Star Formation in the Center of the Milky Way Started at the Core and Then Worked its way out

False-color image of the region Sagittarius B1, as seen by the GALACTICNUCLEUS survey. Credit & ©: F. Nogueras-Lara et al. / MPIA

One of the biggest questions facing astronomers today concerns star formation and its role in the evolution of galaxies. In particular, astronomers are curious whether the process began in the central regions of galaxies, where stars are more tightly bound. Previous observations have shown that numerous galaxies experienced intense periods of star formation in their centers roughly one billion years after the Big Bang. For some time, astronomers have wanted to conduct similar observations of the Milky Way’s Galactic Center to study rapid star formation more closely.

Unfortunately, it has been very difficult for astronomers to study the center of the Milky Way because of how bright and densely packed the region is, which makes it difficult to discern individual stars and clusters. Thanks to a new analysis of a high-resolution infrared survey, a team of astronomers has created the first reconstruction of the star formation history in the Galactic Center. According to their findings, most young stars in this region formed in loose stellar associations that dispersed outwards to fill the Galactic Disk over the course of many eons (as opposed to tightly-knit massive clusters).

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Is This the Future of the Milky Way?

The central region of the giant elliptical galaxy NGC 474. It's set against a backdrop of more distant galaxies. Will the Milky Way resemble this galaxy in the distant future? This image was taken using the Hubble Advanced Camera for Surveys, and includes data from the Wide Field and Planetary Camera 3. (Courtesy NASA/STScI.)
The central region of the giant elliptical galaxy NGC 474. It’s set against a backdrop of more distant galaxies. Will the Milky Way resemble this galaxy in the distant future? This image was taken using the Hubble Advanced Camera for Surveys, and includes data from the Wide Field and Planetary Camera 3. (Courtesy NASA/STScI.)

Take a good look at the latest image provided by the Hubble Space Telescope. It shows a huge elliptical galaxy called NGC 474 that lies about 100 million light-years away from us. At about two and a half times larger than our Milky Way Galaxy, it’s really a behemoth. Notice its strange structure—mostly featureless and nearly round, but with layered shells wrapped around the central core. Astronomers want to know what caused these shells. The answer might be in what this galaxy represents: a vision of the future Milky Way and the Andromeda Galaxy.

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Slimmed Down Red Giants Had Their Mass Stolen By a Companion Star

Millions of stars that can grow up to 620 million miles in diameter, known as ‘red giants,’ exist in our galaxy, but it has been speculated for a while that there are some that are possibly much smaller. Now a team of astronomers at the University of Sydney have discovered several in this category and have published their findings in the journal Nature Astronomy.

“It’s like finding Wally… we were extremely lucky to find about 40 slimmer red giants, hidden in a sea of normal ones. The slimmer red giants are either smaller in size or less massive than normal red giants.”

PhD candidate Mr Yaguang Li from the University of Sydney, as quoted from the source article.
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The Milky Way has an Inner Ring, Just Outside the Core

This image from the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope reveals a spiral galaxy named Messier 95 (also known as M95 or NGC 3351). Located about 35 million light-years away in the constellation of Leo (The Lion), this swirling spiral was discovered by astronomer Pierre Méchain in 1781, and catalogued by French astronomer Charles Messier just four days later. Messier was primarily a comet hunter, and was often left frustrated by objects in the sky that resembled comets but turned out not to be. To help other astronomers avoid confusing these objects in the future, he created his famous catalogue of Messier objects. Most definitely not a comet, Messier 95 is actually a barred spiral galaxy. The galaxy has a bar cutting through its centre, surrounded by an inner ring currently forming new stars. Also our own Milky Way is a barred spiral. As well as hosting this stellar nursery, Messier 95 is a known host of the dramatic and explosive final stages in the lives of massive stars: supernovae. In March 2016 a spectacular supernova named SN 2012aw was observed in the outer regions of one of Messier 95’s spiral arms. Once the light from the supernova had faded, astronomers were able to compare observations of the region before and after the explosion to find out which star had “disappeared” — the progenitor star. In this case, the star was an especially huge red supergiant up to 26 times more massive than the Sun.

In the past century, astronomers have learned a great deal about the cosmos and our place in it. From discovering that the Universe is in a constant state of expansion to the discovery of the Cosmic Microwave Background (CMB) and the Big Bang cosmological model, our perception of the cosmos has expanded immensely. And yet, many of the most profound astronomical discoveries still occur within our cosmic backyard – the Milky Way Galaxy.

Compared to other galaxies, which astronomers can resolve with relative ease, the structure and size of the Milky Way have been the subject of ongoing discovery. The most recent comes from the Max Planck Institute for Extraterrestrial Physics (MPE), where scientists have found a previously undiscovered inner ring of metal-rich stars just outside the Galactic Bar. The existence of this ring has revealed new insights into star formation in this region of the galaxy during its early history.

