When you imagine the collision of galaxies, you probably think of something violent and transformational. Spiral arms ripped apart, stars colliding, cats and dogs living together, mass hysteria. The reality is much less dramatic. As a recent study shows, our galaxy is in a collision right now.
Although the big collision between the Milky Way and the Andromeda Galaxy is still yet to come, our galaxy has undergone galactic collisions in the past. The most well-understood collision is that between the Milky Way and the Sagittarius Dwarf Galaxy. This small galaxy first impacted the Milky Way about 6 billion years ago and may have triggered the star-forming period that produced our Sun.
But collisions on a galactic scale are slow and tedious. Over billions of years, the core of the Sagittarius galaxy has struck the Milky Way a few times as it is gradually ripped apart. It can now be seen as arcs of stars encircling our galaxy. It stands to reason that such an ancient collision is long over, but this recent study shows it still has ripple effects on the Milky Way. Literally.
The team used data from the Gaia spacecraft and looked at the motion of stars near the outer edge of the Milky Way. The velocities of these stars showed a rippled distribution of motion, created by Sagittarius the way a dropped stone might trigger ripples on a pond. Overall the stars at the outer edge of the Milky Way are not in gravitational equilibrium, which is a fancy way of saying our galaxy is still feeling the effects of the collision.
The team was surprised by the level of detail the Gaia data provided. By measuring the positions of more than two billion stars, and the motions of more than 30 million, Gaia has given the team a kind of galactic seismology that can be used to trace the dynamic history and evolution of the Milky Way.
Galactic collisions are dramatic on cosmic scales. They are a central process of galactic evolution that can trigger star formation, black hole mergers, and the formation of large elliptical galaxies. But as this latest work shows, on a human scale, it’s all just another day for life on Earth.
Reference: McMillan, Paul J., et al. “The disturbed outer Milky Way disc.” Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society 516.4 (2022): 4988–5002.