Interstellar medium

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This visual negative of the region around the astronomical object LW Cassiopeia Nebula (ISM) is centered on the ISM. Credit: Aladin at SIMBAD.

The interstellar medium is the matter that exists in the space between the star systems in a galaxy.

At left is a visual negative of the LW Cassiopeia Nebula (ISM). Within the image are H II regions (red +s), stars (red *s), X-ray sources (Xs), infrared objects (red diamonds), molecular clouds (MolClds), reflection nebulae (RfNebs), dark nebulae (DkNebs), and the interstellar medium (ISM).


Main source: Astronomy

In astronomy, the interstellar medium (or ISM) is the matter that exists in the space between the star systems in a galaxy. This matter includes gas in ionic, atomic, and molecular form, dust, and cosmic rays. It fills interstellar space and blends smoothly into the surrounding intergalactic space.


Main sources: Astronomy/Mediums and Mediums

Def. the nature of the surrounding environment is called a medium.

Cyclotron radiation from plasma in the interstellar medium is an important source of information about distant magnetic fields.



  1. between the stars or
  2. among the stars is called interstellar.

Def. the dimming of light from the stars due to absorption and scattering from dust in the interstellar medium is called an interstellar extinction.

Def. the nature of the surrounding interstellar environment is called the interstellar medium.

The ISM consists of about 0.1 to 1 particles per cm3 and is typically composed of roughly 70% hydrogen by mass, with most of the remaining gas consisting of helium. This medium has been chemically enriched by trace amounts of heavier elements that were ejected from stars as they passed beyond the end of their main sequence lifetime. Higher density regions of the interstellar medium form clouds, or diffuse nebulae,[1] where star formation takes place.[2]


Main source: Astrochemistry

A particular subject of interest is the cluster ion series (NH3)nNH4+, since it is the dominant group of ions over the whole investigated temperature range."[3] For astrochemisty, "[t]hese studies are expected to throw light on the sputtering from planetary and interstellar ices and the possible formation of new organic molecules in CO--NH3–H2O ice by megaelectronvolt ion bombardment."[3]

The cyanide radical CN- has been identified in interstellar space.[4] The cyanide radical (called cyanogen) is used to measure the temperature of interstellar gas clouds.[5]

There are 110 currently known interstellar molecules.

"An important goal for theoretical astrochemistry is to elucidate which organics are of true interstellar origin, and to identify possible interstellar precursors and reaction pathways for those molecules which are the result of aqueous alterations."[6]


Main source: Astrophysics

Def. a cavity filled with hot gas blown into the interstellar medium by stellar winds is called an astrosphere.

Def. the study of interstellar atoms and molecules and their interaction with radiation [is] called molecular astrophysics.


As of December 5, 2011, "Voyager 1 is about ... 18 billion kilometers ... from the [S]un [but] the direction of the magnetic field lines has not changed, indicating Voyager is still within the heliosphere ... the outward speed of the solar wind had diminished to zero in April 2010 ... inward pressure from interstellar space is compacting [the magnetic field] ... Voyager has detected a 100-fold increase in the intensity of high-energy electrons from elsewhere in the galaxy diffusing into our solar system from outside ... [while] the [solar] wind even blows back at us."[7]

"Stars from about 8 to about 15 Mʘ explode as supernovae, but do not have a strong stellar wind, and so explode into the interstellar medium".[8]

Coronal clouds[edit]

While small coronal clouds are above the photosphere of many different visual spectral type stars, others occupy parts of the interstellar medium (ISM), extending sometimes millions of kilometers into space, or thousands of light-years, depending on the size of the associated object such as a galaxy.


The Hubble Space Telescope image shows four high-velocity, runaway stars plowing through their local interstellar medium. Credit: NASA - Hubble's Advanced Camera for Surveys.
This ultraviolet-wavelength image mosaic, taken by NASA's GALEX, shows a comet-like "tail" stretching 13 light years across space behind the star Mira. Credit: NASA.
A close-up view of a star racing through space faster than a speeding bullet can be seen in this image from NASA's Galaxy Evolution Explorer. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/C. Martin (Caltech)/M. Seibert(OCIW).
The Chandra image shows Mira A (right), a highly evolved red giant star, and Mira B (left), a white dwarf. Scalebar: 0.3 arcsec. Credit: NASA/CXC/SAO/M. Karovska et al.

Def. a high-velocity star moving through space with an abnormally high velocity relative to the surrounding interstellar medium is called a runaway star.

"Of particular importance has been access to high resolution R~40,000-100,000 echelle spectra providing an ability to study the dynamics of hot plasma and separate multiple stellar and interstellar absorption components."[9]

At left is a radiated object, the binary star Mira, and its associated phenomena.

Ultra-violet studies of Mira by NASA's Galaxy Evolution Explorer (Galex) space telescope have revealed that it sheds a trail of material from the outer envelope, leaving a tail 13 light-years in length, formed over tens of thousands of years.[10][11] It is thought that a hot bow-wave of compressed plasma/gas is the cause of the tail; the bow-wave is a result of the interaction of the stellar wind from Mira A with gas in interstellar space, through which Mira is moving at an extremely high speed of 130 kilometres/second (291,000 miles per hour).[12][13] The tail consists of material stripped from the head of the bow-wave, which is also visible in ultra-violet observations. Mira's bow-shock will eventually evolve into a planetary nebula, the form of which will be considerably affected by the motion through the interstellar medium (ISM).[14]

At second right is the only available X-ray image, by the Chandra X-ray Observatory, of Mira A on the right and Mira B (left). "Mira A is losing gas rapidly from its upper atmosphere [apparently] via a stellar wind. [Mira B is asserted to be a white dwarf. In theory] Mira B exerts a gravitational tug that creates a gaseous bridge between the two stars. Gas from the wind and bridge accumulates in an accretion disk around Mira B and collisions between rapidly moving particles in the disk produce X-rays."[15]

Mira A, spectral type M7 IIIe[16], has an effective surface temperature of 2918–3192[17]. Mira A is not a known X-ray source according to SIMBAD, but here is shown to be one.

