Gaia Sees Stars Out in Deep Space, Flying Between Galaxies

In December of 2013, the European Space Agency (ESA) launched the Gaia mission. Since that time, this space observatory has been busy observing over 1 billion astronomical objects in our galaxy and beyond – including stars, planets, comets, asteroids, quasars, etc. – all for the sake of creating the largest and most precise 3D space catalog ever made.

The ESA has also issued two data releases since then, both of which have led to some groundbreaking discoveries. The latest comes from the Leiden Observatory, where a team of astronomers used Gaia data to track what they thought were high-velocity stars being kicked out of the Milky Way, but which actually appeared to be moving into our galaxy.

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Astronomers are Tracking the Interstellar Asteroid ‘Oumuamua to its Home System

On October 19th, 2017, the Panoramic Survey Telescope and Rapid Response System-1 (Pan-STARRS-1) in Hawaii announced the first-ever detection of an interstellar asteroid – I/2017 U1 (aka. ‘Oumuamua). Since that time, multiple studies have been conducted to determine the asteroid’s origin, what it encountered in interstellar space, its true nature (is it a comet or an asteroid?), and whether or not it is an alien spacecraft (it’s not).

In all this time, the question of  ‘Oumuamua’s origin has remained unanswered. Beyond theorizing that it came from the direction of the Lyra Constellation, possibly from the Vega system, there have been no definitive answers. Luckily, an international team led by researchers from the Max Planck Institute for Astronomy (MPIA) have tracked ‘Oumuamua and narrowed down its point of origin to four possible star systems.

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This is a 3D map of 400,000 Hot Massive Stars Located Within 10,000 Light-Years From the Sun, Thanks to Gaia!

In December of 2013, the European Space Agency (ESA) launched the Gaia mission, a space observatory designed to measure the positions of movements of celestial bodies. Over the course of its five-year mission, this observatory has been studying a total of 1 billion objects – including distant stars, planets, comets, asteroids, quasars, etc. – for the sake of creating the largest and most precise 3D space catalog ever made.

Continue reading “This is a 3D map of 400,000 Hot Massive Stars Located Within 10,000 Light-Years From the Sun, Thanks to Gaia!”

There are so Many Water-Worlds Out There

Ever since the first exoplanet was confirmed in 1992, astronomers have found thousands of worlds beyond our Solar System. With more and more discoveries happening all the time, the focus of exoplanet research has begun to slowly shift from exoplanet discovery to exoplanet characterization. Essentially, scientists are now looking to determine the composition of exoplanets to determine whether or not they could support life.

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Gaia Turns Up 13,928 White Dwarfs Nearby the Sun, Including Several Formed Through Mergers

In 2013, the European Space Agency (ESA) deployed the Gaia mission, a space observatory designed to measure the positions of movements of celestial bodies. For the past four years, Gaia has been studying distant stars, planets, comets, asteroids, quasars and other astronomical objects, and the data it has acquired will be used to construct the largest and most precise 3D space catalog ever made, totaling 1 billion objects.

The second release of Gaia data, which took place on April 25th, 2018, has already resulted in a number of impressive discoveries. The latest was made by an international team of scientists who identified 13,928 white dwarfs within 100 parsecs (326 light-years) of the Sun, many of which were formed through mergers. This is the first time that white dwarf stars have been directly detected within the Solar neighborhood.

The study which describes their findings, “Gaia Reveals Evidence for Merged White Dwarfs“, recently appeared online and is being considered for publication in the Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society. The study was led by Dr. Mukremin Kilic, an associate professor at the University of Oklahoma, and included members from the Institute for Astronomy at the University of Edinburgh and the University of Montreal.

Artist impression of colliding white dwarfs. Credit: CfA

Basically, white dwarfs are what become of the majority of stars (with masses less than 8 Solar masses) once they exit the main sequence phase of their lives. This consists of a star exhausting its hydrogen fuel and expanding to several times its size (entering its Red Giant Branch Phase). These stars then blow off their external layers (a supernova) and leaving behind a white dwarf remnant.

