When galaxies collide, stars are thrown from orbits, spiral arms are stretched and twisted, and now scientists say galaxies ring like a bell long after the cosmic crash.
A team of astronomers from the United States and Canada say they have heard echoes of that ringing, possible evidence of a galactic encounter 100 million years ago when a small satellite galaxy or dark matter object passed through the Milky Way Galaxy; close to our position in the galaxy, as if a rock were thrown into a still pond causing the stars to bounce up and down on the waves. Their results were published in the Astrophysical Journal Letters.
“We have found evidence that our Milky Way had an encounter with a small galaxy or massive dark matter structure perhaps as recently as 100 million years ago,” said Larry Widrow, professor at Queen’s University in Canada. “We clearly observe unexpected differences in the Milky Way’s stellar distribution above and below the Galaxy’s midplane that have the appearance of a vertical wave — something that nobody has seen before.”
Astronomers took observations from about 300,000 nearby stars in the Sloan Digital Sky Survey. Stars move up and down at 20-30 kilometers per second while see-sawing around the galaxy at 220 kilometers per second. By comparison, the International Space Station putters around Earth at 7.71 kilometers per second; Voyager 1, the fastest man-made object, currently is leaving the solar system at about 17.46 kilometers per second. Widrow and colleagues at the University of Kentucky, The University of Chicago and Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory found that the positions of nearby stars is not quite as regular as previously thought. The team noticed a small but statistically significant difference in the distribution of stars above and below the midplane of the Milky Way.
“Our part of the Milky Way is ringing like a bell,” said Brian Yanny, of the Department of Energy’s Fermilab. “But we have not been able to identify the celestial object that passed through the Milky Way. It could have been one of the small satellite galaxies that move around the center of our galaxy, or an invisible structure such as a dark matter halo.”
Susan Gardner, professor of physics at the University of Kentucky added, “The perturbation need not have been a single isolated event in the past, and it may even be ongoing. Additional observations may well clarify its origin.”
Other possibilities considered for the variations were the effect of interstellar dust or simply the way the stars were selected in the survey. But as those events failed to explain fully the observations, the astronomers began to explore possible recent events in the history of the galaxy.
More than 20 visible satellite galaxies circle the Milky Way. Invisible satellites made up of dark matter, hypothetical matter that cannot be seen but is thought to make up a majority of the mass of the Universe, might also orbit our galaxy. Scientists believe that most of the mass orbiting the galaxy is in the form of dark matter. Using computer simulations to explore the effects of a small galaxy or dark matter structure passing through the disk of the Milky Way, the scientists developed a clearer picture of the see-saw effects they were seeing.
In terms of the nine-billion lifetime of the Milky Way Galaxy, the effects are short-lived. This part of the galaxy has been “ringing” for 100 million years and will continue for 100 million years more as the up-and-down motion dissipates, say the astronomers – unless we are hit again.
Image caption: The Small Magellanic Cloud is one of 20 visible satellite galaxies that orbit the Milky Way Galaxy. Astronomers report that a smaller counterpart or dark matter object passed through the Milky Way near our position about 100 million years ago.
John Williams is owner of TerraZoom, a Colorado-based web development shop specializing in web mapping and online image zooms. He also writes the award-winning blog, StarryCritters, an interactive site devoted to looking at images from NASA’s Great Observatories and other sources in a different way. A long-time science writer and space enthusiast, he created award-winning Hubble Star Cards. Use coupon code UNIVERSE to Hold the Universe in your hands. Follow John on Twitter @terrazoom.