Cosmic rays[edit]

Def. cosmic rays that are created when primary cosmic rays interact with interstellar matter are called secondary cosmic rays.

Carbon and oxygen nuclei collide with interstellar matter to form lithium, beryllium and boron in a process termed cosmic ray spallation. Spallation is also responsible for the abundances of scandium, titanium, vanadium, and manganese ions in cosmic rays produced by collisions of iron and nickel nuclei with interstellar matter.

Observations of the lunar shadowing of galactic cosmic rays (GCRs) has demonstrated that there does not appear to be an antiproton component of the galactic cosmic rays, but the antiprotons detected are instead produced by the GCR interaction with interstellar hydrogen gas.[18]

For an interstellar medium "composed of 90% H and 10% He, [with a density of 0.3 atoms cm-3] and using the most recently measured cross sections (Webber, 1989; Ferrando et al., 1988b), the escape length has been found equal to 34βR-0.6 g cm-2 for rigidities R above 4.4 GV, and 14β g cm-2 below. ... where R and β are the interstellar values of the rigidity and the ratio of the velocity of the particle to the velocity of light."[19]


This image shows the IBEX (photo cells forward) being surrounded by its protective nose cone. Credit: NASA (John F. Kennedy Space Center).
A hot plasma ion 'steals' charge from a cold neutral atom to become an Energetic Neutral Atom (ENA).[20] Credit Mike Gruntman.
The ENA leaves the charge exchange in a straight line with the velocity of the original plasma ion.[20] Credit: Mike Gruntman.
This image is an all-sky map of neutral atoms streaming in from the interstellar boundary. Credit: NASA/Goddard Space Flight Center Scientific Visualization Studio.

"The sensors on the IBEX spacecraft are able to detect energetic neutral atoms (ENAs) at a variety of energy levels."[21]

The satellite's payload consists of two energetic neutral atom (ENA) imagers, IBEX-Hi and IBEX-Lo. Each of these sensors consists of a collimator that limits their fields-of-view, a conversion surface to convert neutral hydrogen and oxygen into ions, an electrostatic analyzer (ESA) to suppress ultraviolet light and to select ions of a specific energy range, and a detector to count particles and identify the type of each ion.

"IBEX–Lo can detect particles with energies ranging from 10 electron–volts to 2,000 electron–volts (0.01 keV to 2 keV) in 8 separate energy bands. IBEX–Hi can detect particles with energies ranging from 300 electron–volts to 6,000 electron–volts (.3 keV to 6 keV) in 6 separate energy bands. ... Looking across the entire sky, interactions occurring at the edge of our Solar System produce ENAs at different energy levels and in different amounts, depending on the process."[21]

Proton–hydrogen charge-exchange collisions [such as those shown at right] are often the most important process in space plasma because [h]ydrogen is the most abundant constituent of both plasmas and background gases and hydrogen charge-exchange occurs at very high velocities involving little exchange of momentum.

"Energetic neutral atoms (ENA), emitted from the magnetosphere with energies of ∼50 keV, have been measured with solid-state detectors on the IMP 7/8 and ISEE 1 spacecraft. The ENA are produced when singly charged trapped ions collide with the exospheric neutral hydrogen geocorona and the energetic ions are neutralized by charge exchange."[22]

"The IMAGE mission ... High Energy Neutral Atom imager (HENA) ... images [ENAs] at energies between 10 and 60 keV/nucleon [to] reveal the distribution and the evolution of energetic [ions, including protons] as they are injected into the ring current during geomagnetic storms, drift about the Earth on both open and closed drift paths, and decay through charge exchange to pre‐storm levels."[23]

"In 2009, NASA's Interstellar Boundary Explorer (IBEX) mission science team constructed the first-ever all-sky map [at right] of the interactions occurring at the edge of the solar system, where the sun's influence diminishes and interacts with the interstellar medium. A 2013 paper provides a new explanation for a giant ribbon of energetic neutral atoms – shown here in light green and blue -- streaming in from that boundary."[24]

"[T]he boundary at the edge of our heliosphere where material streaming out from the sun interacts with the galactic material ... emits no light and no conventional telescope can see it. However, particles from inside the solar system bounce off this boundary and neutral atoms from that collision stream inward. Those particles can be observed by instruments on NASA’s Interstellar Boundary Explorer (IBEX). Since those atoms act as fingerprints for the boundary from which they came, IBEX can map that boundary in a way never before done. In 2009, IBEX saw something in that map that no one could explain: a vast ribbon dancing across this boundary that produced many more energetic neutral atoms than the surrounding areas."[24]

""What we are learning with IBEX is that the interaction between the sun's magnetic fields and the galactic magnetic field is much more complicated than we previously thought," says Eric Christian, the mission scientist for IBEX at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md. "By modifying an earlier model, this paper provides the best explanation so far for the ribbon IBEX is seeing.""[24]


The free proton is stable and is found naturally in a number of situations. Free protons exist in plasmas in which temperatures are too high to allow them to combine with electrons. Free protons of high energy and velocity make up 90% of cosmic rays, which propagate for interstellar distances. “Antiprotons have been detected in cosmic rays for over 25 years, first by balloon-borne experiments and more recently by satellite-based detectors. The standard picture for their presence in cosmic rays is that they are produced in collisions of cosmic ray protons with nuclei in the interstellar medium, via the reaction, where A represents a nucleus:

p + A → p + p + p + A

The secondary antiprotons (p) then propagate through the galaxy, confined by the galactic magnetic fields. Their energy spectrum is modified by collisions with other atoms in the interstellar medium. The antiproton cosmic ray energy spectrum is now measured reliably and is consistent with this standard picture of antiproton production by cosmic ray collisions.[25]


