This Globular Cluster is Plunging Toward the Milky Way’s Centre

The galactic cenre is dominated by powerful tidal forces. What happens to globular clusters that get too close? Image Credit: Spitzer Space Telescope/NASA/JPL-Caltech

Globular clusters (GCs) are spherical groups of stars held together by mutual gravity. Large ones can have millions of stars, and the stars tend to be older and have lower metallicity. The Milky Way contains more than 200 globulars, possibly many more, and most of them are in the galaxy’s halo, the outer reaches of the galaxy.

But they’re not all in the halo, and astronomers are keen to find ones nearest the galactic centre. Now, researchers have found one GC that’s plunging toward the Milky Way’s Centre.

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Astronomers Want JWST to Study the Milky Way Core for Hundreds of Hours

This overview of the Milky Way's Galactic Center (GC) shows the region of the proposed JWST survey. Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/S. Stolovy (Spitzer Science Center/Caltech)

To understand the Universe, we need to understand the extreme processes that shape it and drive its evolution. Things like supermassive black holes (SMBHs,) supernovae, massive reservoirs of dense gas, and crowds of stars both on and off the main sequence. Fortunately there’s a place where these objects dwell in close proximity to one another: the Milky Way’s Galactic Center (GC.)

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The Hubble Imaged Some Globular Clusters in an Unusual Place: Near the Milky Way’s Centre

Most globular clusters are found in the Milky Way's halo. But some, like the glittering globular cluster Terzan 12, are near the galactic centre. Image Credit: ESA/Hubble & NASA, R. Cohen (Rutgers University)

Our galaxy has about 200 Globular Clusters (GCs,) and most of them are in the galaxy’s halo. Astronomers think most GCs were taken from dwarf galaxies and merged with the Milky Way due to the galaxy’s powerful gravity. That explains why so many of them are on the outskirts of the galaxy. But they’re not all in the halo. Some are towards the Milky Way’s galactic bulge. What are globular clusters doing there?

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A new 3D map of the Milky Way Uses close to 66,000 Stars and Reveals New Details About the Shape of our Galaxy

The warping of the Milky Way disk. Credit: University of Warsaw

In the 17th century, Galileo Galilee aimed his telescope at the stars and demonstrated (for the first time) that the Milky Way was not a nebulous band but a collection of distant stars. This led to the discovery that our Sun was merely one of the countless stars in a much larger structure: the Milky Way Galaxy. By the 18th century, William Herschel became the first astronomer to create a map that attempted to capture the shape of the Milky Way. Even after all that time and discovery, astronomers are still plagued by the problem of perspective.

While we have been able to characterize galaxies we see across the cosmos with relative ease, it is difficult for astronomers to study the size, shape, and population of the Milky Way because of how our Solar System is embedded in its disk. Luckily, there are methods to circumvent this problem of perspective, which have provided astronomers with clues to these questions. In a recent paper, a team from the Astronomical Observatory at the University of Warsaw (AstroUW) used a large collection of Mira variable stars to trace the shape of the Milky Way, which yielded some interesting results!

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At the Heart of the Milky Way, Stars Come Close to Each Other All the Time

The core of the Milky Way. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/S. Stolovy (SSC/Caltech)

We here at Universe Today would like to express our support for Black Lives Matter and the countless people who are currently marching and demonstrating across Canada and the United States. To support Moiya and other black scientists and science communicators in STEM, we’ll be silent on Wednesday. Go to for more info.

At the center of our galaxy resides the Galactic Bulge, a densely-packed region of stars, dust, and gas. Within this massive structure, which spans thousands of light-years, there are an estimated 10 billion stars, most of which are old red giant stars. Because of this density, astronomers have often wondered if a galactic bulge is a likely place to find stars with habitable planets orbiting them.

Essentially, stars that are closely packed together are more likely to experience close encounters with other stars, which can be catastrophic for any planets that orbit them. According to a new study from Columbia University’s Cool Worlds Lab, most stars in the Bulge will experience dozens of close encounters over the course of a billion years, which could have significant implications for long-term habitability in this region.

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This Galaxy is the Very Definition of “Flocculent”

This image taken by the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope shows the galaxy NGC 4237. Located about 60 million light-years from Earth in the constellation of Coma Berenices (Berenice's Hair), NGC 4237 is classified as a flocculent spiral galaxy. This means that its spiral arms are not clearly distinguishable from each other, as in “grand design” spiral galaxies, but are instead patchy and discontinuous. This gives the galaxy a fluffy appearance, somewhat resembling fluffed cotton. Image Credit: ESA/Hubble & NASA, P. Erwin et al.

I know you’re Googling “flocculent” right now, unless you happen to be a chemist, or maybe a home brewer.

You could spend each day of your life staring at a different galaxy, and you’d never even come remotely close to seeing even a tiny percentage of all the galaxies in the Universe. Of course, nobody knows for sure exactly how many galaxies there are. But there might be up to two trillion of them. If you live to be a hundred, that’s only 36,500 galaxies that you’d look at. Puts things in perspective.

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