Star Birth and Death in the Andromeda Galaxy

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To the naked eye, the Andromeda galaxy appears as a smudge of light in the night sky. But to the combined powers of the Herschel and XMM-Newton space observatories, these new images put Andromeda in a new light! Together, the images provide some of the most detailed looks at the closest galaxy to our own. In infrared wavelengths, Herschel sees rings of star formation and XMM-Newton shows dying stars shining X-rays into space.

During Christmas 2010, the two ESA space observatories targeted Andromeda, a.k.a. M31.

Andromeda is about twice as big as the Milky Way but very similar in many ways. Both contain several hundred billion stars. Currently, Andromeda is about 2.2 million light years away from us but the gap is closing at 500,000 km/hour. The two galaxies are on a collision course! In about 3 billion years, the two galaxies will collide, and then over a span of 1 billion years or so after a very intricate gravitational dance, they will merge to form an elliptical galaxy.

Let’s look at each of the images:

Herschel’s view in far-infrared:

Andromeda in far-infrared from Herschel. Credits: ESA/Herschel/PACS/SPIRE/J. Fritz, U. Gent

Sensitive to far-infrared light, Herschel sees clouds of cool dust and gas where stars can form. Inside these clouds are many dusty cocoons containing forming stars, each star pulling itself together in a slow gravitational process that can last for hundreds of millions of years. Once a star reaches a high enough density, it will begin to shine at optical wavelengths. It will emerge from its birth cloud and become visible to ordinary telescopes.

Many galaxies are spiral in shape but Andromeda is interesting because it shows a large ring of dust about 75,000 light-years across encircling the center of the galaxy. Some astronomers speculate that this dust ring may have been formed in a recent collision with another galaxy. This new Herschel image reveals yet more intricate details, with at least five concentric rings of star-forming dust visible.

XMM Newton’s view in X-rays

XMM Newton's view in X-Ray. Credits: ESA/XMM-Newton/EPIC/W. Pietsch, MPE

Superimposed on the infrared image is an X-ray view taken almost simultaneously by ESA’s XMM-Newton observatory. Whereas the infrared shows the beginnings of star formation, X-rays usually show the endpoints of stellar evolution.

XMM-Newton highlights hundreds of X-ray sources within Andromeda, many of them clustered around the centre, where the stars are naturally found to be more crowded together. Some of these are shockwaves and debris rolling through space from exploded stars, others are pairs of stars locked in a gravitational fight to the death.

In these deadly embraces, one star has already died and is pulling gas from its still-living companion. As the gas falls through space, it heats up and gives off X-rays. The living star will eventually be greatly depleted, having much of its mass torn from it by the stronger gravity of its denser partner. As the stellar corpse wraps itself in this stolen gas, it could explode.

Together, the infrared and X-ray images show information that is impossible to collect from the ground because these wavelengths are absorbed by Earth’s atmosphere. Visible light shows us the adult stars, whereas infrared gives us the youngsters and X-rays show those in their death throes.