Astronomers Discover Hundreds of High-Velocity Stars, Many on Their Way Out of the Milky Way

Within our galaxy, there are thousands of stars that orbit the center of the Milky Way at high velocities. On occasion, some of them pick up so much speed that they break free of our galaxy and become intergalactic objects. Because of the extreme dynamical and astrophysical processes involved, astronomers are most interested in studying these stars – especially those that are able to achieve escape velocity and leave our galaxy.

However, an international team of astronomers led from the National Astronomical Observatories of China (NAOC) recently announced the discovery of 591 high-velocity stars. Based on data provided by the Large Sky Area Multi-Object Fiber Spectroscopic Telescope (LAMOST) and the ESA’s Gaia Observatory, they indicated that 43 of these stars are fast enough to escape the Milky Way someday.

The study was published in The Astrophysical Journal Supplement Series on Dec. 17th. The study was led by Dr. LI Yinbi, an NAOC astronomer, and included researchers from the Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS), the Max-Planck Institute for Astronomy (MPIA), the Institute for Advanced Study, the European Southern Observatory (ESO), the ExtantFuture Technology Co., the Institute of Statistical Mathematics in Tokyo, and multiple universities.

An artist’s conception of a hypervelocity star that has escaped the Milky Way. Credit: NASA

In terms of astrophysical studies, high-velocity stars are a relatively recent discovery. The first was observed in 2005, and in the subsequent 15 years, over 550 have been discovered by multiple observatories. From these, astronomers have been able to deduce four subclasses of high-velocity stars, which include: hypervelocity stars, runaway stars, hyper-runaway stars, and fast halo stars.

This latest discovery is especially significant then because it effectively doubles the number of known high-velocity stars, which are quite rare in our galaxy. “The 591 high-velocity stars discovered this time doubled the total number previously discovered, bringing the current total number exceeding 1,000,” said Dr. Li.

Hypervelocity stars (HVS), the fastest of the bunch, are especially interesting because they have achieved relativistic speeds (a fraction of the speed of light). In fact, astronomers have estimated that with the right kind of gravitational acceleration, hypervelocity stars can reach 1/10th to 1/3rd the speed of light – roughly 30,000 to 100,000 km/s (18,640 to 62,130 mi/s).

It is these stars that have the escape velocity needed to leave the Milky Way. Said Prof. LU Youjun from NAOC, a co-author of this paper:

“Though rare in the Milky Way, high-velocity stars, with unique kinematics, can provide deep insight into a wide range of Galactic science, from the central supermassive black hole to distant Galactic halo.”

The positions and reconstructed orbits of 20 high-velocity stars, represented on top of an artistic view of the Milky Way. Credit: ESA/Marchetti et al. 2018/NASA/ESA/Hubble

“Rare” is certainly an apt description. According to previous estimates made by astrophysicists, there are likely to be just 1000 HVS in our galaxy (that’s 0.0000005 % of the galactic population). But given their speed and the vast distances they travel, tracking these stars and creating a database of their movements could tell us a great deal about a number of cosmic mysteries.

For the sake of their study, the international team relied in part on data provided by LAMOST. In addition to being the largest optical telescope in China, LAMOST has the highest spectral acquisition rate of any telescope in the world and can observe about 4,000 celestial objects in a single exposure. Since it began conducting surveys in 2012, it has established the world’s largest spectra database.

In addition, the team relied on astrometric measurements performed by the Gaia Observatory, which was launched by the European Space Agency (ESA) in 2013. Since then, it has gathered information on the location, proper motion, and velocity of over 1.3 billion celestial objects, making it the largest astrometric database in the world. Both observatories and their massive databases have been invaluable in the detection and study of HVS.

Based on the motion and composition of the objects they observed, the research team identified 591 HVS that originated in the Milky Way’s inner halo. “Their low metallicities indicate that the bulk of the stellar halo formed as a consequence of the accretion and tidal disruption of dwarf galaxies,” said co-author Prof. Zhao Gang of the CAS School of Astronomy and Space Science.

One of the greatest takeaways from this study the way it demonstrates how combining multiple large surveys can lead to the discovery of rare objects. In the future, astronomers will be able to draw from even larger databases containing survey data provided by next-generation instruments. This data will be especially useful in the study of Dark Matter, the mysterious mass that constitutes 27% of the mass-energy density of the Universe.

By tracking the movement of HVS, astrophysicists will be able to better constrain the shape of the Milky Way’s dark matter halo. In addition, they could tell us a great deal about the formation and evolution of the Milky Way itself, as HVS are believed to be the result of galactic mergers and other extreme gravitational forces (i.e. supermassive holes). Having more to study could therefore help astronomers create a history of past galactic mergers.

It has also been ventured that HVS could allow astrophysicists to accurately constrain the mass of our galaxy, something that remains unresolved. On top of all that, previous research has indicated that HVS can carry their planetary systems with them, which could be one of the ways that life is spread throughout the cosmos (intergalactic panspermia).

Further Reading: Chinese Academy of Sciences, The Astrophysical Journal

Matt Williams

Matt Williams is a space journalist and science communicator for Universe Today and Interesting Engineering. He's also a science fiction author, podcaster (Stories from Space), and Taekwon-Do instructor who lives on Vancouver Island with his wife and family.

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