Milky Way Arm Wrestles With Dark Matter

by Tammy Plotner on September 15, 2011

Computer model of the Milky Way and its smaller neighbor, the Sagittarius dwarf galaxy. The flat disk is the Milky Way, and the looping stream of material is made of stars torn from Sagittarius as a result of the strong gravity of our galaxy. The spiral arms began to emerge about two billion years ago, when the Sagittarius galaxy first collided with the Milky Way disk. Image by Tollerud, Purcell and Bullock/UC Irvine

For a good number of years, astronomers have hypothesized the Sagittarius Dwarf Galaxy has been loaded up with dark matter. As one of our nearest neighboring galaxies and part of our local group, Sag DEG has been hanging around for billions of years and may have orbited us as many as ten times. However, in order to survive the tidal strain of such interaction, this loop-shaped elliptical has got to have some muscle. Now UC Irvine astronomers are speculating on how these close encounters may have shaped the Milky Way’s spiral arms.

In a study released in today’s Nature publication, astronomers are citing telescopic data and computer modeling to show how our local galactic collision has sent streams of stars out in loops in both galaxies. These long streamers continue to collect stellar members and the rotation of the Milky Way forms them into our classic spiral pattern. The news is the presence of dark matter in Sag DEG is responsible for the initial push.

“It’s kind of like putting a fist into a bathtub of water as opposed to your little finger,” said James Bullock, a theoretical cosmologist who studies galaxy formation.

But the little Sagittarius Dwarf, as strong as the dark matter might be, isn’t going to win this cosmic arm wrestling match. Each time we interact, the small galaxy gets further torn apart and about all that’s left is four globular clusters and a smattering of old stars which spans roughly 10,000 light-years in diameter.

“When all that dark matter first smacked into the Milky Way, 80 percent to 90 percent of it was stripped off,” explained lead author Chris Purcell, who did the work with Bullock at UCI and is now at the University of Pittsburgh. “That first impact triggered instabilities that were amplified, and quickly formed spiral arms and associated ring-like structures in the outskirts of our galaxy.”

Will we meet again? Yes. The Sagittarius galaxy is due to strike the southern face of the Milky Way disk fairly soon, Purcell said – in another 10 million years or so.

Original Story Source: University of Irvine News. Further Reading: The Sagittarius impact as an architect of spirality and outer rings in the Milky Way.

About 

Tammy is a professional astronomy author, President Emeritus of Warren Rupp Observatory and retired Astronomical League Executive Secretary. She’s received a vast number of astronomy achievement and observing awards, including the Great Lakes Astronomy Achievement Award, RG Wright Service Award and the first woman astronomer to achieve Comet Hunter's Gold Status.

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