The astrophysicists believe that the loops are the product of the same disturbances in magnetic fields that cause solar flares—plasma loops and arches that shoot from the sun's surface—but on a galactic scale (related photos: solar storms).
"We interpret these features as magnetically floated loops within the nuclear disk, analogous to solar loops ," the team writes in a paper that will appear in tomorrow's issue of the journal Science.
Experts have theorized about the presence of such formations in the Milky Way and other galaxies for nearly 40 years.
The new findings by Nagoya University astrophysicist Yasuo Fukui and colleagues mark the first time that scientists appear to have directly observed the features.
Mark Morris, an astrophysicist at the University of California, Los Angeles, says that other researchers have previously reported seeing looplike structures in the galaxy's center.
(Related news: "New Planet 'Bonanza' Discovered at Center of Milky Way" [October 2006].)
But the observations were most likely optical illusions created by bubbles blown in the mix of plasma, gases, and dust that pervades the galaxy, he says.
Such bubbles could be formed by stellar winds or by blast waves from a supernova—the explosive death of a large star.
Morris, who wrote an accompanying perspective article on the findings for Science, believes that the Japanese team's findings are legit.
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