When you stir cream in your coffee or tea, does the swirl stay the same or does it change as it spins in your cup? As galaxies form and swirl, the motions and eddies may actually cause stars to move within the galaxy. A long-standing scientific belief holds that stars tend to hang out in the same general part of a galaxy where they originally formed. But some astrophysicists have recently questioned whether that is true, and now new simulations show that, at least in galaxies similar to our own Milky Way, stars such as the sun can migrate great distances. If this is true, it could change the entire notion that there are parts of galaxies â€“ so-called habitable zones â€“ that are more conducive to supporting life than other areas.
“Our view of the extent of the habitable zone is based in part on the idea that certain chemical elements necessary for life are available in some parts of a galaxy’s disk but not others,” said Rok RoÅ¡kar, a doctoral student in astronomy at the University of Washington. “If stars migrate, then that zone can’t be a stationary place.”
RoÅ¡kar is lead author of a paper describing the findings from the simulations, published in the Sept. 10 edition of the Astrophysical Journal Letters. If the idea of habitable zone doesn’t hold up, it would change scientists’ understanding of just where, and how, life could evolve in a galaxy, he said.
Using more than 100,000 hours of computer time on a UW computer cluster and a supercomputer at the University of Texas, the scientists ran simulations of the formation and evolution of a galaxy disk from material that had swirled together 4 billion years after the big bang. Watch a simulation video.
The simulations begin with conditions about 9 billion years ago, after material for the disk of our galaxy had largely come together but the actual disk formation had not yet started. The scientists set basic parameters to mimic the development of the Milky Way to that point, but then let the simulated galaxy evolve on its own.
If a star, during its orbit around the center of the galaxy, is intercepted by a spiral arm of the galaxy, scientists previously assumed the star’s orbit would become more erratic in the same way that a car’s wheel might become wobbly after it hits a pothole.
However, in the new simulations the orbits of some stars might get larger or smaller but still remain very circular after hitting the massive spiral wave. Our sun has a nearly circular orbit, so the findings mean that when it formed 4.59 billion years ago (about 50 million years before the Earth), it could have been either nearer to or farther from the center of the galaxy, rather than halfway toward the outer edge where it is now.
Migrating stars also help explain a long-standing problem in the chemical mix of stars in the neighborhood of our solar system, which has long been known to be more mixed and diluted than would be expected if stars spent their entire lives where they were born. By bringing in stars from very different starting locations, the sun’s neighborhood has become a more diverse and interesting place, the researchers said.
The findings are based on a few runs of the simulations, but the scientists plan to run a range of simulations with varying physical properties to generate different kinds of galactic disks, and then determine whether stars show similar ability to migrate large distances within different types of disk galaxies.
Source: University of Washington