Thanks to Gaia, We Now Know Exactly When We’ll be Colliding with Andromeda

The trajectories of the Milky Way, Andromeda, and the Triangulam galaxies. Image Credit: E. Patel, G. Besla (University of Arizona), R. van der Marel (STScI)

Astronomers have known for some time that the Milky Way and the Andromeda galaxies will collide on some future date. The best guess for that rendezvous has been about 3.75 billion years from now. But now a new study based on Data Release 2 from the ESA’s Gaia mission is bringing some clarity to this future collision.

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Check out this Amazing Picture of the Triangulum Galaxy by Hubble.

This gigantic image of the Triangulum Galaxy — also known as Messier 33 — is a composite of about 54 different pointings with Hubble’s Advanced Camera for Surveys. With a staggering size of 34 372 times 19 345 pixels, it is the second-largest image ever released by Hubble. It is only dwarfed by the image of the Andromeda Galaxy, released in 2015. The mosaic of the Triangulum Galaxy showcases the central region of the galaxy and its inner spiral arms. Millions of stars, hundreds of star clusters and bright nebulae are visible. This image is too large to be easily displayed at full resolution and is best appreciated using the zoom tool.

To the unaided eye, the Triangulum Galaxy is just a smudge in the night sky. But it’s a smudge that contains about 40 billion stars. It also contains some very active star-forming regions, which have attracted the eyes of astronomers.

The Triangulum has a couple other names: Messier 33 and NGC 598. But Triangulum is the easier name to remember. (It’s also sometimes called the “Pinwheel Galaxy.”) But whatever name you choose to call it, this Hubble image brings it to life.

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New Research Reveals How Galaxies Stay Hot and Bothered

It’s relatively easy for galaxies to make stars. Start out with a bunch of random blobs of gas and dust. Typically those blobs will be pretty warm. To turn them into stars, you have to cool them off. By dumping all their heat in the form of radiation, they can compress. Dump more heat, compress more. Repeat for a million years or so.

Eventually pieces of the gas cloud shrink and shrink, compressing themselves into a tight little knots. If the densities inside those knots get high enough, they trigger nuclear fusion and voila: stars are born.

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Gaia Spots an Enormous Ghost Galaxy Right Next Door that’s Being Dismantled by the Milky Way

From left to right: Large Magellanic Cloud, the Milky Way, and Antlia 2, our next door neighbor and so-called ghost galaxy. Credit: V. Belokurov based on the images by Marcus and Gail Davies and Robert Gendler

Astronomers combing through data from the ESA’s Gaia spacecraft have discovered what they’re calling a ghost galaxy. The galaxy, named Antlia 2 (Ant 2) is an extremely low-density dwarf galaxy that was formed in the early days of the universe. And it is being stripped of its mass by the tidal forces of the Milky Way.
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Has a New Dwarf Galaxy Been Found Hiding Behind Andromeda?

The Andromeda Galaxy will collide with the Milky Way in the future. Credit: Adam Evans

One of the greatest challenges of astronomy is locating objects in space that are obscured by the light of nearby, brighter objects. In addition to making extra-solar planets very difficult to directly image, this problem also intrudes on surveys of the local Universe, where astronomers are unable to detect dwarf and isolated galaxies because of all the brighter ones surrounding them.

Because of this, astronomers are unable to do a full inventory of small galaxies in the volume of space surrounding the Milky Way (aka. the Local Volume). However, thanks to the efforts of an amateur astronomer and an international team of scientists, a dwarf spheroidal galaxy was recently discovered lurking behind the Andromeda Galaxy. The discovery of this object, named Donatiello I, could help astronomers learn more about the process of galaxy formation.

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The Milky Way Could Be Spreading Life From Star to Star

For almost two centuries, scientists have theorized that life may be distributed throughout the Universe by meteoroids, asteroids, planetoids, and other astronomical objects. This theory, known as Panspermia, is based on the idea that microorganisms and the chemical precursors of life are able to survive being transported from one star system to the next.

Expanding on this theory, a team of researchers from the Harvard Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics (CfA) conducted a study that considered whether panspermia could be possible on a galactic scale. According to the model they created, they determined that the entire Milky Way (and even other galaxies) could be exchanging the components necessary for life.

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This Beautiful Photo of Galaxy NGC 3981 was Taken by the Most Powerful Telescope in the World for no Scientific Reason at all. Just Because it’s Pretty

The world’s most powerful telescopes have a lot of work to do. They’re tasked with helping us unravel the mysteries of the universe, like dark matter and dark energy. They’re burdened with helping us find other habitable worlds that might host life. And they’re busy with a multitude of other tasks, like documenting the end of a star’s life, or keeping an eye on meteors that get too close to Earth.

