For The First Time, Astronomers Have Found A Giant ‘Magnetic Bridge’ Between Galaxies

For the
first time, astronomers have detected a magnetic field associated with the
Magellanic Bridge, the filament of gas stretching 75 thousand light-years
between the Milky Way Galaxy's nearest galactic neighbors: the Large and Small
Magellanic Clouds (LMC and SMC, respectively). It’s quite fascinating and odd
discovering a “big magnetic link” in the Universe.

were hints that this magnetic field might exist, but no one had observed it
until now
," says Jane Kaczmarek, at the University of Sydney, and lead
author of the paper describing the finding.

only are entire galaxies magnetic, but the faint delicate threads joining
galaxies are magnetic, too
,"said Bryan Gaensler, Director of the Dunlap
Institute for Astronomy & Astrophysics, University of Toronto, and a
co-author on the paper. "Everywhere we look in the sky, we find magnetism."

general, we don't know how such vast magnetic fields are generated, nor how
these large-scale magnetic fields affect galaxy formation and evolution
says Kaczmarek. "The LMC and SMC are our nearest neighbours, so
understanding how they evolve may help us understand how our Milky Way Galaxy
will evolve. Understanding the role that magnetic fields play in the evolution
of galaxies and their environment is a fundamental question in astronomy that
remains to be answered

Visible in
the southern night sky, the LMC and SMC are dwarf galaxies that orbit our home
galaxy and lie at a distance of 160 and 200 thousand light-years from Earth

Such cosmic
magnetic fields can only be detected indirectly, and this detection was made by
observing the radio signals from hundreds of very distant galaxies that lie
beyond the LMC and SMC. The observations were made with the Australia Telescope
Compact Array radio telescope at the Paul Wild Observatory in New South Wales,
Australia. This visible light mosaic below shows the LMC and SMC in context
with the plane of our own galaxy, the Milky Way. (Axel Mellinger, Central
Michigan University).

radio emission from the distant galaxies served as background 'flashlights'
that shine through the Bridge
," says Kaczmarek. "Its magnetic field
then changes the polarization of the radio signal. How the polarized light is
changed tells us about the intervening magnetic field

A radio
signal, like a light wave, oscillates or vibrates in a single direction or
plane; for example, waves on the surface of a pond move up and down. When a
radio signal passes through a magnetic field, the plane is rotated. This
phenomenon is known as Faraday Rotation and it allows astronomers to measure
the strength and the polarity—or direction—of the field.

observation of the magnetic field, which is one millionth the strength of the
Earth's, may provide insight into whether it was generated from within the
Bridge after the structure formed, or was "ripped" from the dwarf galaxies
when they interacted and formed the structure.

The paper,
one of a growing number of new results that are building a map of the
Universe's magnetism, appeared in the Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical

Image at top
of page: ESA’s Planck satellite image of the magnetic field along the Milky
Way's Galactic plane.