Cobwebs Of Space: Discovery and Interpretation Of Interstellar Dust Filaments


The search for the elusive dark matter is famous. Here I will discuss the discovery of a different kind of dark matter in interstellar space, which I call cobwebs of space. This dark matter is just as elusive as the more famous, but probably fictitious, dark matter. The appearance of this dark matter, which forms dark filaments in space is referred to herein as interstellar dust filaments. This is because they are like the dark clouds that populate interstellar space, but they are long and narrow and crisscross throughout space forming the appearance of a dark cobweb that overlies all of the space through which we view distant celestial objects.

Here I summarize the results of my paper on the discovery of interstellar dust filaments, which was written many years ago in the early 1980s. This paper was submitted to an astronomy journal and rejected. In the years since this paper was written, the photographic techniques and software effects processing have become available to process images so as to enhance the appearance of the dust filaments. This report will discuss the results of processing of photos that attempts to make the dust filaments that pervade the interstellar medium much more discernible.

Fritz Zwicky Inspired The Search For Dust Filaments
Fritz Zwicky Inspired The Search For Dust Filaments

How Were Dust Filaments Discovered?

This is a good question, and before addressing that, it is good to define what I mean by my discovery of interstellar dust filaments. Here the term discovery refers to the elucidation or explication of a previously unknown and unrecognized phenomena. This phenomena, which I call interstellar dust filaments, refers to the shape and structure of obscuration by the interstellar medium of our galaxy. The methodological approach is inspired by the method of Fritz Zwicky. The main initial idea was the study and description of dust clouds. These traditionally were thought to be like atmospheric clouds in that they interposed themselves along the line of sight causing an obscuration of bright luminous backgrounds. The interstellar medium, was thought to consist of a thin obscuring gas interspersed with dust clouds similar in appearance to cumulus type clouds. The writer began a study of the different types and appearance of these clouds in photographs. This revealed that the clouds were not uniform or puffy in appearance but were long and thin. Eventually the concept of interstellar dust filaments emerged from the study of dust clouds.

My favorite Zwicky comment is from his book, Morphological Astronomy, where he remarks upon the many thousands of beautiful photographs taken by astronomers that have been stored away in vaults and not used to discover anything useful. This is unfortunately still exactly the way astronomy is done today.

The Author’s Astronomy Background

Figure 1 Of The Minkowski Paper
Figure 1 Of The Minkowski Paper

My life as an amateur astronomer began in college when I took a course in astronomy my senior year. This initiated a lifelong love of the stars and star gazing. However, after college I was employed in Maryland near Baltimore. This was not conducive to star gazing. I began with a small 60 mm Tasco refractor that I bought used for $30. Later in 1975, I graduated to a Celestron 8 inch SCT and tried my hand at taking astronomy photos. This was a major investment as I spent over $2000 on the telescope and cameras and accessories. My attempt at astrophotography was thwarted mainly by a busy work schedule, and being located in Maryland where sky conditions are bad. I discovered that I could enjoy astronomy without looking at the sky or using a telescope. I discovered the world of photographic astronomy. That is, I learned to study published photographs. Every month when my copies of Sky and Telescope and Astronomy magazine arrived I carefully studied the photos they contained. My interest in astronomy zoomed.  At the time, I was working at The Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory south of Columbia Maryland, where I lived. This was in the mid to late 1970s. I discovered that the APL library had a wonderful astronomy collection. I read astronomy journals and studied astronomy books. One book I read was Zwicky’s Morphological Astronomy. I was hooked on studying the morphology of galaxies and HII regions. This led to an interest in dust clouds which intrigued me a lot. I took copious notes and I began to see things in the photos that were not supposed to be there.

Another hobby aided in my studies of astronomical photographs. I collected astronomy books. As a book collector, I decided that the objective of my hobby was to obtain as many astronomy books as possible, and one of the books I bought was Zwicky’s Morphological Astronomy. I was no longer dependent on the John’s Hopkins Library to supply my photos for study. I also discovered that I could buy astronomy print photos from the major observatories, and Sky and telescope. That meant I could study actual prints and not depend upon photographic plates in astronomy books or printed photos. However, my main source of photos for study was the astronomy magazines. There were lots of them . Some survived and some didn’t. For example I collected Popular Astronomy, which lasted a few year before going under. I also bought the proceedings of the Orange Amateur Astronomers which contained many photos taken by amateurs. It turned out that these were more useful than the professional photos because the dust filaments were very evident in them, and were not in the professional photos. That was because the professional photos were usually very overexposed.

