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The space between stars in a galaxy consists of low-density gas and dust. The dust is largely carbon given off by red-giant stars. The gas is largely hydrogen, which accounts for 90 percent of the atoms in the universe. Hydrogen exists in two main forms in the universe. Astronomers give complete hydrogen atoms, with a nucleus and an electron, a designation of the Roman numeral I, or HI. Ionized hydrogen, hydrogen made up of atoms missing their electrons, is given the designation II, or HII. Clouds, or regions, of both types of hydrogen exist between the stars. HI regions are too cold to produce visible radiation, but they do emit radio waves that are useful in measuring the movement of gas in our own galaxy and in distant galaxies. The HII regions form around hot stars. These regions emit diffuse radiation in the visual range, as well as in the radio, infrared, and ultraviolet ranges. The cloudy light from such regions forms beautiful nebulas such as the Great Orion Nebula.

Astronomers have located over 100 types of molecules in interstellar space. These molecules occur only in trace amounts among the hydrogen. Still, astronomers can use these molecules to map galaxies. By measuring the density of the molecules throughout a galaxy, astronomers can get an idea of the galaxy’s structure.

Interstellar dust sometimes gathers to form dark nebulae, which appear in silhouette against background gas or stars from Earth. The Horsehead Nebula, for example, is the silhouette of interstellar dust against a background HI region. See also Interstellar Matter.


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