By studying them, astronomers can learn far more about the life cycle of stars and how they evolve. As Dr. Kilic explained to Universe Today via email:

“[W]e’re basically doing Galactic archaeology when we study nearby white dwarfs. They tell us about the ages and star formation histories of the Galactic disk and halo. More importantly, white dwarfs explode as a Type Ia supernova when they reach 1.4 times the mass of the Sun. We use these supernovae to study the shape of the Universe and conclude that the expansion of the universe is accelerating. However, we have not yet found the progenitor systems of these supernovae. One of the channels to form Type Ia supernovae is through mergers of white dwarfs. Hence, the direct detection of merged white dwarfs is important for understanding the frequency of these white dwarf mergers.”

However, until recently only a few hundred white stars have been found within the local galactic neighborhood (500 within a 40 parsec radius). In addition, astronomers were only able to obtain accurate parallax (distance) measurements for about half of these. But thanks to the Gaia data, the number of white dwarfs systems that astronomers are able to study has increased exponentially.

Artist’s impression of a white dwarf star in orbit around Sirius (a white supergiant). Credit: NASA, ESA and G. Bacon (STScI)

“Gaia provided distance measurements,” said Kilic. “We can now create complete samples of white dwarfs within a given volume. For example, prior to Gaia, we only knew about 100 white dwarfs within 20 parsecs of the Sun. With Gaia Data Release 2, we identified more than 13,000 white dwarfs within 100 parsecs of the Sun. The difference in numbers is amazing!”

The Gaia data was also helpful in determining the nature of these white dwarf systems and how they formed. As they indicate in their study, previous research has shown that the majority of white dwarf stars in our local galaxy (roughly 56%) are the product of single-star evolution, whereas 7 to 23% were the product of mergers between binaries. The remainder were white dwarf binaries, or binaries with one white dwarf and a main sequence star.

Using the Gaia data – which included the color and distribution data of thousands of white dwarf stars within ~326 light-years of the Sun – the team was able to determine how massive these stars are. This, in turn, provided vital clues as to how they formed, which indicated that mergers were far more common than previous studies suggested. As Kilic explained:

“Massive white dwarfs tend to be smaller, which means that they are also fainter (since they have a smaller surface area). Since Gaia gave us a complete sample of white dwarfs within 100 parsecs of the Sun, for the first time, we were able to derive the magnitude distribution (hence the mass distribution) of thousands of white dwarfs and find a large fraction of massive white dwarfs. We see that the number of massive white dwarfs is significantly higher than expected from single star evolution. Therefore, we concluded that many of these massive white dwarfs actually formed through mergers in previously binary systems.”

Artist’s impression of white dwarf binary pair CSS 41177. Credit: Andrew Taylor.

From this, the team was able to assemble the first reliable Hertzsprung-Russell Diagram for nearby field white dwarf stars, as well as estimates on how often white dwarf binaries merge. As Kilic indicated, this could have significant implications for other areas of astronomical study.

“Based on the frequency of these single white dwarfs that formed through mergers, we can estimate how many white dwarf mergers occur on average and with what mass distribution,” he said. “We can then infer the rate of Type Ia supernovae from these mergers and see if it’s enough to explain part or all of the Ia supernova explosions. This is an ongoing area of research and I’m sure we will some results on these very soon.”

These findings are yet another gem to come from the second Gaia data release, which has proven to be a treasure trove for astronomers. The third release of Gaia data is scheduled to take place in late 2020, with the final catalog being published in the 2020s. Meanwhile, an extension has already been approved for the Gaia mission, which will now remain in operation until the end of 2020 (to be confirmed at the end of this year).

Further Reading: arXiv

One Bonus From the Gaia Data Release: the Rotation of the Large Magellanic Cloud

On December 19th, 2013, the European Space Agency’s (ESA) Gaia spacecraft took to space with for a very ambitious mission. Over the course of its planned 5-year mission (which was recently extended), this space observatory would map over a billion stars, planets, comets, asteroids and quasars in order to create the largest and most precise 3D catalog of the Milky Way ever created.

Since that time, the ESA has made two data releases that cover the first three years of the Gaia mission. The second data release, which took on April 25th, 2018, has already proven to be a treasure trove for astronomers. In addition to the positions, distance indicators and motions of over a billion stars and celestial objects in the Milky Way Galaxy, it also contained a hidden gem – the proper motions of stars within the Large Magellanic Cloud (LMC).

Located about 200,000 light-years from Earth, the LMC has dense clouds of dust that results in it experiencing high rates of star formation. In addition, it’s central bar is warped (where the east and west ends are nearer to the Milky Way), suggesting that it was once a barred dwarf spiral galaxy who’s spiral arms were disrupted by interaction with the Small Magellanic Cloud (SMC) and the Milky Way.