"TeV muons from γ ray primaries ... are rare because they are only produced by higher energy γ rays whose flux is suppressed by the decreasing flux at the source and by absorption on interstellar light."[26]


"In the first 18 months of operations, AMS-02 [image under Cherenkov detectors] recorded 6.8 million positron (an antimatter particle with the mass of an electron but a positive charge) and electron events produced from cosmic ray collisions with the interstellar medium in the energy range between 0.5 giga-electron volt (GeV) and 350 GeV. These events were used to determine the positron fraction, the ratio of positrons to the total number of electrons and positrons. Below 10 GeV, the positron fraction decreased with increasing energy, as expected. However, the positron fraction increased steadily from 10 GeV to 250 GeV. This increase, seen previously though less precisely by instruments such as the Payload for Matter/antimatter Exploration and Light-nuclei Astrophysics (PAMELA) and the Fermi Gamma-ray Space Telescope, conflicts with the predicted decrease of the positron fraction and indicates the existence of a currently unidentified source of positrons, such as pulsars or the annihilation of dark matter particles. Furthermore, researchers observed an unexpected decrease in slope from 20 GeV to 250 GeV. The measured positron to electron ratio is isotropic, the same in all directions."[27]

Gamma rays[edit]

This is an XMM Newton image of the Gemini gamma-ray source. Credit: P.A. Caraveo (INAF/IASF), Milan and ESA.
This all-sky view from GLAST reveals bright gamma-ray emission in the plane of the Milky Way (center), including the bright Geminga pulsar. Credit: NASA/DOE/International LAT Team.

Geminga may be a sort of neutron star: the decaying core of a massive star that exploded as a supernova about 300,000 years ago.[28]

"Geminga is a very weak neutron star and the pulsar next to us, which almost only emits extremely hard gamma-rays, but no radio waves. ... Some thousand years ago our Sun entered this [Local Bubble] several hundred light-years big area, which is nearly dust-free."[29]

"The nature of Geminga was quite unknown for 20 years after its discovery by NASA's Second Small Astronomy Satellite (SAS-2). ... [I]n March 1991 the ROSAT satellite detected a periodicity of 0.237 seconds in soft x-ray emission. ... This nearby explosion may be responsible for the low density of the interstellar medium in the immediate vicinity of the Solar System. This low-density area is known as the Local Bubble.[30] Possible evidence for this includes findings by the Arecibo Observatory that local micrometre-sized interstellar meteor particles appear to originate from its direction.[31] Geminga is the first example of a radio-quiet pulsar, and serves as an illustration of the difficulty of associating gamma-ray emission with objects known at other wavelengths: either no credible object is detected in the error region of the gamma-ray source, or a number are present and some characteristic of the gamma-ray source, such as periodicity or variability, must be identified in one of the prospective candidates (or vice-versa as in the case of Geminga).


"In X-ray wavelengths, many scientists are investigating the scattering of X-rays by interstellar dust, and some have suggested that astronomical X-ray sources would possess diffuse haloes, due to the dust.[32]

X-rays remove electrons from atoms and ions, and those photoelectrons can provoke secondary ionizations. As the intensity is often low, this [X-ray] heating is only efficient in warm, less dense atomic medium (as the column density is small). For example in molecular clouds only hard x-rays can penetrate and x-ray heating can be ignored. This is assuming the region is not near an x-ray source such as a supernova remnant.


Def. "the spectral region bounded on the long wavelength side at about λ3000 by the onset of atmospheric ozone absorption and on the short wavelength side at λ912 by the photoionization of interstellar hydrogen" is called the ultraviolet.[33]

Ultraviolet line spectrum measurements are used to discern the chemical composition, densities, and temperatures of the interstellar medium, and the temperature and composition of hot young stars.

Molecular nitrogen and nitrogen compounds have been detected in interstellar space by astronomers using the Far Ultraviolet Spectroscopic Explorer.[34]


Color indices of distant objects are usually affected by interstellar extinction —i.e. they are redder than those of closer stars. The amount of reddening is characterized by color excess, defined as the difference between the Observed color index and the Normal color index (or Intrinsic color index), the hypothetical true color index of the star, unaffected by extinction. For example, we can write it for the B-V color:

Molecules of "[l]arge polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAH) ... or their ions are also attractive candidates for the carriers of the diffuse interstellar bands in the visible (DIBs) [because]

  1. they have optically active transitions in the visible;
  2. they can survive the UV photons in the diffuse interstellar medium; [and]
  3. they are the most abundant among the detected molecular species after H2 and CO."[35]


This region of sky includes glowing red clouds of mostly hydrogen gas. Credit: ESO.

"[T]he extended red emission (ERE) [is] observed in many dusty astronomical environments, in particular, the diffuse interstellar medium of the Galaxy. ... silicon nanoparticles provide the best match to the spectrum and the efficiency requirement of the ERE."[36]

"The broad, 60 < FWHM < 100 nm, featureless luminescence band known as extended red emission (ERE) is seen in such diverse dusty astrophysical environments as reflection nebulae17, planetary nebulae3, HII regions (Orion)12, a Nova11, Galactic cirrus14, a dark nebula7, Galaxies8,6 and the diffuse interstellar medium (ISM)4. The band is confined between 540-950 nm, but the wavelength of peak emission varies from environment to environment, even within a given object. ... the wavelength of peak emission is longer and the efficiency of the luminescence is lower, the harder and denser the illuminating radiation field is13. These general characteristics of ERE constrain the photoluminescence (PL) band and efficiency for laboratory analysis of dust analog materials."[37]

In interstellar astronomy, visible spectra can appear redder due to scattering processes in a phenomenon referred to as interstellar reddening[38] — similarly Rayleigh scattering causes the atmospheric reddening of the Sun seen in the sunrise or sunset and causes the rest of the sky to have a blue color. This phenomenon is distinct from redshifting because the spectroscopic lines are not shifted to other wavelengths in reddened objects and there is an additional dimming and distortion associated with the phenomenon due to photons being scattered in and out of the line-of-sight.