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Part of the Milky Way Is Much Older Than Previously Believed

Basic structure of our home galaxy, edge-on view. The new results from ESA's Gaia mission provide for a reconstruction of the history of the Milky Way, in particular of the evolution of the so-called thick disc. Image Credit: Stefan Payne-Wardenaar / MPIA

The Milky Way is older than astronomers thought, or part of it is. A newly-published study shows that part of the disk is two billion years older than we thought. The region, called the thick disk, started forming only 0.8 billion years after the Big Bang.

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Astronomers Scan the Center of the Milky Way for Any Sign of Intelligent Civilizations. Nothing but Silence.

This is an image of the center of the Milky Way. The bright white area right of center is home of the supermassive black hole Sagittarius A star. Image Credit: By NASA/JPL-Caltech/ESA/CXC/STScI - http://photojournal.jpl.nasa.gov/catalog/PIA12348See also http://www.spacetelescope.org/images/opo0928a/ and http://hubblesite.org/newscenter/archive/releases/2009/28/image/a/, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=24958921

Are there civilizations somewhere else in the Universe? Somewhere else in the Milky Way? That’s one of our overarching questions, and an answer in the affirmative would be profound.

Humanity’s pursued the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI) in one form or another since shortly after the advent of radio waves in the early 20th century. Efforts have waxed and waned over the decades, but the search has never been completely abandoned.

The search detected transient hints in the form of unexplained radio waves in the past, but nothing that comprises reliable evidence. Now a new search for technosignatures in the Milky Way’s center has turned up nothing.

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Nearby Supernovae Exploded Just a few Million Years Ago, Leading to a Wave of Star Formation Around the Sun

Artist's illustration of the Local Bubble with star formation occurring on the bubble's surface. Scientists have now shown how a chain of events beginning 14 million years ago with a set of powerful supernovae led to the creation of the vast bubble, responsible for the formation of all young stars within 500 light years of the Sun and Earth. Credit: Leah Hustak (STScI)

The Sun isn’t the only star in this galactic neighbourhood. Other stars also call this neighbourhood home. But what’s the neighbourhood’s history? What triggered the birth of all those stars?

A team of astronomers say they’ve pieced the history together and identified the trigger: a series of supernovae explosions that began about 14 million years ago.

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The Milky Way’s Most Recent Meal was a Galaxy it Gobbled up 8-10 Billion Years ago

Gaia-Enceladus in a simulation of a galactic merger with the Milky Way matching Gaia data. Credit: ESA (artist’s impression and composition); Koppelman, Villalobos and Helmi (simulation)

A central aspect of galactic evolution is that they must eat or be eaten. Dark energy strives to push galaxies apart, but gravity tries to pull them together. As a result, galaxies tend to form into local groups. As these superclusters of galaxies become more isolated due to cosmic expansion, they gravitationally turn on each other, and in time the largest galaxies of the group will consume the smaller ones. The Milky Way is one of the larger galaxies in our local group, and so it has consumed smaller galaxies in the past. But piecing together the history of these galactic meals is a real challenge.

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An Incredible View Into the Heart of the Small Magellanic Cloud

A radio-telescope image of the Small Magellanic Cloud reveals more detail than ever seen before. Image Credit: N. Pingel et al.

The Small Magellanic Cloud (SMC) is over 200,000 light-years away, yet it’s still one of our galaxy’s closest neighbours in space. Ancient astronomers knew of it, and modern astronomers have studied it intensely. But the SMC still holds secrets.

By studying it and revealing its structure in more detail, astronomers at The Australian National University hope to grow our understanding of the SMC and galaxies in general.

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A Detailed Scan of the Milky Way Finds Possible “Fossil” Spiral Arms

Looking deep into the Universe, the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope catches a passing glimpse of the numerous arm-like structures that sweep around this barred spiral galaxy, known as NGC 2608. Appearing as a slightly stretched, smaller version of our Milky Way, the peppered blue and red spiral arms are anchored together by the prominent horizontal central bar of the galaxy. In Hubble photos, bright Milky Way stars will sometimes appear as pinpoints of light with prominent lens flares. A star with these features is seen in the lower right corner of the image, and another can be spotted just above the pale centre of the galaxy. The majority of the fainter points around NGC 2608, however, lack these features, and upon closer inspection they are revealed to be thousands of distant galaxies. NGC 2608 is just one among an uncountable number of kindred structures. Similar expanses of galaxies can be observed in other Hubble images such as the Hubble Deep Field which recorded over 3000 galaxies in one field of view.

As we learn more about the cosmos, it’s interesting how some of the greatest discoveries continue to happen close to home. This is expected to continue well into the future, where observations of Cosmic Dawn and distant galaxies will take place alongside surveys of the outer Solar System and our galaxy. In this latter respect, the ESA’s Gaia observatory will continue to play a vital role. As an astrometry mission, Gaia has been to determine the proper position and radial velocity of over a billion stars to create a three-dimensional map of the Milky Way.

Using data from Gaia’s third early Data Release (eDR3) and Legacy Survey data – from the Sloan Digital Sky Survey (SDSS) – an international team of astronomers created a new map of the Milky Way’s outer disk. In the process, they discovered evidence of structures in this region that include the remnants of fossil spiral arms. This discovery will shed new light on the formation and history of the Milky Way and may lead to a breakthrough in our understanding of galactic evolution.

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