In 1979 I left APL and went to work at Communications Satellite Corporation in Washington, DC. I changed course. I thought it was time to attempt to publish my findings regarding interstellar dust filaments. I worked on writing a paper for publication. I had a secretary at work type my paper and it was submitted for publication. It was rejected. This was discouraging. I later submitted it to Sky and Telescope and was rejected again. After that I began to lose interest in astronomy. I had many other interests and I was no longer able to read the books and journals in the APL library. Over the years I tried to get  people interested in the dust filaments, but they paid no attention. Now it is 2015, the technology of telescopes and software processing of digital photographs has improved greatly. Perhaps it will be possible to prove that interstellar dust filaments are real and that they are a ubiquitous in the interstellar medium. Here are some recent results.

Report On The Discovery Of Interstellar Dust Filaments

Figure 2 From Minkowski’s Paper

The paper in which I described the discovery of interstellar filaments was written in the early 1980s. There were many different versions. Initially it was a very long compendium of the photos studied accompanied by long descriptions. The result was much too long to be published as a journal paper. This required making the discussions brief and succinct. The result is the paper that is published at The General Science Journal . The paper presented there is a scan of a Zerox copy of the paper submitted for publication. Unfortunately, in those days there were no word processing files to be copied and edited. Here is the URL for the paper:

The paper has a theme that the dust filaments are a real phenomenon of the interstellar medium and that they have been detected many times and described, without any understanding of what was being described.  There is a long and detailed list of such observations made by professional astronomers and reported in peer reviewed journals. Despite this fact, it appears no one paid attention to what was being observed and so the phenomenon remains unrecognized by professionals. The reader of the paper should pay attention to the list of these reports that were not followed up by the professionals. Unfortunately, amateur astronomers, who have the time and the resources to follow up, have not done so either. This seems to be the result of a mind set that astronomical photos are mainly to be viewed for their beauty and not for their utility as scientific tools. Along this line, the reader should note that the acclaimed Hubble photographs are mainly fake, because they have been processed to make them beautiful to the human eye. In doing that they are overexposed and hyped in ways that make them useless as scientific tools. Today many amateur astronomers have really great and important photos that could be useful in advancing scientific study, but they are mostly overexposed and not processed to reveal subtle details. There is too much emphasis on making a pretty photo for the astrophotography audience. That involves overexposure and choosing subjects that are spectacular and showy and not necessarily scientifically useful.

R. Minkowski’s Description Of Dust Filaments

Figure 3 From Minkowski's Paper
Figure 3 From Minkowski’s Paper

Here I want to point out that the author’s results are not an illusion as the dust filaments were observed by professional astronomers, but they did not pursue the observations in order to show that the phenomenon of dust filaments is a ubiquitous feature of the interstellar medium. The following comments are from a paper by R. Minkowski. “More characteristic for the central Milky Way than small and sharp details are diffuse and often elongated clouds, such as the famous lane east of rho Ophiuchi (Barnard, plate 14) which extends with a width of about 40′ for more than 6° and continues for several degrees in broken clouds. Curved and twisted clouds are not unfrequent. Good samples are the S-shaped marking B 72 or the twisting dark lane 2° north of 58 Ophiuchi which seems to end in the west with the tentacled cloud B 84. Systems of nearly straight lanes frequently give the impression of a flow pattern. Sometimes such patterns running in different directions are superposed. Such systems may also consist of many small diffuse clouds, as in the area, shown in Fig. 1, which almost simulate a cirrus cloud. The patterns do not follow a fixed direction but are obviously curved.”