"The Danish 1.54-metre telescope located at ESO’s La Silla Observatory in Chile has captured a striking image of NGC 6559, an object that showcases the anarchy that reigns when stars form inside an interstellar cloud. This region of sky includes glowing red clouds of mostly hydrogen gas, blue regions where starlight is being reflected from tiny particles of dust and also dark regions where the dust is thick and opaque."[39]

"The blue section of the photo — representing a "reflection nebula" — shows light from the newly formed stars in the cosmic nursery being reflected in all directions by the particles of dust made of iron, carbon, silicon and other elements in the interstellar cloud."[40]

Massive astrophysical compact halo object, or MACHO, is a general name for any kind of astronomical body that might explain the apparent presence of dark matter in galaxy halos. A MACHO is a body composed of normal baryonic matter, which emits little or no radiation and drifts through interstellar space unassociated with any planetary system. Since MACHOs would not emit any light of their own, they would be very hard to detect. MACHOs may sometimes be black holes or neutron stars as well as brown dwarfs or unassociated planets. White dwarfs and very faint red dwarfs have also been proposed as candidate MACHOs.


Interstellar dust can be studied by infrared spectrometry, in part because the dust is an astronomical infrared source and other infrared sources are behind the diffuse clouds of dust.[41]

Far-infrared astronomy deals with objects visible in far-infrared radiation (extending from 30 µm towards submillimeter wavelengths around 450 µm).

Huge, cold clouds of gas and dust in our own galaxy, as well as in nearby galaxies, glow in far-infrared light. This is due to thermal radiation of interstellar dust contained in molecular clouds.

The monochromatic flux density radiated by a greybody at frequency through solid angle is given by where is the Planck function for a blackbody at temperature T and emissivity .

For a uniform medium of optical depth radiative transfer means that the radiation will be reduced by a factor . The optical depth is often approximated by the ratio of the emitting frequency to the frequency where all raised to an exponent β.

For cold dust clouds in the interstellar medium β is approximately two. Therefore Q becomes,

. (, is the frequency where ).


"Terahertz radiation is emitted as part of the black body radiation from anything with temperatures greater than about 10 kelvin. While this thermal emission is very weak, observations at these frequencies are important for characterizing the cold 10-20K dust in the interstellar medium in the Milky Way galaxy, and in distant starburst galaxies. Telescopes operating in this band include the James Clerk Maxwell Telescope, the Caltech Submillimeter Observatory and the Submillimeter Array at the Mauna Kea Observatory in Hawaii, the BLAST balloon borne telescope, the Herschel Space Observatory, and the Heinrich Hertz Submillimeter Telescope at the Mount Graham International Observatory in Arizona. The Atacama Large Millimeter Array, under construction, will operate in the submillimeter range. The opacity of the Earth's atmosphere to submillimeter radiation restricts these observatories to very high altitude sites, or to space.

"[T]he detection of absorption by interstellar hydrogen fluoride (HF) [in the submillimeter band occurs] along the sight line to the submillimeter continuum sources W49N and W51."[42]

"HF is the dominant reservoir of fluorine wherever the interstellar H2/atomic H ratio exceeds ~ 1; the unusual behavior of fluorine is explained by its unique thermochemistry, F being the only atom in the periodic table that can react exothermically with H2 to form a hydride."[42]

The observations "toward W49N and W51 [occurred] on 2010 March 22 ... The observations were carried out at three different local oscillator (LO) tunings in order to securely identify the HF line toward both sight lines. The dual beam switch mode (DBS) was used with a reference position located 3' on either side of the source position along an East-West axis. We centered the telescope beam at α =19h10m13.2s, δ = 09°06'12.0" for W49N and α = 19h23m43.9s, δ = 14°30'30.5" for W51 (J2000.0). The total on-source integration time amounts to 222s on each source using the Wide Band Spectrometer (WBS) that offers a spectral resolution of 1.1 MHz (~0.3 km s-1 at 1232 GHz)."[42]

"[T]he first detection of chloronium, H2Cl+, in the interstellar medium, [occurred on March 1 and March 23, 2010,] using the HIFI instrument aboard the Herschel Space Observatory. The 212 − 101 lines of ortho-H235Cl+ and ortho-H237Cl+ are detected in absorption towards NGC 6334I, and the 111 − 000 transition of para-H235Cl+ is detected in absorption towards NGC 6334I and Sgr B2(S)."[43]

"The [microwave] detection of interstellar formaldehyde provides important information about the chemical physics of our galaxy. We now know that polyatomic molecules containing at least two atoms other than hydrogen can form in the interstellar medium."[44] "H2CO is the first organic polyatomic molecule ever detected in the interstellar medium".[44]


"[A] number of spectral lines produced by interstellar gas, notably the hydrogen spectral line at 21 cm, are observable at radio wavelengths.[45][46]

"Over the past 30 years, radioastronomy has revealed a rich variety of molecular species in the interstellar medium of our galaxy and even others."[47]

“[R]adio astronomy ... has resulted in the detection of over a hundred interstellar species, including radicals and ions, and organic (i.e. carbon-based) compounds, such as alcohols, acids, aldehydes, and ketones. One of the most abundant interstellar molecules, and among the easiest to detect with radio waves (due to its strong electric dipole moment), is CO (carbon monoxide). In fact, CO is such a common interstellar molecule that it is used to map out molecular regions.[48] The radio observation of perhaps greatest human interest is the claim of interstellar glycine,[49] the simplest amino acid, but with considerable accompanying controversy.[50] One of the reasons why this detection [is] controversial is that although radio (and some other methods like rotational spectroscopy) are good for the identification of simple species with large dipole moments, they are less sensitive to more complex molecules, even something relatively small like amino acids.