But sometimes, they have to take a break.
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We’re in the Milky Way’s Second Life. Star Formation was Shut Down for Billions of Years

Since the birth of modern astronomy, scientists have sought to determine the full extent of the Milky Way galaxy and learn more about its structure, formation and evolution. According to current theories, it is widely believed that the Milky Way formed shortly after the Big Bang (roughly 13.51 billion years ago). This was the result of the first stars and star clusters coming together, as well as the accretion of gas directly from the Galactic halo.

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Andromeda Shredded and Consumed a Massive Galaxy About Two Billion Years Ago

Scientists have long understood that in the course of cosmic evolution, galaxies become larger by consuming smaller galaxies. The evidence of this can be seen by observing galactic halos, where the stars of cannibalized galaxies still remain. This is certainly true of the Andromeda Galaxy (aka. M31, Earth’s closest neighbor) which has a massive and nearly-invisible halo of stars that is larger than the galaxy itself.

For some time, scientists believed that this halo was the result of hundreds of smaller mergers. But thanks to a new study by a team of researchers at the University of Michigan, it now appears that Andromeda’s halo is the result of it cannibalizing a massive galaxy some two billion years ago. Studying the remains of this galaxy will help astronomers understand how disk galaxies (like the Milky Way) evolve and survive large mergers.

The study, titled “The Andromeda galaxy’s most important merger about 2 billion years ago as M32’s likely progenitor“, recently appeared in the scientific journal Nature. The study was conducted by Richard D’Souza, a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Michigan and the Vatican Observatory; and Eric F. Bell, the Arthur F. Thurnau Professor at the University of Michigan.

In this image, the Andromeda galaxy shreds the large galaxy M32p, which eventually resulted in M32 and a giant halo of stars. Credit: Richard D’Souza. Credit: AAS/IOP/Wei-Hao Wang

Using computer models, Richard D’Souza and Eric Bell were able to piece together how a once-massive galaxy (named M32p) disrupted and eventually came to merge with Andromeda. From their simulations, they determined that M32p was at least 20 times larger than any galaxy that has merged with the Milky Way over the course of its lifetime.

M32p would have therefore been the third-largest member of the Local Group of galaxies, after the Milky Way and Andromeda galaxies, and was therefore something of a “long-lost sibling”. However, their simulations also indicated that many smaller companion galaxies merged with Andromeda over time. But for the past, Andromeda’s halo is the result of a single massive merger. As D’Souza explained in a recent Michigan News press statement:

“It was a ‘eureka’ moment. We realized we could use this information of Andromeda’s outer stellar halo to infer the properties of the largest of these shredded galaxies. Astronomers have been studying the Local Group—the Milky Way, Andromeda and their companions—for so long. It was shocking to realize that the Milky Way had a large sibling, and we never knew about it.”

This study will not only help astronomers understand how galaxies like the Milky Way and Andromeda grew through mergers, it might also shed light on a long-standing mystery – which is how Andromeda’s satellite galaxy (M32) formed. According to their study, D’Souza and Bell believe that M32 is the surviving center of M32p, which is what remained after its spiral arms were stripped away.

Messier 31 (the Andromeda Galaxy), along with Messier 32 and Messier 110. Credit: Wikisky

“M32 is a weirdo,” said Bell. “While it looks like a compact example of an old, elliptical galaxy, it actually has lots of young stars. It’s one of the most compact galaxies in the universe. There isn’t another galaxy like it.” According to D’Souza and Bell, this study may also alter the traditional understanding of how galaxies evolve. In astronomy, conventional wisdom says that large interactions would destroy disk galaxies and form elliptical galaxies.

But if Andromeda did indeed survive an impact with a massive galaxy, it would indicate that this is not the case. The timing of the merger may also explain recent research findings which indicated that two billion years ago, the disk of the Andromeda galaxy thickened, leading to a burst in star formation. As Bell explained:

“The Andromeda Galaxy, with a spectacular burst of star formation, would have looked so different 2 billion years ago. When I was at graduate school, I was told that understanding how the Andromeda Galaxy and its satellite galaxy M32 formed would go a long way towards unraveling the mysteries of galaxy formation.”

In the end, this method could also be used to study other galaxies and determine which were the most massive mergers they underwent. This could allow scientists to better understand the complicated process that drives galaxy growth and how mergers affect galaxies. This knowledge will certainly come in handy when it comes to determining what will happen to our galaxy when it merges with Andromeda in a few billion years.

Further Reading: Michigan News