Back in 1988, astronomer Jack Hills predicted a type of “rogue”star might exist that is not bound to any particular galaxy. These stars, he reasoned, were periodically ejected from their host galaxy by some sort of mechanism to begin traveling through interstellar space.
Since that time, astronomers have made numerous discoveries that indicate these rogue, traveling stars indeed do exist, and far from being an occasional phenomenon, they are actually quite common. What’s more, some of these stars were found to be traveling at extremely high speeds, leading to the designation of hypervelocity stars (HVS).
And now, in a series of papers that published in arXiv Astrophysics, two Harvard researchers have argued that some of these stars may be traveling close to the speed of light. Known as semi-relativistic hypervelocity stars (SHS), these fast-movers are apparently caused by galactic mergers, where the gravitational effect is so strong that it fling stars out of a galaxy entirely. These stars, the researchers say, may have the potential to spread life throughout the Universe.
This finding comes on the heels of two other major announcements. The first occurred in early November when a paper published in the Astrophysical Journal reported that as many as 200 billion rogue stars have been detected in a cluster of galaxies some 4 billion light years away. These observations were made by the Hubble Space Telescope’s Frontier Fields program, which made ultra-deep multiwavelength observations of the Abell 2744 galaxy cluster.
This was followed by a study published in Science, where an international team of astronomers claimed that as many as half the stars in the entire universe live outside of galaxies.
However, the recent observations made by Abraham Loeb and James Guillochon of Harvard University are arguably the most significant yet concerning these rogue celestial bodies. According to their research papers, these stars may also play a role in spreading life beyond the boundaries of their host galaxies.
In their first paper, the researchers trace these stars to galaxy mergers, which presumably lead to the formation of massive black hole binaries in their centers. According to their calculations, these supermassive black holes (SMBH) will occasionally slingshot stars to semi-relativistic speeds.
“We predict the existence of a new population of stars coasting through the Universe at nearly the speed of light,” Loeb told Universe Today via email. “The stars are ejected by slingshots made of pairs of massive black holes which form during mergers of galaxies.”
These findings have further reinforced that massive compact bodies, widely known as a supermassive black holes (SMBH), exist at the center of galaxies. Here, the fastest known stars exist, orbiting the SMBH and accelerating up to speeds of 10,000 km per second (3 percent the speed of light).
According to Leob and Guillochon, however, those that are ejected as a result of galactic mergers are accelerated to anywhere from one-tenth to one-third the speed of light (roughly 30,000 – 100,000 km per second).
Observing these semi-relativistic stars could tell us much about the distant cosmos, according to the Harvard researchers. Compared to conventional research, which relied on subatomic particles like photons, neutrinos, and cosmic rays from distant galaxies, studying ejected stars offers numerous advantages.
“Traditionally, cosmologists used light to study the Universe but objects moving less than the speed of light offer new possibilities,” said Loeb. “For example, stars moving at different speeds allow us to probe a distant source galaxy at different look-back times (since they must have been ejected at different times in order to reach us today), in difference from photons that give us just one snapshot of the galaxy.”
In their second paper, the researchers calculate that there are roughly a trillion of these stars out there to be studied. And given that these stars were detected thanks to the Spitzer Space Telescope, it is likely that future generations will be able to study them using more advanced equipment.
All-sky infrared surveys could locate thousands of these stars speeding through the cosmos. And spectrographic analysis could tell us much about the galaxies they came from.
But how could these fast moving stars be capable of spreading life throughout the cosmos?
“Tightly bound planets can join the stars for the ride,” said Loeb. “The fastest stars traverse billions of light years through the universe, offering a thrilling cosmic journey for extra-terrestrial civilizations. In the past, astronomers considered the possibility of transferring life between planets within the solar system and maybe through our Milky Way galaxy. But this newly predicted population of stars can transport life between galaxies across the entire universe.”
The possibility that traveling stars and planets could have been responsible for the spread of life throughout the universe is likely to have implications as a potential addition to the Theory of Panspermia, which states that life exists throughout the universe and is spread by meteorites, comets, asteroids.
But Loeb told Universe Today that a traveling planetary system could have potential uses for our species someday.
“Our descendants might contemplate boarding a related planetary system once the Milky Way will merge with its sister galaxy, Andromeda, in a few billion years,” he said.
Matt Williams is the Curator of Universe Today’s Guide to Space. He is also a freelance writer, a science fiction author and a Taekwon-Do instructor. He lives with his family on Vancouver Island in beautiful British Columbia.