We’re on a Collision Course with a Gas Cloud

Smith Cloud

A giant cloud of mostly hydrogen gas with enough material to make over a million suns is heading towards our Milky Way at a speed of 45 miles per second. Called the Smith Cloud (after Gail Bieger-Smith who discovered it in 1963), this 9,800 × 3,300 ly high velocity cloud (HVC) is about 40,000 ly distant and is expected to slam into our Milky Way galaxy in about 27 million years, causing the birth of many new stars a quarter-way round the galaxy from us.

Smith Cloud is located in the constellation Aquila, the Eagle

The Smith Cloud is located in the constellation Aquila, and has an apparent diameter around 11° across its long axis. It is only visible using radio telescopes (spin-flip transition of neutral atomic hydrogen), or by detecting hydrogen absorption lines Doppler shifted and superimposed upon the spectra of more distant stars that are shining through the cloud.

The origin of the Smith Cloud is unknown. It may have originated within the Milky Way galaxy itself, or it may be extragalactic. The upcoming collision may not be the first time the Smith Cloud has encountered the disc of the Milky Way. It may be embedded in a large halo of dark matter which would have kept the cloud from being completely disrupted during any past encounters.

The Smith Cloud is a great example of an object that would never have been discovered were it not for radio astronomy. Felix J. Lockman, who has published extensively on the Smith Cloud, has created Radio Astronomy: Observing the Invisible Universe for The Great Courses. Dr. Lockman’s engaging lecture style, his clear explanations, and thorough knowledge of the subject matter makes this the perfect introduction to the subject. Highly recommended!

Incidentally, Jay Lockman discovered a region in Ursa Major that is relatively free of neutral hydrogen gas and dust, thus affording a clearer view into the distant universe. It is named, appropriately, the Lockman Hole.


Alig, C. et al. “Simulating the Impact of the Smith Cloud.” The Astrophysical Journal 869 (2018): 1-6.
arXiv:1901.01639 [astro-ph.GA]

Hu, Y. et al. “Magnetic field morphology in interstellar clouds with the velocity gradient technique.” Nature Astronomy (2019): 1-7.
arXiv:2002.09948 [astro-ph.GA]

Lockman, F.. “Accretion Onto the Milky Way: The Smith Cloud.” Proceedings of the International Astronomical Union 11 (2015): 9 – 12.
arXiv:1511.05423 [astro-ph.GA]

Exoplanets with Deep Transits

The list above shows the 35 stars presently known to dip in brightness by 0.02 magnitudes or more due to a transiting exoplanet.

The change in the star’s magnitude during transit is given by

\Delta m = 2.5\log_{10}\left ( 1+\delta \right )

where Δm is the drop in magnitude, and δ is the transit depth

The time between transits for these exoplanets ranges between 0.79 and 5.72 days, with a median period of 2.24 days.  You can generate your own ephemeris for any of these transiting exoplanets at:


The transit duration for these exoplanets ranges between 1.08 and 3.11 hours, with a median duration of 2.11 hours.

The exoplanets with the deepest transits, HATS-6 b at 0.035 magnitudes and Kepler-45 b at 0.034 magnitudes, cross stars that are 15.2 and 16.9 magnitude, respectively, so these events might be out of reach for most amateur photometrists.  The only other star hosting a transiting exoplanet with a Δm ≥ 0.03m is Tycho 5165-481-1 in Aquila (WASP-80 b) which at visual magnitude 11.9 is a better candidate for smaller instruments.  The brightest star on our list (by far) is HD 189733 in Vulpecula, magnitude 7.7, with a drop in brightness that is almost as good at 0.026 magnitudes.

Fakhouri, O. (2018). Exoplanet Orbit Database | Exoplanet Data Explorer. [online] Exoplanets.org. Available at: http://exoplanets.org/ [Accessed 11 Dec. 2018].