Main sources: Astronomy/Regions and Regions

Def. a region between clouds of stars> is called an intercloud region.

"As the sun moves in its path through the galaxy, it will not always be immersed in the tenuous intercloud region of the interstellar medium."[51]


Main sources: Stars/Sun and Sun (star)

Def. the boundary marking one of the outer limits of the Sun's influence, where the solar wind dramatically slows is called termination shock.


Main source: Comets

Due to a need for accurate oscillator strengths and cross sections in studies of diffuse interstellar clouds and cometary atmospheres, emission lines in cometary spectra are being studied.[52]


Plot shows the decreased detection of solar wind particles by Voyager 1 starting in August 2012. Credit: NASA.

Def. the region of space where interstellar medium is blown away by solar wind; the boundary, heliopause, is often considered the edge of the Solar System is called the heliosphere.

The heliosphere is a bubble in space "blown" into the interstellar medium (the hydrogen and helium gas that permeates the galaxy) by the solar wind. Although electrically neutral atoms from interstellar volume can penetrate this bubble, virtually all of the material in the heliosphere emanates from the Sun itself.

On September 12, 2013 it was announced that the previous year, starting on August 25, 2012, Voyager 1 entered the interstellar medium.[53] Outside the heliosphere the plasma density increased by about forty times.[54]

Def. the boundary of heliosphere where the Sun's solar wind is stopped by the interstellar medium is called the heliopause.

Def. a zone between the termination shock and the heliopause, in the heliosphere, at the outer border of the Solar System, where the solar wind is dramatically slower than within the termination shock is called a heliosheath.

The heliosheath is the region of the heliosphere beyond the termination shock. Here the wind is slowed, compressed and made turbulent by its interaction with the interstellar medium. Its distance from the Sun is approximately 80 to 100 astronomical units (AU) at its closest point.

The flow of ISM into the heliosphere has been measured by at least 11 different spacecraft as of 2013.[55] By 2013, it was suspected that the direction of the flow had changed over time.[55] The flow, coming from Earth's perspective from the constellation Scorpius, has probably changed direction by several degrees since the 1970s.[55]

Fermi glow[edit]

The Fermi glow are ultraviolet-glowing[56] particles, mostly hydrogen,[57] originating from the Solar System's Bow shock, created when light from stars and the Sun enter the region between the heliopause and the interstellar medium and undergo Fermi acceleration[57], bouncing around the transition area several times, gaining energy via collisions with atoms of the interstellar medium. The first evidence of the Fermi glow, and hence the bow shock, was obtained with the help from Voyager 1[56] and the Hubble Space Telescope[56].

Interstellar clouds[edit]

"Carbon monoxide is the second most abundant molecule, after H2, in interstellar clouds. In diffuse clouds, the amount of CO is mainly derived from measurements of absorption at UV wavelengths."[52]

Local hot bubbles[edit]

The Local Hot Bubble is hot X-ray emitting gas within the Local Bubble pictured as an artist's impression. Credit: NASA.

The 'local hot bubble' is a "hot X-ray emitting plasma within the local environment [the ISM] of the Sun."[58] "This coronal gas fills the irregularly shaped local void of matter (McCammon & Sanders 1990) - frequently called the Local Hot Bubble (LHB)."[58]

The Sun's hot corona continuously expands in space creating the solar wind, a stream of charged particles that extends to the heliopause at roughly 100 astronomical units. The bubble in the interstellar medium formed by the solar wind, the heliosphere, is the largest continuous structure in the Solar System.[59][60]

Epsilon Eridani[edit]

The stellar wind emitted by Epsilon Eridani expands until it collides with the surrounding interstellar medium of sparse gas and dust, resulting in a bubble of heated hydrogen gas. The absorption spectrum from this gas has been measured with the Hubble Space Telescope, allowing the properties of the stellar wind to be estimated.[61] Epsilon Eridani's hot corona results in a mass loss rate from the star's stellar wind that is 30 times higher than the Sun's. This wind is generating an astrosphere (the equivalent of the heliosphere that surrounds the Sun) that spans about 8,000 AU and contains a bow shock that lies 1,600 AU from the star. At its estimated distance from Earth, this astrosphere spans 42 arcminutes, which is wider than the apparent size of the full Moon.[62]

H I regions[edit]

An H I region is an interstellar cloud composed of neutral atomic hydrogen (H I), in addition to the local abundance of helium and other elements.

SIMBAD contains some 6,010 entries of the astronomical object type 'HI' (H I region).

These regions are non-luminous, save for emission of the 21-cm (1,420 MHz) region spectral line. ... Mapping H I emissions with a radio telescope is a technique used for determining the structure of spiral galaxies.

The degree of ionization in an H I region is very small at around 10−4 (i.e. one particle in 10,000). The temperature of an H I region is about 100 K,[63] and it is usually considered as isothermal, except near an expanding H II region.[64]

For hydrogen, complete ionization "obviously reduces its cross section to zero, but ... the net effect of partial ionization of hydrogen on calculated absorption depends on whether or not observations of hydrogen [are] used to estimate the total gas. ... [A]t least 20 % of interstellar hydrogen at high galactic latitudes seems to be ionized".[65]

Cold neutral mediums[edit]

H I regions of the ISM contain the cold neutral medium (CNM). The CNM constitutes 1-5 % by volume of the ISM, ranges in size from 100-300 pc, has a temperature between 50 and 100 K, with an atom density of 20-50 atoms/cm3.[66] The CNM has hydrogen in the neutral atomic state and emits the 21 cm line.

