“We knew that the fuel for star formation had to come from somewhere. So far, however, we’ve detected only about 10 percent of what would be necessary to explain what we observe in many galaxies,” said Pisano. “A leading theory is that rivers of hydrogen — known as cold flows — may be ferrying hydrogen through intergalactic space, clandestinely fueling star formation. But this tenuous hydrogen has been simply too diffuse to detect, until now.”
Astronomers have discovered what could be a never-before-seen river of hydrogen flowing through space. This very faint, very tenuous filament of gas is streaming into the nearby galaxy NGC 6946 and may help explain how certain spiral galaxies keep up their steady pace of star formation.
Ref: D. J. Pisano. GREEN BANK TELESCOPE OBSERVATIONS OF LOW COLUMN DENSITY H I AROUND NGC 2997 AND NGC 6946. The Astronomical Journal, 2014; 147 (3): 48 DOI: 10.1088/0004-6256/147/3/48
Spiral galaxies, like our own Milky Way, typically maintain a rather tranquil but steady pace of star formation. Others, like NGC 6946, which is located approximately 22 million light-years from Earth on the border of the constellations Cepheus and Cygnus, are much more active, though less-so than more extreme starburst galaxies. This raises the question of what is fueling the sustained star formation in this and similar spiral galaxies.
It would seem that cold hydrogen is siphoned off one galaxy to feed star formation in another. In looking at NGC 6946, the GBT detected just the sort of filamentary structure that would be present in a cold flow, though there is another probable explanation for what has been observed. It’s also possible that sometime in the past this galaxy had a close encounter and passed by its neighbors, leaving a ribbon of neutral atomic hydrogen in its wake.