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).
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.