The Magellenic Clouds Stay Connected By A String Of Stars

This image shows the two "bridges" that connect the Large and Small Magellanic Clouds. The white line traces the bridge of stars that flows between the two dwarf galaxies, and the blue line shows the gas. Image: V. Belokurov, D. Erkal and A. Mellinger
This image shows the two "bridges" that connect the Large and Small Magellanic Clouds. The white line traces the bridge of stars that flows between the two dwarf galaxies, and the blue line shows the gas. Image: V. Belokurov, D. Erkal and A. Mellinger

Astronomers have finally observed something that was predicted but never seen: a stream of stars connecting the two Magellanic Clouds. In doing so, they began to unravel the mystery surrounding the Large Magellanic Cloud (LMC) and the Small Magellanic Cloud (SMC). And that required the extraordinary power of the European Space Agency’s (ESA) Gaia Observatory to do it.

The Large and Small Magellanic Clouds (LMC and SMC) are dwarf galaxies to the Milky Way. The team of astronomers, led by a group at the University of Cambridge, focused on the clouds and on one particular type of very old star: RR Lyrae. RR Lyrae stars are pulsating stars that have been around since the early days of the Clouds. The Clouds have been difficult to study because they sprawl widely, but Gaia’s unique all-sky view has made this easier.

Small and Large Magellanic Clouds over Paranal Observatory Credit: ESO/J. Colosimo

The Mystery: Mass

The Magellanic Clouds are a bit of a mystery. Astronomers want to know if our conventional theory of galaxy formation applies to them. To find out, they need to know when the Clouds first approached the Milky Way, and what their mass was at that time. The Cambridge team has uncovered some clues to help solve this mystery.

The team used Gaia to detect RR Lyrae stars, which allowed them to trace the extent of the LMC, something that has been difficult to do until Gaia came along. They found a low-luminosity halo around the LMC that stretched as far as 20 degrees. For the LMC to hold onto stars that far away means it would have to be much more massive than previously thought. In fact, the LMC might have as much as 10 percent of the mass that the Milky Way has.

The Large Magellanic Cloud. Image: Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=57110

The Arrival of the Magellanic Clouds

That helped astronomers answer the mass question, but to really understand the LMC and SMC, they needed to know when the clouds arrived at the Milky Way. But tracking the orbit of a satellite galaxy is impossible. They move so slowly that a human lifetime is a tiny blip compared to them. This makes their orbit essentially unobservable.

But astronomers were able to find the next best thing: the often predicted but never observed stellar stream, or bridge of stars, stretching between the two clouds.

A star stream forms when a satellite galaxy feels the gravitational pull of another body. In this case, the gravitational pull of the LMC allowed individual stars to leave the SMC and be pulled toward the LMC. The stars don’t leave at once, they leave individually over time, forming a stream, or bridge, between the two bodies. This action leaves a luminous tracing of their path over time.

The astronomers behind this study think that the bridge actually has two components: stars stripped from the SMC by the LMC, and stars stripped from the LMC by the Milky Way. This bridge of RR Lyrae stars helps them understand the history of the interactions between all three bodies.

A Bridge of Stars… and Gas

The most recent interaction between the Clouds was about 200 million years ago. At that time, the Clouds passed close by each other. This action formed not one, but two bridges: one of stars and one of gas. By measuring the offset between the star bridge and the gas bridge, they hope to narrow down the density of the corona of gas surrounding the Milky Way.

Mystery #2: The Milky Way’s Corona

The density of the Milky Way’s Galactic Corona is the second mystery that astronomers hope to solve using the Gaia Observatory.

The Galactic Corona is made up of ionised gas at very low density. This makes it very difficult to observe. But astronomers have been scrutinizing it intensely because they think the corona might harbor most of the missing baryonic matter. Everybody has heard of Dark Matter, the matter that makes up 95% of the matter in the universe. Dark Matter is something other than the normal matter that makes up familiar things like stars, planets, and us.