The proper motions of the stars in the LMC, as captured by the Gaia spacecraft (without color). Copyright: ESA/Gaia/DPAC

For these reasons, astronomers have been hoping to derive the orbits of dwarf galaxies (and globular clusters) that revolve around the Milky Way. In so doing, they hope to learn more about how our galaxy evolved due to mergers with clusters and other galaxies. By determining the proper motions of the LMC’s stars, the Gaia mission has provided clues as to how the Milky Way and its largest satellite galaxy have interacted over time.

As you can see from the image (at top), the bar of the LMC is outlined in great detail, along with individual star-forming regions like the Tarantula Nebula (aka. 30 Doradus, which is visible just above the center of the galaxy). The image combines the total amount of radiation detected by the observatory in each pixel. The radiation measurements were then taken through different filters on the spacecraft to generate color information.

This allowed Gaia to obtain information about the total density of stars within the LMC as well as their proper motions. As you can see, the image is dominated by the brightest, most massive stars, which greatly outshine their fainter, lower-mass counterparts. The proper motions of the stars observed is represented as the texture of the image – which looks a lot like a fingerprint.

The Large Magellanic Cloud (LMC), one of the nearest galaxies to our Milky Way, as viewed by ESA’s Gaia satellite using information from the mission’s second data release. Copyright ESA/Gaia/DPAC

From this, scientists were able to see an imprint of the stars rotating clockwise around the center of the galaxy. Using this information, astronomers will be able to create new models on how the LMC, SMC, and Milky Way evolved together over time. This, in turn, could shed light on how galaxies like our own, formed and evolved over the course of billions of years.

As with other information contained in the first and second data releases, this latest discovery demonstrates that the Gaia mission is fulfilling its intended purpose. The third release of Gaia data is scheduled to take place in late 2020, with the final catalog being published in the 2020s. Meanwhile, an extension has already been approved for the Gaia mission, which will now remain in operation until the end of 2020 (to be confirmed at the end of this year).

And be sure to enjoy this animated view of the LMC’s rotation, courtesy of the ESA:

Further Reading: ESA

Newly Discovered Star Cluster Analyzed by Gaia Probe

In 2013, the European Space Agency (ESA) deployed the Gaia mission, a space observatory designed to measure the positions of movements of celestial bodies. For the past four years, Gaia has been studying distant stars, planets, comets, asteroids, quasars and other astronomical objects, and the data it has acquired will be used to construct the largest and most precise 3D space catalog ever made, totaling 1 billion objects.

Using data provided by Gaia, a team of international scientists conducted a study of the recently-discovered star cluster known as Gaia 1. Located about 15,000 light years from Earth and measuring some 29 light years in radius, much about this cluster has remained unknown. As such, this study helped place constraints on a number of mysteries of this star cluster, which include its age, metallicity and origin.

For the sake of their study, which recently appeared in the journal Astronomy and Astrophysics under the title “Detailed Chemical Abundance Analysis of the Thick Disk Star Cluster Gaia 1“, the team conducted a detailed chemical abundance study of Gaia 1 to determine its unknown parameters. From this, accurate estimates on its age and composition are likely to now be possible.

Sky map based on the first release of Gaia data (DR1). Credit: ESA/Gaia/DPAC/A. Moitinho & M. Barros, CENTRA – University of Lisbon.

This star cluster was first identified in May 2017, thanks to first data release – aka. Data Release 1 (DR1) – from the ESA. Based on photometry provided by Gaia, the Two Micron All-Sky Survey (2MASS), the Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer (WISE), and the Panoramic Survey Telescope and Rapid Response System (Pan-STARRS1) – the object was characterized as being an intermediate-age (6.3 billion years) and moderately metal-rich system.

This combined photometry also indicated that the cluster had a radius of about 29 light years and contained as much as 20,000 Solar Masses. However, further studies found that the cluster was actually far more metal-rich than previously thought. This indicated that Gaia 1 was likely to be significantly younger, with estimates now claiming that it was at least 3 billion years old.