The following is an excerpt from a later section. “Large emission regions show many details which are of very similar character as the absorbing clouds. The region of the North America nebula and the nebulosities near y Cygni are one of the best examples. A small part near the western rim of this area is shown in Fig. 2. All the nebulosities in the region seem to be part of one huge mass, cut in two main parts by heavily obscuring clouds along the galactic equator. The emission is excited by many O and B type stars at a distance of 700 parsec. If this is also the distance of the nebulosities, they fill a diameter of 250 parsec. In the brighter condensations N H is probably of the order 30 to 50 cm -3 . The average density of the whole mass is obviously much lower, probably not much larger than 1 cm -3. Towards its outer edge, particularly on the western side, the character of the nebulosity changes. The chaotic structure is replaced by filamentary structures and striations which are many degrees long. The filaments become exceedingly sharp north of the area shown in Fig. 2. These structures seem to envelop the area rather than follow a fixed direction; in the upper part of Fig. 2 the direction is approximately parallel to the galactic equator. It is tempting to assume that the formation of these structures near the edge of the mass is the result of an expansion of the mass of gas into space of much lower density.”  In this description the key points are the long length of the filaments, and the appearance of parallel striations.

Here is a continuation of the text where more detail is given. “The brighter condensations of the whole mass are very rich in fine absorption detail of the kind typical for bright emission nebulae: sharply bounded clouds, many with “elephant trunks”, and very small, opaque and therefore probably very dense clouds. Particularly rich in such details is the area west and south of the North America nebula, which is shown in Fig. 3. It contains one of the outstanding “elephant trunks”, in an area too much overexposed to show it in Fig. 3. Remarkable striated absorption features are in this area. Two systems are superposed which form nearly a right angle. The finer striations of the north-south system begin to approach in sharpness the striations in the Pleiades nebula, but on the whole the structure is more diffuse.”

It is remarkable that when the author of the Report On the Discovery of Interstellar Dust Filaments extended the work done by Minkowski and showed that the dust filaments were present in almost every photograph examined, this conclusive proof that they are the main phenomenon of the obscuring dust was ignored and rejected by the professional astronomers. They still have not followed up on the discovery that was initially hinted at in Minkowski’s paper. As a final note, the professional astronomers have traditionally used negative images for astronomical work. The images given in Minkowski’s paper are negative and not positive images. This makes it extremely difficult to detect the dust filaments discovered by the author, so the reader should note that it is the positive images that should be examined and not the negative images

Quotation From Lynds “Dark Nebula”

B.T. Lynds in Dark Nebula, a chapter contribution to the book Volume VII Stars and Stellar Systems gives the following descriptions of interstellar dust filaments on pages 133-143: “Some of the most striking dark nebula have long rope like appearances…For any given longitude there seems to be a tendency for the structural features of dark nebulosities to align themselves with respect to each other…Behr and Tripp have shown that in some cases the direction of the parallel filaments is correlated with the plane of polarization and, hence, may be related to the influence of the galactic magnetic field.”

Quotation From Catalog Of The Universe

For readers who are skeptical of the reality of the dust filaments discovered by the author, they are also described in a section of the book, Catalog Of The Universe published in 1979. This is many years after the Minkowski paper and it is clear that there is no recognition that the dust filaments were a significant aspect of the interstellar medium at that time. Here is a selection from the entry for Barnard 87. “E.E. Barnard found 349 dark nebulae in the course of photographing the Milky Way. He nicknamed number 87, in Sagittarius, the Parrot’s Head. The beak points left and the bright patch of stars, including the one catalogued CD- 32° 13679, represents the parrot’s eye. B 87 is the most prominent dark nebula in the area but it is just one of a chain which have a generally ropelike appearance. Many nebulae appear like this, forming crescents, S-shapes and arcs. The ropelike nebulae in a given area have a tendency to run parallel with each other, forming patterns much like iron filings placed near a magnet. Some astronomers believe that the dark nebulae in fact align with the magnetic field of the Galaxy.” Clearly the term “ropelike nebulae” refers to what the author calls interstellar dust filaments. The reference to iron filings is a nice allusion, but there does not seem to be a reason to suppose the dust  filaments are aligned magnetically. One curious aspect of the Catalog Of The Universe is that it fails to take notice of the dust filaments as reported by Minkowski. In the section on the North American nebula, there is a picture that distinctly shows the dust filaments, but there is absolutely no mention of them there or in the Rho Orphiuchi Dark Cloud entry although they are clearly seen in the accompanying photos.