Warm neutral mediums[edit]

The warm neutral medium (WNM) is 10-20 % of the ISM, ranges in size from 300-400 pc, temperature between 6000 and 10000 K, is composed of neutral atomic hydrogen, has a density of 0.2-0.5 atoms/cm3, and emits the hydrogen 21 cm line.[66]

Warm ionized mediums[edit]

Also, within the H I regions is the warm ionized medium (WIM), constituting 20-50 % by volume of the ISM, with a size around 1000 pc, a temperature of 8000 K, an atom density of 0.2-0.5 atoms/cm3, of ionized hydrogen, emitting the hydrogen alpha line and exhibiting pulsar dispersion.[66]

Hot ionized mediums[edit]

"Of interest is the hot ionized medium (HIM) consisting of a coronal cloud ejection from star surfaces at 106-107 K which emits X-rays. The ISM is turbulent and full of structure on all spatial scales. Stars are born deep inside large complexes of molecular clouds, typically a few parsecs in size. During their lives and deaths, stars interact physically with the ISM. Stellar winds from young clusters of stars (often with giant or supergiant HII regions surrounding them) and shock waves created by supernovae inject enormous amounts of energy into their surroundings, which leads to hypersonic turbulence. The resultant structures are stellar wind bubbles and superbubbles of hot gas. The Sun is currently traveling through the Local Interstellar Cloud, a denser region in the low-density Local Bubble."[67]

A fossil stellar magnetic field is a relic "of the primordial field that [threads] the interstellar gas out of which stars [form].[68]

H II regions[edit]

The image is a three-color composite of the sky region of Messier 17. Credit: ESO.

An H II region is a large, low-density cloud of partially ionized gas in which star formation has recently taken place.

At right is an image in three-color infrared of an H II region excited by a cluster of young, hot stars. The region is in Messier 17 (M 17). A large silhouette disc occurs to the southwest of the cluster center. This image is obtained with the ISAAC near-infrared instrument at the 8.2-m VLT ANTU telescope at Paranal.

Protoplanetary disks[edit]

In December 2006, seven papers were published in the scientific journal, Science, discussing initial details of the sample analysis. Among the findings are: a wide range of organic compounds, including two that contain biologically usable nitrogen; indigenous aliphatic hydrocarbons with longer chain lengths than those observed in the diffuse interstellar medium; abundant amorphous silicates in addition to crystalline silicates such as olivine and pyroxene, proving consistency with the mixing of solar system and interstellar matter, previously deduced spectroscopically from ground observations;[69] hydrous silicates and carbonate minerals were found to be absent, suggesting a lack of aqueous processing of the cometary dust; limited pure carbon (CHON) was also found in the samples returned; methylamine and ethylamine was found in the aerogel but was not associated with specific particles.

Planetary nebulas[edit]

NASA's Hubble Space Telescope has captured the sharpest view yet of the most famous of all planetary nebulae: the Ring Nebula (M57). Credit: The Hubble Heritage Team (AURA/STScI/NASA).
This is a spectrum of Ring Nebula (M57) in range 450.0 — 672.0 nm. Credit: Minami Himemiya.

In this October 1998 [Hubble Space Telescope] image, the telescope has looked down a barrel of gas cast off by a dying star thousands of years ago. This photo reveals elongated dark clumps of material embedded in the gas at the edge of the nebula; the dying central star floating in a blue haze of hot gas. The nebula is about a light-year in diameter and is located some 2000 light-years from Earth in the direction of the constellation Lyra. The colors are approximately true colors. The color image was assembled from three black-and-white photos taken through different color filters with the Hubble telescope's Wide Field Planetary Camera 2. Blue isolates emission from very hot helium, which is located primarily close to the hot central star. Green represents ionized oxygen, which is located farther from the star. Red shows ionized nitrogen, which is radiated from the coolest gas, located farthest from the star. The gradations of color illustrate how the gas glows because it is bathed in ultraviolet radiation from the remnant central star, whose surface temperature is a white-hot 120,000 degrees Celsius (216,000 degrees Fahrenheit).

In the spectrum at right several red astronomy emission lines are detected and recorded at normalized intensities (to the oxygen III line) from the Ring Nebula. In the red are the two forbidden lines of oxygen ([O I], 630.0 and 636.4 nm), two forbidden lines of nitrogen ([N II], 654.8 nm and [N II], 658.4 nm), the hydrogen line (Hα, 656.3 nm) and a forbidden line of sulfur ([S II], 671.7 nm).

Dark nebulas[edit]

"The 111 → 110 rotational transition of formaldehyde (H2CO) [occurs] in absorption in the direction of four dark nebulae. The radiation ... being absorbed appears to be the isotropic microwave background".[70] One of the dark nebulae sampled, per SIMBAD is TGU H1211 P5.

Molecular clouds[edit]

This cloud of gas and dust is being deleted. Credit: Hubble Heritage Team (STScI/AURA), N. Walborn (STScI) & R. Barbß (La Plata Obs.), NASA.

In the image at right is a molecular cloud of gas and dust that is being reduced. "Likely, within a few million years, the intense light from bright stars will have boiled it away completely. The cloud has broken off of part of the Carina Nebula, a star forming region about 8000 light years away. Newly formed stars are visible nearby, their images reddened by blue light being preferentially scattered by the pervasive dust. This image spans about two light years and was taken by the orbiting Hubble Space Telescope in 1999."[71]

A molecular cloud, sometimes called a stellar nursery if star formation is occurring within, is a type of interstellar cloud whose density and size permits the formation of molecules, most commonly molecular hydrogen (H2).

