Molecular windstorms are ripping through the universe at 10,000 times the speed of the most powerful Earth hurricane. These super-sized storms can strip galaxies of the raw materials needed to make new stars in just 100 million years.
European Space Agency researchers have used the Herschel Infrared Telescope to detect these winds, the fastest of which is moving through space at more than 600 miles per second. What's more, these winds are disturbing the natural makeup of galaxies, ripping out huge amounts of gas each year - perhaps as much as 1,200 times the mass of our Sun each year.
If that loss of material holds constant, these winds could completely remove all the materials needed for continued star formation in about 100 million years, and that's just a conservative estimate. Some galaxies would be out of gas within just a million years. And once there are no more new stars, the galaxy itself effectively starts to die.
So what is creating these devastating windstorms? There are a number of possibilities:
The winds could be generated by the intense emission of light and particles from young stars, or by remnant shockwaves from the explosion of old stars. The windstorms also could be triggered by the radiation released as matter swirls around a black hole at the center of the galaxy. The fastest outflow winds appear to be coming from the galaxies that contain the brightest "active galactic nuclei," which is a giant, active black hole at the galaxy's center that feeds from its surroundings.
Whatever their precise cause, these windstorms likely play a crucial part in galactic evolution. The researchers speculate that these storms could result in the formation of elliptical galaxies, which are defined by their lack of gas and of new star formation.