Dark Dusty Filaments In The North American Nebula

The North American Nebula, the popular name for NGC 7000, is an emission nebula in Cygnus. It is a popular target for amateur astrophotography. Here I show a photo that was taken by an amateur Jonathan Talbot which has been modified to show the dust lanes and filaments. Compare this with the original photo from his website here. By comparing the two photos you can see that the photo on Jonathan’s website is overexposed and does not show the network of dust filaments that create a mottled and chaotic appearance. The use of prolonged exposure overcomes the obscuration that they create, but they are present in profusion. Notice in particular the network of filaments that is in the north western part of the North American nebula. This was first seen by the author in a very old photo taken with the Burrell Telescope and which appears as Figure 96 on page 209 of the Milky Way, Second Edition, 1946 by Bok and Bok. The dark filaments are seen more effectively in photographs taken by amateur astronomers, because they have telescopes that do not produce over-exposures.

Here is a good example of a photograph that shows the filaments in the western part of the North American nebula very well. In this photo, there is a lot of obscuration by dark dust filaments. The effect gives the impression that there is something wrong with the camera and the CCD detector. That is not the cause. The cause is foreground filaments running mainly from the upper left to the bottom. There is more than one system of filaments that are overlapping. A second system is running roughly across the nebula from left to right. In addition there are others that cross in many different directions. The result is a filigree pattern that overlies the bright nebula in the background. The effect is to make it seem like we are viewing the nebula through a diaphanous or gossamer cobweb that lies in front of the nebula. The obscuration is easily mistaken for a distortion or defect in the camera. This was a common opinion in the early days when film had many defects, but with modern CCDs that explanation is ruled out.

The technique that was used to reveal the dust filaments in the photo of the North American Nebula was to reduce the brightness, because most astronomical photographs are very overexposed, and to increase the contrast, to enhance the appearance of the foreground dust. In some case an adjustment brush was used to mask a section of the photograph to make it darker or lighter, so as to bring out the foreground dust. Since most modern photographs are overexposed and use sensitive CCD sensors, the modern photographs are too overexposed to see the foreground dust. Older photographs can sometimes reveal the foreground dust much better for two reasons. First the films used were less sensitive and second they were more sensitive in the blue than the red. This means that the older photographs show the dust filaments better than the modern ones taken with CCDs, that are unfortunately overexposed. Fortunately, because CCDs are linear, modern photos can sometimes be adjusted to make them darker using software tools, and as I show here, the foreground dust can be recovered even though the photo is overexposed.

Dust Filaments In Globular Clusters

Omega Centauri
Omega Centauri

The history of the observation of dust filaments in globular clusters is discussed in detail in a paper by Morton S. Roberts. Prior to this, Helen Sawyer Hogg  discussed the problem and she expressed her belief that the dust filaments seen in projection were really foreground obscuring material and not optical illusions. It is evident that the general consensus of astronomers is against the conclusion that the appearance of globular clusters is influenced by foreground dust filaments seen against the clusters in background. However, this is what the author concluded from a very comprehensive examination of many photos of globular clusters.

The belief of the author is that the reality of the dust filaments can not be demonstrated by their presence against globular clusters if one only considers them and not the other evidence. That is because, while the dust filaments are easily seen, they require some training of the eye to see. This aspect of training the eye, is obviously controversial. Skeptics can dismiss what can be seen as illusions. In the paper by the author reporting the discovery of dust filaments, some basic techniques were described by which the eye could be trained to see the dust filaments against the globular clusters. The reality of these filaments is assured by the fact that they have been reported in published professional journals. The consensus is that they are real obscuring dust. The controversy is whether the dust is in the foreground or in the cluster. Attempts to confirm that the dust is in the clusters have not been successful. So the conclusion that it is foreground dust as advocated by Helen Sawyer Hogg is vindicated.

The photograph at the top of the page has been processed in software to enhance the appearance of the dust filaments present in projection against the bright background of the companion galaxy to The Andromeda Galaxy (NGC 205). Attempts to use a similar approach with the globular cluster Omega Centauri were not as effective. The primary technique that permits the dust filaments to become visible is to adjust the brightness and contrast. This can be done using a computer monitor by changing the angle of the screen relative to the viewer’s line of sight. The other way to see the filaments is to note that in the photo, there is a parallel system that is nearly horizontal and another system of parallel filaments that is almost vertical. To enlarge the photos, you will need to click on the photo.

