This month we're fortunate to have Catherine Zucker of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics as our guest speaker. Catherine will show us how we have begun to derive accurate distance measurements to large, star-forming molecular clouds in the Milky Way galaxy, and what that means for astronomy.
Why go to all this trouble? Obtaining accurate distance measurements to molecular clouds is important for understanding the star and planet formation process. The advent of large photometric surveys and the Gaia mission offer an unprecedented opportunity to derive the distances and properties of hundreds of millions of stars, as well as the molecular clouds between them.
Without resorting to scary math, Catherine will explain how we have combined these data with statistical methods to create a new 3D map of molecular clouds in the solar neighborhood (the nearest 10,000 lightyears). As it turns out, these phenomena are surprisingly interrelated -- using interactive visualization software, we can find new connections between long-studied molecular clouds that reveal a link between individual star-forming regions and the larger Galactic environment.