Molecular hydrogen is difficult to detect by infrared and radio observations, so the molecule most often used to determine the presence of H2 is CO (carbon monoxide). The ratio between CO luminosity and H2 mass is thought to be constant, although there are reasons to doubt this assumption in observations of some other galaxies.[72]

Such clouds make up < 1% of the ISM, have temperatures of 10-20 K and high densities of 102 - 106 atoms/cm3. These clouds are astronomical radio and infrared sources with radio and infrared molecular emission and absorption lines.

Giant molecular clouds[edit]

A vast assemblage of molecular gas with a mass of approximately 103–107 times the mass of the Sun[73] is called a giant molecular cloud (GMC). GMCs are ≈15–600 light-years in diameter (5–200 parsecs).[73] Whereas the average density in the solar vicinity is one particle per cubic centimetre, the average density of a GMC is 102–103 particles per cubic centimetre. Although the Sun is much denser than a GMC, the volume of a GMC is so great that it contains much more mass than the Sun. The substructure of a GMC is a complex pattern of filaments, sheets, bubbles, and irregular clumps.[74]

The densest parts of the filaments and clumps are called "molecular cores", whilst the densest molecular cores are, unsurprisingly, called "dense molecular cores" and have densities in excess of 104–106 particles per cubic centimeter. Observationally molecular cores are traced with carbon monoxide and dense cores are traced with ammonia. The concentration of dust within molecular cores is normally sufficient to block light from background stars so that they appear in silhouette as dark nebulae.[75]

GMCs are so large that "local" ones can cover a significant fraction of a constellation; thus they are often referred to by the name of that constellation, e.g. the Orion Molecular Cloud (OMC) or the Taurus Molecular Cloud (TMC). These local GMCs are arrayed in a ring in the neighborhood of the Sun coinciding with the Gould Belt.[76] The most massive collection of molecular clouds in the galaxy forms an asymmetrical ring around the galactic center at a radius of 120 parsecs; the largest component of this ring is the Sagittarius B2 complex. The Sagittarius region is chemically rich and is often used as an exemplar by astronomers searching for new molecules in interstellar space.[77]

Galactic center[edit]

Milky Way is viewed by H-Alpha Sky Survey. Credit: Douglas Finkbeiner.

"Spectra of the helium 2.06 µm and hydrogen 2.17 µm lines ... confirm the existence of an extended region of high-velocity redshifted line emission centered near [Sgr A*/IRS 16]."[78]

Supernova remnants[edit]

This is an image of NGC 2080, the Ghost Head Nebula. Credit: NASA, ESA and Mohammad Heydari-Malayeri (Observatoire de Paris, France).
The Crab Nebula is a remnant of an exploded star. This image shows the Crab Nebula in various energy bands, including a hard X-ray image from the HEFT data taken during its 2005 observation run. Each image is 6′ wide. Credit: .

"The supernova SN1987A in the Large Magellanic Cloud (LMC) was discovered on February 23, 1987, and its progenitor is a blue supergiant (Sk -69 202) with luminosity of 2-5 x 1038 erg/s.[79] The 847 keV and 1238 keV gamma-ray lines from 56Co decay have been detected.[79]

At right is a Hubble Space Telescope image of the Ghost Head Nebula. "This nebula is one of a chain of star-forming regions lying south of the 30 Doradus nebula in the Large Magellanic Cloud. The red and blue light comes from regions of hydrogen gas heated by nearby stars. The green light comes from glowing oxygen, illuminated by the energy of a stellar wind. The white center shows a core of hot, massive stars."[80]

On July 21, 1964, the Crab Nebula supernova remnant was discovered to be a hard X-ray (15 – 60 keV) source by a scintillation counter flown on a balloon launched from Palestine, Texas, USA. This was likely the first balloon-based detection of X-rays from a discrete cosmic X-ray source.[81]

"The high-energy focusing telescope (HEFT) is a balloon-borne experiment to image astrophysical sources in the hard X-ray (20–100 keV) band.[82] Its maiden flight took place in May 2005 from Fort Sumner, New Mexico, USA. The angular resolution of HEFT is ~1.5'. Rather than using a grazing-angle X-ray telescope, HEFT makes use of a novel tungsten-silicon multilayer coatings to extend the reflectivity of nested grazing-incidence mirrors beyond 10 keV. HEFT has an energy resolution of 1.0 keV full width at half maximum at 60 keV. HEFT was launched for a 25-hour balloon flight in May 2005. The instrument performed within specification and observed Tau X-1, the Crab Nebula."[67]

Messier 17[edit]

This image is a near-infrared, colour-coded composite image of a sky field in the south-western part of the galactic star-forming region Messier 17. Credit: European Southern Observatory.

At right "is a near-infrared, colour-coded composite image of a sky field in the south-western part of the galactic star-forming region Messier 17. In this image, young and heavily obscured stars are recognized by their red colour. Bluer objects are either foreground stars or well-developed massive stars whose intense light ionizes the hydrogen in this region. The diffuse light that is visible nearly everywhere in the photo is due to emission from hydrogen atoms that have (re-)combined from protons and electrons. The dark areas are due to obscuration of the light from background objects by large amounts of dust — this effect also causes many of those stars to appear quite red. A cluster of young stars in the upper-left part of the photo, so deeply embedded in the nebula that it is invisible in optical light, is well visible in this infrared image. Technical information : The exposures were made through three filtres, J (at wavelength 1.25 µm; exposure time 5 min; here rendered as blue), H (1.65 µm; 5 min; green) and Ks (2.2 µm; 5 min; red); an additional 15 min was spent on separate sky frames. The seeing was 0.5 - 0.6 arcsec. The objects in the uppermost left corner area appear somewhat elongated because of a colour-dependent aberration introduced at the edge by the large-field optics. The sky field shown measures approx. 5 x 5 arcmin 2 (corresponding to about 3% of the full moon). North is up and East is left."[83]

Diffuse interstellar mediums[edit]

This Hubble Space Telescope/Wide Field and Planetary Camera 2 image of NGC 1999 includes a vast hole of empty space. Credit: NASA and the Hubble Heritage Team (STScI).