In addition, these subsequent studies also raised the possibility that the cluster was extra-galactic in origin, based on the fact that it orbits about 5,500 light years (~1.7 kpc) above the Milky Way’s disk. To remedy this, the team – led by Andreas Koch of the University of Lancaster and the Center for Astronomy Heidelberg – used Gaia data in order to conduct a detailed study of just how metal-rich the cluster was to get a better idea of its age.

As they stated in their study: “[T]his work focuses on a detailed chemical abundance analysis of four red giant members of Gaia 1, based on high-resolution spectroscopy, which we complement by an investigation of the orbital properties of this transition object.” This consisted of measuring the abundances of 14 elements within these red giant stars, which were selected from the 2MASS survey.

What they determined was that the Gaia 1 was more metal poor than previously expected, which indicated that it is older than the revised age estimates indicated – between 3 billion and 5.3 billion years old. In addition, they also measured the proper motions and orbits of the four target stars, using data obtained from the fifth U.S. Naval Observatory CCD Astrograph Catalog (UCAC5).

This information revealed that in the course of their orbits, the four target stars would reach a maximum distance of 3,262 light years (1.0 kpc) above the galactic disk, which was an indication that they were not extra-galactic in origin. Last, but not least, they indicated that Gaia 1’s structure does not truly conform to that of a globular cluster, as it was originally designated. As they conclude in their study:

“This confirms that Gaia 1 is rather a massive and luminous open cluster than a low-mass globular cluster. Finally, orbital computations of the target stars bolster our chemical findings of Gaia 1’s present-day membership with the thick disk, even though it remains unclear, which mechanisms put it in that place.”

While this study has helped place constraints on one of a newly-discovered Gaia object, the team acknowledges that there is still much to be discovered about this star cluster. They also acknowledge that there is a margin of error when it comes to their study, and that further research is needed before Gaia 1 can be properly classified.

The band of light (the Milky Way) that is visible in the night sky, showing the stellar disk of our galaxy. Credit: Bob King

“However, the hint of a metallicity spread between different studies in the literature may point towards a more complex origin that could involve a once more massive progenitor,” they state. “Thus the question as to its exact formation and origin remains unclear and needs to await more data such as the precise and accurate parallaxes that Gaia can offer.”

This newly-discovered cluster, and all attempts to better understand it, are merely the tip of the iceberg when it comes to what the Gaia mission has revealed so far. The second official release of Gaia data – aka. Gaia DR2 – is scheduled to take place in April of 2018. This will be followed by a third release in 2020 and, barring any mission extensions, a fourth and final release in 2022.

Further Reading: Astronomy and Astrophysics

Gaia Finds Six Stars Zipping out of the Milky Way

In 2013, the European Space Agency launched the Gaia spacecraft. As the successor to the Hipparcos mission, this space observatory has spent the past three and a half years gathering data on the cosmos. Before it retires sometime next year (though the mission could be extended), this information will be used to construct the largest and most precise 3D astronomical map ever created.

In the course of surveying the cosmos, Gaia has also revealed some very interesting things along the way. For example, after examining the Gaia catalog with a specially-designed artificial neural network, a team of European researchers recently detected six new hypervelocity stars in the Milky Way. And one of these stars is moving so fast that it may eventually leave our galaxy.

Their study – titled “An Artificial Neural Network to Discover Hypervelocity Stars: Candidates in Gaia DR1/TGAS” – was recently published in the Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society. It was presented late last month at the European Week of Astronomy and Space Science, which was being held from June 26th to June 30th in Prague, Czech Republic.

Artist’s conception of the Gaia telescope backdropped by a photograph of the Milky Way taken at the European Southern Observatory. Credit: ESA/ATG medialab; background: ESO/S. Brunier

Hypervelocity stars are a rare and fascinating thing. Whereas all stars in the Milky Way are in constant motion, orbiting around the center of our galaxy, some are accelerated to speeds of up to hundreds of kilometers per second. In the past, astronomers have deduced that these fast-moving stars are the result of a close stellar encounter or a supernova explosion of a stellar companion.

And a little over a decade ago, astronomers became aware of a new class of high-speed stars that are believed to have been accelerated from past interactions with the supermassive black hole (Sagittarius A*) that sits at the center of our galaxy. These stars are extremely important to the study of the overall structure of the Milky Way, as they are indicative of the kinds of events and forces that have shaped its history.