M15 By NOAO After Software Editing
M15 By NOAO After Software Editing. Click on photo to enlarge

In the original paper the technique for identifying foreground dust filaments was to examine photographs of different exposure. In the shorter exposures, dust filaments were seen as well as in the long exposures, but in the long exposures the center of the cluster was overexposed, and filaments could not be seen. The photo of M15 included here has been adjusted in software to show the dust filaments in the central region of the globular cluster M15. This is one of the clusters cited by Helen Sawyer Hogg in her paper as having significant dust clouds. The technique was to use an adjustment brush to reduce the brightness of the central region. This was done in three different steps. The result is not perfect in that it doesn’t give an even brightness across the cluster, but it demonstrates that this technique is useful for showing the dust in the center of the cluster, which is usually overexposed. In the photo, if you examine it carefully, you can see the dust filaments crossing the center of the cluster. You should notice that there are filaments crossing the cluster in many different directions. Some horizontally and some vertically and others diagonally. This is why I call these filaments cobwebs of space, because of the intricate crisscrossing patterns that they form.

The reader should note that if he sits at a computer he may not be able to see the filaments very well. There are some tips that the author has learned that helps to see the filaments. One is to adjust the viewing angle of the monitor by tilting the monitor backwards. Another is to stand back from the monitor by five or six feet and view the screen from different directions. Sometimes it is much better to view the photo from a distance and try to relax your eyes and not focus on a particular part of the photo.

When looking for the striations and the textured appearance that is caused by the network of dust filaments in the foreground, I suggest that you take a look at this photograph of the sun taken through a spider cobweb. If you look closely to the way the sun is diffracted by the cobweb you will see that it resembles the appearance of the Omega Centauri globular cluster. Therefore it seems that the dust filaments give a kind of “texture” to the photos that can be seen when the photographs of globular clusters and Milky Way star fields are examined closely.

M13 processed using On One Photo Suite 9.5 to Reveal Network of Dust Filaments
M13 processed using On One Photo Suite 9.5 to Reveal Network of Dust Filaments

Those of you who don’t think that interstellar dust filaments exist because you can not see them, will probably insist that they are an illusion. The problem here is that according to science, something that exists, or in the scientific viewpoint, that can be proved to exist must be something that can be “objectively” measured. This attitude blinds science to the existence of the filamentary network in the interstellar medium, because you have to be able to see the filaments, which is a sophisticated form of sense perception, before you can contemplate how to make measurements of them.  This is because, science doesn’t trust human perception, and only trusts machine produced “objective” measurements.  The main objective of this work is therefore, to develop methods that make the filaments more amiable to human visualization. Here is a photograph of globular cluster Messier 13. For anyone who is a patient observer of astronomical photo graphs, this object is know for its internal dust clouds. These dark “lanes” can be seen with telescopes of 4 inch aperture as shown in the drawing by John H. Mallas  on page 54 of The Messier Album. Unfortunately, modern photographs do not show the foreground dust patters as well as they should. Here is a photo by Mike van den Berg of M13 and the image given here to the right is my adjustment of the JPEG image that is designed to bring out the network of foreground dust filaments. The method used in this photo was to make the brightness uniform across the face of the cluster. An adjustment brush technique was used to progressively reduce the brightness from the outskirts to the bright center.

Dark Filaments In The Milky Way

When this writer first began the study of dust clouds, the main source of photographs were popular astronomy books and magazines. The Milky Way, cited above, by Bok and Bok is a useful book full of Milky Way photographs that show the foreground dust filaments. It is when looking at these that the concept of cobwebs of space takes on meaning. There is a profusion of dust filaments that covers the entire Milky Way. The older photographs tend to show the filaments much better than the modern ones do, however, so it pays to study them. Unfortunately, they are not readily available on the internet, and so you will have to consult the books. A good place to start is to to look at the references in my Report On The Discovery Of Interstellar Dust Filaments.

A example of a modern Milky Way mosaic is the work done by Axel Mellinger. His Panarama of the Milky Way is a beautiful resource, but it is unfortunately not the best for viewing the cobwebs of space that I am talking about, because the photos are, as usual, overexposed.

Lets take a look at a modern photograph of the Milky Way Cygnus region, which was discussed by Minkowski as quoted above. Here is a wide field view of the entire Cygnus region. These are overexposed, but if we turn down the brightness the filaments can be seen if one looks carefully. Here is an interesting Milky Way photo by the same person that shows the filaments in the Milky Way as vertical striations in the background. What is puzzling is the lack of attention that has been given to the filaments and the crisscrossing cobweb like appearance in Milky Way photographs. Hopefully this lack of interest will not be continued.

