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Interstellar cloud

Interstellar cloud is the generic name given to accumulations of gas and dust in our galaxy. Depending on the density, size and temperature of a given cloud, the hydrogen in it can be neutral (HI clouds), ionized, (HII regions), or molecular (molecular clouds).

Over 200 newly formed stars are scattered within a cavern-like, gaseous, interstellar cloud (NGC 604). The stars irradiate the gas with energetic ultraviolet light stripping electrons from atoms and exciting them - producing a characteristic nebular glow.

Chemical compositions

Analysing the composition of interstellar clouds is achieved by studying electromagnetic radiation that we receive from them. Large radio telescopes scan the intensity in the sky of particular frequencies of electromagnetic radiation which are characteristic of certain molecules' spectra. Some interstellar clouds are cold and tend to give out EM radiation of large wavelengths. We can produce a map of the abundance of these molecules to produce an understanding of the varying composition of the clouds. In hot clouds, there are often ions of many elements, whose spectra can be seen in visible and ultraviolet light.

Radio telescopes can also scan over the frequencies from one point in the map, recording the intensities of each type of molecule. Peaks of frequencies mean that an abundance of that molecule or atom is present in the cloud. The height of the peak is proportional to the relative percentage that it makes up.

Unexpected chemicals detected in interstellar clouds

Until recently the rates of reactions in interstellar clouds were expected to be very slow, with minimal products being produced due to the low temperature and density of the clouds. However, large organic molecules were observed in the spectra that scientists would not have expected to find under these conditions. The reactions needed to create them normally only occur at much higher temperatures and pressures. The fact that they were found indicates that these chemical reactions in interstellar clouds take place faster than suspected. These reactions are studied in the CRESU experiment.