Paula Cleggett-Haleim Headquarters, Washington, D.C.

(Phone: 202/453-1549) Randee Exler Goddard Space Flight Center, Md. (Phone: 301/286-7277) RELEASE: 91-6

January 14, 1991 Noon

COBE MAPS INTERSTELLAR MATERIAL IN MILKY WAY GALAXY For the first time, astronomers have mapped the distribution of nitrogen throughout our galaxy. The new observations were taken by an instrument on NASA's Cosmic Background Explorer, the Far Infrared Absolute Spectrophotometer. This all-sky survey, along with additional maps of carbon and dust, provides quantitative information that may enable scientists to understand better the heating and cooling processes that take place throughout the Milky Way. These accomplishments were reported today at the American Astronomical Society meeting in Philadelphia by members of the COBE science team. COBE scientists presented images that show the locations in the galaxy of ionized nitrogen. The nitrogen map of the Milky Way is at the wavelength of 205 micrometers and is the first detection of this important spectral line. The carbon map was produced at 158 micrometers and the dust map at 205 micrometer wavelengths. "Before COBE, it was not possible to map the whole galaxy in this way, although these atomic emissions are the dominant way in which the interstellar gas cools," said COBE Project Scientist Dr. John C. Mather, who added that COBE's unique capabilities permit these all-sky measurements unencumbered by atmospheric and instrument emission. Five months of data were used to produce the maps.

- more -2The emission from ionized nitrogen atoms was found to occur at a precise wavelength of 205.3 micrometers. The exact determination of this wavelength, which had never been measured before, is important because it will enable astronomers to build future instruments to map this radiation with greater spatial resolution. The COBE data also were used to measure the total energy emitted by the dust, neutral carbon atoms and carbon monoxide molecules in the interstellar gas, showing that our galaxy is a typical spiral galaxy. These new data show that carbon and nitrogen atoms -- some of the key building blocks of life -- are extremely widespread in the thin gas that fills the space between the stars. These atoms are created inside stars by nuclear reactions and then released back into space by stellar winds or explosions at the ends of stellar lives. The data also confirm theories that the mixture of gas and dust in our galaxy is heated by starlight striking dust grains and cooled by the carbon and nitrogen emissions. The greatest concentrations of the atoms and dust grains are in the plane of the galaxy. The data were taken using the Far Infrared Absolute Spectrophotometer (FIRAS), one of the three instruments aboard COBE, NASA's first satellite primarily designed for cosmological studies. COBE, launched from Vandenberg Air Force Base, Calif., Nov. 18, 1989, primarily studies the diffuse microwave and infrared light coming from the "big bang" at the beginning of the currently observable universe and from the first objects that formed after this primordial explosion. FIRAS is the same instrument that 1 year ago enabled COBE scientists to report the most precise measurements ever obtained of the spectrum of the cosmic microwave background radiation. The new results show that this instrument also is remarkably

sensitive to emissions of dust grains, atoms and molecules in the galaxy. The report was made by Drs. John C. Mather, Richard A. Shafer and Charles L. Bennett of NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center, Greenbelt, Md., and Dr. Edward L. Wright, of the University of California.

- more -3The data were analyzed at the Goddard Space Flight Center. The scientific team includes members at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge, Mass.; General Research Corp., Danvers, Mass.; Princeton University, N.J.; University of California at Los Angeles, and the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif., as well as the Goddard Space Flight Center. Scientists at General Sciences Corp., Laurel, Md., Applied Research Corp., Landover, Md.; Universities Space Research Association, Greenbelt, Md., and Systems Technologies Corp., Lanham, Md., support the reduction and analysis of the data. This research is supported by NASA's Astrophysics Division of the Office of Space Science and Applications. - end -

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