Here is another example of a typical wide field Milky Way photo. This one shows the Milky Way from Sagittarious to Cygnus. Here is the same photo after being adjusted to maximize the presence of the interstellar dust filaments. The first photo is overexposed and too bright to show the long and tine filaments. The second one is a bit darker and does a better job of showing the filaments. A very famous portion of the Milky Way is shown in this photograph of the Carina region. It contains a profusion of filaments but the photograph does not show them very well. The photo has been processed to decrease the brightness and increase the contrast. The result is shown in this photograph.

Dust Filaments In Galaxy Photographs

ngc253 copy
NGC 253 Processed Using On One Software

The third main type of example where dust filaments were observed by professional astronomers, but their significance was not realized, are the external galaxies. An examination of the Hubble Atlas by A. Sandage shows a number of instances where foreground dust filaments were observed in projection against the background of a galaxy. The example of NGC 205 mentioned above is an example of this. In the Hubble Atlas there are at least six places where dust filaments were commented upon. These entries are: NGC 4111, NGC 7332, NGC 7275, NGC 3627, M81 or NGC 3031, and M51 or NGC 5194.

The presence of foreground dust filaments is difficult to establish if one uses the modern photographs found on the internet in great profusion. I discovered them in galaxy photos that were published many years ago in astronomy magazines by amateur astronomers. In the early days of amateur astrophotography, telescopes were slow and films were were not as sensitive as modern CCDs. In addition the better films were sensitive in the blue and they tended to reveal the foreground dust much better than today’s CCDs. Here I am going to discuss the photographs in an early compendium of amateur photographs published in 1978, by John R. Sanford, Astrophoto Biennial 77-78. This book is available for purchase at Amazon and other book outlets. The compendium leads off with a photo by Alexander Paul of NGC 253, followed by M83 and M33. In all three photos, there are large obvious foreground dark patches that are not part of the background galaxy. These are clearly foreground dust and they are made obvious by the fact that the exposure is not long enough to overcome them and reveal the background luminous galaxy. The photo shown here to the right is a software modified photo of NGC 253 taken by NOAO. Here is the original photo before processing. Most of the dust in this photo is foreground dust projected onto NGC253. That is known form two different sources of information. One is the photo in Astrophoto Biennial, that shows the foreground dust because the photo is not exposed long enough to overcome the obscuration, and the other is that if you look closely, you see that the dust lanes cut across the spiral arms and do not follow the spiral patten of the underlying galaxy.

NGC891-Subaru-HST-LL copy copy copy

The galaxy M83 or NGC5236, is another example of obvious foreground dust as shown in the Biennial on page 4. There the bottom part of M83 is obviously darkened by foreground dust because that part of the galaxy is much darker than the rest of it.  Here is a surprising photo that shows the dark patch on the right hand side of the galaxy image, shown as a very dark dust pattern overlying the red spiral arms. We would not see this as being foreground dust if it had not been previously made evident by the older photo in the Astrophoto Biennial. On page 9 of the Biennial there is a photo by K. Alexander Brownlee of M101. This shows obvious foreground dust. This dust is also well shown in the modern color photo shown here. Look closely and you can see that a very large portion of M101 is obscured by foreground dust. In the Biennial, there are photographs of M33 on pages 4, 16, 26, and 39. The photo on page 4 shows the foreground dust clouds best. Comparison is complicated by the fact that the photo on page four is not in the same orientation as the others.

Can We Continue To Ignore The Cobwebs Of Space?

It has been 35 years since the Report On The Discovery Of Interstellar Dust Filaments was written and submitted for publication to an Astronomy Journal. During that time absolutely no progress has been made towards a recognition of the existence of the filamentary like nature of the obscuring dust that pervades the interstellar medium of our galaxy. During that 35 years the author has tried to interest many amateur and professional astronomers in this problem, but it seems that science is not ready for new discoveries that may change the current established thinking.

About the Author

Harry Hamlin Ricker III
Mind Blown: Criticial Thinker and Science Writer not afraid to take on mainstream science news
Profession: Electrical Engineering, Science Writer
Interest: Write and critique current and dissident theory