PHILADELPHIA, JAN. 14 -- NASA's Cosmic Background Explorer (COBE) satellite has produced a new map of our home galaxy, the Milky Way, showing in unprecedented detail how critical elements are distributed.

The results, announced here today, should greatly enhance scientists' understanding of the stuff between the stars, shedding new light on how stars came to be in the first place and how they continue to form.

The new galactic map shows that the volume of ionized (electrically charged) nitrogen atoms -- which pervade the entire Milky Way -- is two to three times the level expected.

More important, COBE's instruments determined the precise telltale wavelength of ionized nitrogen, an element whose emission cools overheated interstellar clouds in much the same way that perspiration removes heat from the human body.

Knowing this specific radiation "signature" may aid in solving a persistent mystery: What happens to the clouds of gas and dust that form between stars?"We're seeing those clouds evaporate," said Edward Wright of UCLA, a COBE scientist. "But how long do they last? How fast do they move? And what are the processes involved?"END NOTES

In addition to giving scientists the first complete map of how nitrogen is distributed in the galaxy and a key wavelength for studying how interstellar clouds evolve, the new survey is expected to help improve COBE's accuracy in achieving its larger goal: measuring the cosmic background radiation left over from the Big Bang, the primal explosion believed to have created the universe some 15 billion years ago.