As Elena Maria Rossi, from Leiden University in the Netherlands and one of the co-authors on the paper, explained in an ESA press release:

These are stars that have traveled great distances through the Galaxy but can be traced back to its core – an area so dense and obscured by interstellar gas and dust that it is normally very difficult to observe – so they yield crucial information about the gravitational field of the Milky Way from the centre to its outskirts.

Artist’s impression of stars speeding through the Galaxy. Credit: ESA

Finding such stars is no easy task, mainly because their velocity makes them extremely difficult to spot in the vast and crowded disk of the Milky Way. As a result, scientists have relied on looking for young, massive stars (2.5 to 4 Solar masses) in the old stellar population of the Galactic. Basically, their young age and high masses are indications that they might not have originated there.

Combined with measurements of their past speeds and paths, this method has confirmed the existence of hypervelocity stars in the past. However, only 20 hypervelocity stars have been spotted to date, and they have all been young and massive in nature. Scientists believe that many more stars of other ages and masses are also being accelerated through the Milky Way, but were previously unable to spot them.

To address this, the European team – led by from Tomasso Marchetti of Leiden University in the Netherlands – began considering how to use Gaia‘s vast dataset to optimize the search for more hypervelocity stars. After testing various methods, they adopted the artificial neural net approach – i.e. using a machine learning algorithm – to search through the star census data Gaia is in the process of gathering.

Beginning in the first half of 2016, the team began developing and training this program to be ready for the first release of Gaia data – which occurred a few months later on Sept. 14th, 2016. As Tommaso Marchetti, a PhD student at Leiden University, described the process:

“In the end, we chose to use an artificial neural network, which is software designed to mimic how our brain works. After proper ‘training’, it can learn how to recognize certain objects or patterns in a huge dataset. In our case, we taught it to spot hypervelocity stars in a stellar catalogue like the one compiled with Gaia.”

Artist’s impression of a hypervelocity star that was detected using the ESO’s Very Large Telescope. Credit: ESO

In addition to a map with the positions of over a billion stars, this first data release included a smaller catalogue with the distances and motions for two million stars. This catalog – which is known as the Tycho-Gaia Astrometric Solution (TGAS) – combined data from both the first year of the Gaia mission and with data from the Hipparcos mission, and is essentially a taste of what’s to come from Gaia.

On the day of the catalog’s release, Marchetti and his team ran their algorithm on the two million stars within the TGAS, which revealed some interesting finds. “In just one hour, the artificial brain had already reduced the dataset to some 20 000 potential high-speed stars, reducing its size to about 1%,” said Rossi. “A further selection including only measurements above a certain precision in distance and motion brought this down to 80 candidate stars.”

The team then examined these 80 stars in more detail, and compared the information about their motions to data from other catalogues. Paired with additional observations, they eventually found six stars which appeared to be moving faster than 360 km/s. One even appeared to be exceeding 500 km/s, which means that it is no longer bound by the gravity of our Milky Way and will eventually leave it altogether.

But perhaps the sot significant aspect of this find is the fact these stars are not particularly massive like the previous 20 that had been discovered, and were comparable in mass to our Sun. In addition, the 5 slower stars are likely to become a focal point of study, as scientists are eager to determine what slowed them down. One possible explanation is that interaction with the galaxy’s dark matter might have been responsible.

Gaia’s first sky map. Credit: ESA/Gaia/DPAC. Credit: A. Moitinho & M. Barros (CENTRA – University of Lisbon), on behalf of DPAC.

Much as the TGAS has been merely an early indication of the vast and valuable data Gaia will eventually provide, this study showcases the kinds of discoveries and research that this data will enable. By with not just 2 million, but a billion stars to study, astronomers are sure to reveal many new and exciting things about the dynamics of our Milky Way and the kinds of forces that have shaped it.

For this purpose, Marchetti and his team are upgrading their program to handle the much larger data set, which is scheduled to be released in April of 2018. This catalog will include distance and motions for over a billion stars, as well as velocities for a specific subset. From this, the team may find that fast-moving stars which are being booted out of the Milky Way are a lot more common than previously thought.

And be sure to enjoy this video that shows the paths of these six newly-discovered fast-moving stars, courtesy of the ESA:

Further Reading: ESA

Distance & Speed Of Sun’s Orbit Around Galactic Centre Measured

In 2013, the European Space Agency deployed the long-awaited Gaia space observatory. As one of a handful of next-generation space observatories that will be going up before the end of the decade, this mission has spent the past few years cataloging over a billion astronomical objects. Using this data, astronomers and astrophysicists hope to create the largest and most precise 3D map of the Milky Way to date.