A discovery by the [ Herschel Space Observatory infrared telescope,] in conjunction with other ground based telescopes, determined that black patches of space in certain areas encompassing a star formation are not dark nebulae but actually vast holes of empty space. The exact cause of this phenomenon is still being investigated, although it has been hypothesized that narrow jets of gas from some of the young stars in the region punctured the sheet of dust and gas, as well as, powerful radiation from a nearby mature star may have helped to create the hole. "This [is] a previously unknown and unexpected step in the star-forming process.[84] The star is V280 Orionis.

"To measure the spectrum of the diffuse X-ray emission from the interstellar medium over the energy range 0.07 to 1 keV, NASA launched a Black Brant 9 from White Sands Missile Range, New Mexico on May 1, 2008.[85] The Principal Investigator for the mission is Dr. Dan McCammon of the University of Wisconsin."[67]


The Submillimeter Wave Astronomy Satellite (SWAS) [is in] low Earth orbit ... to make targeted observations of giant molecular clouds and dark cloud cores. The focus of SWAS is five spectral lines: water (H2O), isotopic water (H218O), isotopic carbon monoxide (13CO), molecular oxygen (O2), and neutral carbon (C I).


By comparing astronomical observations with laboratory measurements, astrochemists can infer the elemental abundances, chemical composition, and temperatures of stars and interstellar clouds. This is possible because ions, atoms, and molecules have characteristic spectra: that is, the absorption and emission of certain wavelengths (colors) of light, often not visible to the human eye. However, these measurements have limitations, with various types of radiation (radio, infrared, visible, ultraviolet etc.) able to detect only certain types of species, depending on the chemical properties of the molecules. Interstellar formaldehyde was the first polyatomic organic molecule detected in the interstellar medium.


Main sources: Astronomy/Balloons and Balloons
BLAST is hanging from the launch vehicle in Esrange near Kiruna, Sweden before launch June 2005. Credit: Mtruch.
NASA's balloon-carried BLAST sub-millimeter telescope is hoisted into launch position on Dec. 25, 2012, at McMurdo Station in Antarctica. Credit: NASA/Wallops Flight Facility.

The Balloon-borne Large Aperture Submillimeter Telescope (BLAST) is a submillimeter telescope that hangs from a high altitude balloon. It has a 2 meter primary mirror that directs light into bolometer arrays operating at 250, 350, and 500 µm. BLAST's primary science goals are:[86]

  • Measure photometric redshifts, rest-frame FIR luminosities and star formation rates of high-redshift starburst galaxies, thereby constraining the evolutionary history of those galaxies that produce the FIR/submillimeter background.
  • Measure cold pre-stellar sources associated with the earliest stages of star and planet formation.
  • Make high-resolution maps of diffuse galactic emission in the interstellar medium over a wide range of galactic latitudes.

Sounding rockets[edit]

Carried aloft on a Nike-Black Brant VC sounding rocket, the microcalorimeter arrays observed the diffuse soft X-ray emission from a large solid angle at high galactic latitude. Credit: NASA/Wallops.

"In astronomy, the interstellar medium (or ISM) is the gas and cosmic dust that pervade interstellar space: the matter that exists between the star systems within a galaxy. It fills interstellar space and blends smoothly into the surrounding intergalactic medium. The interstellar medium consists of an extremely dilute (by terrestrial standards) mixture of ions, atoms, molecules, larger dust grains, cosmic rays, and (galactic) magnetic fields.[87] The energy that occupies the same volume, in the form of electromagnetic radiation, is the interstellar radiation field."[67]


"The first gamma-ray telescope carried into orbit, on the Explorer 11 satellite in 1961, picked up fewer than 100 cosmic gamma-ray photons. They appeared to come from all directions in the Universe, implying some sort of uniform "gamma-ray background". Such a background would be expected from the interaction of cosmic rays (very energetic charged particles in space) with interstellar gas.


Clouds of material are along the paths of the Voyager 1 and Voyager 2 spacecraft through interstellar space. Credit: NASA, ESA, and Z. Levay (STScI).

The Voyager 1 spacecraft is a 722 kg (1,592 lb) space probe launched by NASA on September 5, 1977 to study the outer Solar System and interstellar medium.

The Cosmic Ray System (CRS) determines the origin and acceleration process, life history, and dynamic contribution of interstellar cosmic rays, the nucleosynthesis of elements in cosmic-ray sources, the behavior of cosmic rays in the interplanetary medium, and the trapped planetary energetic-particle environment.

Measurements from the spacecraft revealed a steady rise since May in collisions with high energy particles (above 70 MeV), which are believed to be cosmic rays emanating from supernova explosions far beyond the Solar System, with a sharp increase in these collisions in late August. At the same time, in late August, there was a dramatic drop in collisions with low-energy particles, which are thought to originate from the Sun.[88]

"It's important for us to be aware of what kinds of objects are present beyond our solar system, since we are now beginning to think about potential interstellar space missions, such as Breakthrough Starshot."[89]

At "least two interstellar clouds [have been discovered] along Voyager 2's path, and one or two interstellar clouds along Voyager 1's path. They were also able to measure the density of electrons in the clouds along Voyager 2's path, and found that one had a greater electron density than the other."[90]

"We think the difference in electron density perhaps indicates a difference in composition of overall density of the clouds."[89]

A "broad range of elements [were detected]] in the interstellar medium, such as electrically charged ions of magnesium, iron, carbon and manganese [and] neutrally charged oxygen, nitrogen and hydrogen."[90]


Main source: Hypotheses
  1. With an interstellar medium, propagation of electromagnetic radiation may not be the same as in a theory.

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External links[edit]

{{Astronomy resources}}{{Principles of radiation astronomy}}