Cosmic Dust Bunnies

Celestial Dust Bunnies. Some will form stars

My head is all in a whirl. I’ve been time-and-space traveling the past few days, and never left my desk. Imagination is such a gift–and an often-pleasant distraction from what we loosely refer to as “reality.”

The personal speculative porridge of the day could be called the Music and Math of Matter. Maybe I’ll be able to cook it up to serve a small portion here someday and I’ll try to remember that title.

It’s ingredients are varied and many–a 32-bean soup kind of thing–but include Hubble Ultra Deep Field studies and Google Sky–from whence this image was borrowed via a link to Hubblesite.

The image above is representative of a sky object that was a theoretical concept before Hubble at last discovered their reality. One wonders if Mr. Bok lived to see his idea from the 1940s come to life, so to speak. He saw them in his mind. He wrapped his head around what was not as though it was. The object of his faith is now here for us to see.

The yearly ritual of spring cleaning clears a house of dust as well as dust “bunnies,” those pesky dust balls that frolic under beds and behind furniture. NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope has photographed similar dense knots of dust and gas in our Milky Way Galaxy. This cosmic dust, however, is not a nuisance. It is a concentration of elements that are responsible for the formation of stars in our galaxy and throughout the universe.

These opaque, dark knots of gas and dust are called “Bok globules,” and they are absorbing light in the center of the nearby emission nebula and star-forming region, NGC 281. The globules are named after astronomer Bart Bok, who proposed their existence in the 1940’s.

Bok hypothesized that giant molecular clouds, on the order of hundreds of light-years in size, can become perturbed and form small pockets where the dust and gas are highly concentrated. These small pockets become gravitationally bound and accumulate dust and gas from the surrounding area. If they can capture enough mass, they have the potential of creating stars in their cores; however, not all Bok globules will form stars. Some will dissipate before they can collapse to form stars. That may be what’s happening to the globules seen here in NGC 281.

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Fred First holds masters degrees in Vertebrate Zoology and physical therapy, and has been a biology teacher and physical therapist by profession. He moved to southwest Virginia in 1975 and to Floyd County in 1997. He maintains a daily photo-blog, broadcasts essays on the Roanoke NPR station, and contributes regular columns for the Floyd Press and Roanoke's Star Sentinel. His two non-fiction books, Slow Road Home and his recent What We Hold in Our Hands, celebrate the riches that we possess in our families and communities, our natural bounty, social capital and Appalachian cultures old and new. He has served on the Jacksonville Center Board of Directors and is newly active in the Sustain Floyd organization. He lives in northeastern Floyd County on the headwaters of the Roanoke River.

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  1. I loved the photo of the Hubble Deep Field more than any other astronomical object, and it was front and center in my 7th grade science classrooom. Now there is the Ultra Deep Field, and I was just sent its photo a few weeks ago. I know the objects in our galaxy are spectacular, but a photo frame filled with galaxies just thrills me no end.