The other 5% of matter is baryonic matter, the familiar atoms that we all learn about. But we can only account for half of the 5% of baryonic matter that we think has to exist. The rest is called the missing baryonic matter, and astronomers think it’s probably in the galactic corona, but they’ve been unable to measure it.

A part of the Small Magellanic Cloud galaxy is dazzling in this image from NASA’s Great Observatories. The Small Magellanic Cloud is about 200,000 light-years way from our own Milky Way spiral galaxy. Credit: NASA.

Understanding the density of the Galactic Corona feeds back into understanding the Magellanic Clouds and their history. That’s because the bridges of stars and gas that formed between the Small and Large Magellanic Clouds initially moved at the same speed. But as they approached the Milky Way’s corona, the corona exerted drag on the stars and the gas. Because the stars are small and dense relative to the gas, they travelled through the corona with no change in their velocity.

But the gas behaved differently. The gas was largely neutral hydrogen, and very diffuse, and its encounter with the Milky Way’s corona slowed it down considerably. This created the offset between the two streams.

Eureka?

The team compared the current locations of the streams of gas and stars. By taking into account the density of the gas, and also how long both Clouds have been in the corona, they could then estimate the density of the corona itself.

When they did so, their results showed that the missing baryonic matter could be accounted for in the corona. Or at least a significant fraction of it could. So what’s the end result of all this work?

It looks like all this work confirms that both the Large and Small Magellanic Clouds conform to our conventional theory of galaxy formation.

Mystery solved. Way to go, science.

Will Gaia Be Our Next Big Exoplanet Hunter?

ESA's Gaia is currently on a five-year mission to map the stars of the Milky Way. Image credit: ESA/ATG medialab; background: ESO/S. Brunier.

Early on the morning of Dec. 19, 2013, the pre-dawn sky above the coastal town of Kourou in French Guiana was briefly sliced by the brilliant exhaust of a Soyuz VS06 rocket as it ferried ESA’s “billion-star surveyor” Gaia into space, on its way to begin a five-year mission to map the precise locations of our galaxy’s stars. From its position in orbit around L2 Gaia will ultimately catalog the positions of over a billion stars… and in the meantime it will also locate a surprising amount of Jupiter-sized exoplanets – an estimated 21,000 by the end of its primary mission in 2019.

And, should Gaia continue observations in extended missions beyond 2019 improvements in detection methods will likely turn up even more exoplanets, anywhere from 50,000 to 90,000 over the course of a ten-year mission. Gaia could very well far surpass NASA’s Kepler spacecraft for exoplanet big game hunting!

“It is not just the number of expected exoplanet discoveries that is impressive”, said former mission project scientist Michael Perryman, lead author on a report titled Astrometric Exoplanet Detection with Gaia. “This particular measurement method will give us planet masses, a complete exoplanet survey around all types of stars in our Galaxy, and will advance our knowledge of the existence of massive planets orbiting far out from their host stars”.

Watch: ESA’s Gaia Launches to Map the Milky Way

Artist's impression of a Jupiter-sized exoplanet orbiting an M-dwarf star
Artist’s impression of a Jupiter-sized exoplanet orbiting an M-dwarf star

The planets Gaia will be able to spot are expected to be anywhere from 1 to fifteen times the mass of Jupiter in orbit around Sun-like stars out to a distance of about 500 parsecs (1,630 light-years) from our own Solar System. Exoplanets orbiting smaller red dwarf stars will also be detectable, but only within about a fifth of that distance.

While other space observatories like NASA’s Kepler and CNES/ESA’s CoRoT were designed to detect exoplanets through the transit method, whereby a star’s brightness is dimmed ever-so-slightly by the silhouette of a passing planet, Gaia will detect particularly high-mass exoplanets by the gravitational wobble they impart to their host stars as they travel around them in orbit. This is known as the astrometric method.

A select few of those exoplanets will also be transiting their host stars as seen from Earth – anywhere from 25 to 50 of them – and so will be observable by Gaia as well as from many ground-based transit-detection observatories.

Read more: Gaia is “Go” for Science After a Few Minor Hiccups

After some issues with stray light sneaking into its optics, Gaia was finally given the green light to begin science observations at the end of July and has since been diligently scanning the stars from L2, 1.5 million km from Earth.