Though it is almost to the end of its mission, much of its earliest information is still bearing fruit. For example, using the mission’s initial data release, a team of astrophysicists from the University of Toronto managed to calculate the speed at which the Sun orbits the Milky Way. From this, they were able to obtain a precise distance estimate between our Sun and the center of the galaxy for the first time.

For some time, astronomers have been unsure as to exactly how far our Solar System is from the center of our galaxy. Much of this has to do with the fact that it is impossible to view it directly, due to a combination of factors (i.e. perspective, the size of our galaxy, and visibility barriers). As a result, since the year 2000, official estimates have varied between 7.2 and 8.8 kiloparsecs (~23,483 to 28,700 light years).

Astronomy Image Gallery
Infrared image from Spitzer Space Telescope, showing the stars at the center of the Milky Way Galaxy. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/S. Stolovy (SSC/Caltech)

For the sake of their study, the team – which was led by Jason Hunt, a Dunlap Fellow at the Dunlap Institute for Astronomy & Astrophysics at the University of Toronto – combined Gaia’s initial release with data from the RAdial Velocity Experiment (RAVE). This survey, which was conducted between 2003 and 2013 by the Australian Astronomical Observatory (AAO), measured the positions, distances, radial velocities and spectra of 500,000 stars.

Over 200,000 of these stars were also observed by Gaia and information on them was included in its initial data release. As they explain in their study, which was published in the Journal of Astrophysical Letters in November 2016, they used this to examined the speeds at which these stars orbit the center of the galaxy (relative to the Sun), and in the process discovered that there was an apparent distribution in their relative velocities.

In short, our Sun moves around the center of the Milky Way at a speed of 240 km/s (149 mi/s), or 864,000 km/h (536,865 mph). Naturally, some of the more than 200,000 candidates were moving faster or slower. But for some, there was no apparent angular momentum, which they attributed to these stars being scattering onto “chaotic, halo-type orbits when they pass through the Galactic nucleus”.

As Hunt explained in Dunlap Institute press release:

“Stars with very close to zero angular momentum would have plunged towards the Galactic center where they would be strongly affected by the extreme gravitational forces present there. This would scatter them into chaotic orbits taking them far above the Galactic plane and away from the Solar neighbourhood… By measuring the velocity with which nearby stars rotate around our Galaxy with respect to the Sun, we can observe a lack of stars with a specific negative relative velocity. And because we know this dip corresponds to 0 km/sec, it tells us, in turn, how fast we are moving.”

Detection of an unusually bright X-Ray flare from Sagittarius A*, a supermassive black hole in the center of the Milky Way galaxy. Credit: NASA/CXC/Stanford/I. Zhuravleva et al.

The next step was to combine this information with proper motion calculations of Sagittarius A* – the supermassive black hole believed to be at the center of our galaxy. After correcting for its motion relative to background objects, they were able to effectively triangulate the Earth’s distance from the center of the galaxy. From this, they derived a refined distance of estimate of 7.6 to 8.2 kpc – which works out to about 24,788 to 26,745 light years.

This study builds upon previous work conducted by the study’s co-authors – Prof. Ray Calberg, the current chair of the Department of Astronomy & Astrophysics at the University of Toronto. Years ago, he and Prof. Kimmo Innanen of the Department of Physics and Astronomy at York University conducted a similar study using radial velocity measurement from 400 of the Milky Way’s stars.

But by incorporating data from the Gaia observatory, the UofT team was able to obtain a much more comprehensive data set and narrow the distance to galactic center by a significant amount. And this was based on only the initial data released by the Gaia mission. Looking ahead, Hunt anticipates that further data releases will allow his team and other astronomers to refine their calculations even more.

“Gaia’s final release in late 2017 should enable us to increase the precision of our measurement of the Sun’s velocity to within approximately one km/sec,” he said, “which in turn will significantly increase the accuracy of our measurement of our distance from the Galactic center.”

As more next-generation space telescopes and observatories are deployed, we can expect them to provide us with a wealth of new information about our Universe. And from this, we can expect that astronomers and astrophysicists will begin to shine the light on a number of unresolved cosmological questions.

Further Reading: University of Toronto, The Astrophysical Journal Letters

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

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.