Intergalactic Connection is Older, Longer than Thought

Article written: 4 Jan , 2010
Updated: 24 Dec , 2015
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Our galaxy has a streamer, though it’s not like the ones you had on your bike as a kid: this streamer is a flow of largely hydrogen gas that originates in the Large and Small Magellanic Clouds, two of our closest galactic neighbors. New observations of the stream have helped to revise its age and extent, and show it to be longer and much older than previous estimates.

The Magellanic Stream, which was discovered over 30 years ago, flows from the two galaxies closest to the Milky Way, the Large and Small Magellanic Clouds. These clouds, which are actually two irregular dwarf galaxies, are 150,000 to 200,000 light-years away, and are visible in the southern hemisphere.

The stream connects up with the Milky Way about 70,000 light years from the Solar System, in the constellation of the Southern Cross.

Using the Green Bank Telescope (GBT), a team of astronomers took over 100 hours of observations of the streamer. These observations were combined with those from other radio telescopes, including the Aricebo telescope in Puerto Rico, to further constrain both its extent and age.

Their observations were presented at the American Astronomical Society’s meeting in Washington D.C., and a paper has been submitted to the Astrophysical Journal. The team included David Nidever and Steven Majewski of the Department of Astronomy at the University of Virginia, Butler Burton of the Leiden Observatory and the National Radio Astronomy Observatory and Lou Nigra of the University of Wisconsin.

Previous observations of the stream showed it to have gaps between the Magellanic Clouds and where it enters the Milky Way, but these revised observations show it to be one continuous stream between the three galaxies. The stream is also at least forty percent longer that previously estimated.

The Magellanic Stream was also determined by the astronomers to be much older than had been estimated before: up from 1.75 billion years old to 2.5 billion years old. Just how does this long-lived intergalactic trail of hydrogen crumbs start off in the Magellanic Clouds?

“The new age of the stream puts its beginning at about the time when the two Magellanic Clouds may have passed close to each other, triggering massive bursts of star formation. The strong stellar winds and supernova explosions from that burst of star formation could have blown out the gas and started it flowing toward the Milky Way,” said David Nidever in a NRAO press release.

By getting a better picture of how the gas flows from the Magellanic Clouds into the Milky Way, astronomers have been able to determine with better accuracy just how far away the two galaxies are, as well as their  interactions with the tidal forces of the Milky Way.

This team has collaborated before on the exploration of the Magellanic Stream and its origins. You can read about their previous findings on Arxiv right here, which were also published in the Astrophysical Journal.

Source: NRAO press release

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1 Response

  1. Greg says

    This is a fascinating discovery with numerous important ramifications. It shouldn’t be all that surprising though. It just goes to show you that there is more to a galaxy than just the stars. The location where the streamer is intersecting with the galaxy will see an intense burst of star formation in the not so distant future (on galactic time scales.)

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