With the incredible ability to measure the positions of a billion stars each to an accuracy of 24 microarcseconds – that’s like measuring the width of a human hair from 1,000 km – Gaia won’t be “just” an unprecedented galactic mapmaker but also a world-class exoplanet detector! Get more facts about the Gaia mission here. 

The team’s findings have been accepted for publication in The Astrophysical Journal.

Source: ESA

Keeping An Eye On Gaia

ESA's Gaia spacecraft as seen by the VLT (Credit: ESO)

Gaia, ESA’s long-anticipated mission to map the stars of our galaxy (as well as do a slew of other cool science things) is now tucked comfortably in its position in orbit around Earth-Moon L2, a gravitationally stable spot in space 1.5 million km (932,000 miles) away.

Once its mission begins in earnest, Gaia will watch about a billion stars an average of 70 times each over a five-year span… that’s 40 million observations every day. It will measure the position and key physical properties of each star, including its brightness, temperature and chemical composition, and help astronomers create the most detailed 3D map of the Milky Way ever.

But before Gaia can do this, its own position must be precisely determined. And so several of the world’s most high-powered telescopes are trained on Gaia, keeping track daily of exactly where it is up to an accuracy of 150 meters… which, with the ten-meter-wide spacecraft one and a half million kilometers away, isn’t too shabby.

Called GBOT, for Ground Based Orbit Tracking, the campaign to monitor Gaia’s position was first set up in 2008 — long before the mission launched. This allowed participating observatories to practice targeting on other existing spacecraft, like NASA’s WMAP and ESA’s Planck space telescopes.

The image above shows an image of Gaia (circled) as seen by the European Southern Observatory’s Very Large Telescope Survey Telescope (VST) atop Cerro Paranal in Chile, one of the supporting observatories in the GBOT campaign. The images were taken with the 2.6-meter Survey Telescope’s 268-megapixel OmegaCAM on Jan. 23, 6.5 minutes apart. With just the reflected sunlight off its circular sunshield, the distant spacecraft is about a million times fainter than what your eyes could see unaided.

Gaia mapping the stars of the Milky Way. (ESA/ATG medialab; background: ESO/S. Brunier)
Gaia mapping the stars of the Milky Way. (ESA/ATG medialab; background: ESO/S. Brunier)

It’s also one the closest objects ever imaged by the VST.

Currently Gaia is still undergoing calibration for its survey mission. Some problems have been encountered with stray sunlight reaching its detectors, and this may be due to the angle of the sunshield being a few degrees too high relative to the Sun. It could take a few weeks to implement an orientation correction; read more on the Gaia blog here.

Read more: Ghostly Cat’s Eye Nebula Shines In Space Telescope Calibration Image

Of the billion stars Gaia will observe, 99% have never had their distances accurately measured. Gaia will also observe 500,000 distant quasars, search for brown dwarfs and exoplanets, and will conduct experiments testing Einstein’s General Theory of Relativity. Find out more facts about the mission here.

Gaia launched on December 19, 2013, aboard a Soyuz VS06 from ESA’s spaceport in Kourou, French Guiana. Watch the launch here.

Source: ESA

Watch Gaia Go From Lab to Launch in Two Minutes

In the early pre-dawn hours on December 19, 2013, with a rumble and a roar, a Soyuz rocket blazed through the clouds above the jungle-lined coast of French Guiana, ferrying ESA’s long-awaited Gaia spacecraft into orbit and beginning its mission to map the stars of the Milky Way. The fascinating time-lapse video above from ESA shows the Gaia spacecraft inside the clean room unfurling like a flower during its sunshield deployment test, the transfer of the Soyuz from the assembly building to the pad, and then its ultimate fiery liftoff.

That’s a lot going on in two minutes! But once nestled safely in its L2 orbit 1.5 million kilometers out, Gaia will have over five years to complete its work… read more here.

Credit: ESA–S. Corvaja, M. Pedoussaut, 2013. Source: ESA