Did the Milky Way Steal These Stars or Kick Them Out of the Galaxy?

Despite thousands of years of research and observation, there is much that astronomers still don’t know about the Milky Way Galaxy. At present, astronomers estimate that it spans 100,000 to 180,000 light-years and consists of 100 to 400 billion stars. In addition, for decades, there have been unresolved questions about how the structure of our galaxy evolved over the course of billions of years.

For example, astronomers have long suspected that galactic halo came from – giant structures of stars that orbit above and below the flat disk of the Milky Way – were formed from debris left behind by smaller galaxies that merged with the Milky Way. But according to a new study by an international team of astronomers, it appears that these stars may have originated within the Milky Way but were then kicked out.

The study recently appeared in the journal Nature under the title “Two chemically similar stellar overdensities on opposite sides of the plane of the Galactic disk“. The study was led by Margia Bergmann, a researcher from the Max Planck Institute for Astronomy, and included members from the Australian National University, the California Institute of Technology, and multiple universities.

Artist’s impression of the Milky Way Galaxy. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/R. Hurt (SSC-Caltech)

For the sake of their study, the team relied on data from the W.M. Keck Observatory to determine the chemical abundance patterns from 14 stars located in the galactic halo. These stars were located in two different halo structures – the Triangulum-Andromeda (Tri-And) and the A13 stellar overdensities – which are bout 14,000 light years above and below the Milky Way disc.

As Bergemann explained in a Keck Observatory press release:

“The analysis of chemical abundances is a very powerful test, which allows, in a way similar to the DNA matching, to identify the parent population of the star. Different parent populations, such as the Milky Way disk or halo, dwarf satellite galaxies or globular clusters, are known to have radically different chemical compositions. So once we know what the stars are made of, we can immediately link them to their parent populations.”

The team also obtained spectra from one additional using the European Southern Observatory’s Very Large Telescope (VLT) in Chile. By comparing the chemical compositions of these stars with the ones found in other cosmic structures, the scientists noticed that the chemical compositions were almost identical. Not only were they similar within and between the groups being studies, they closely matched the abundance patterns of stars found within the Milky Way’s outer disk.

Computer model of the Milky Way and its smaller neighbor, the Sagittarius dwarf galaxy. Credit: Tollerud, Purcell and Bullock/UC Irvine

From this, they concluded that these stellar population in the Galactic Halo were formed in the Milky Way, but then relocated to locations above and below the Galactic Disk. This phenomena is known as “galactic eviction”, where structures are pushed off the plane of the Milky Way when a massive dwarf galaxy passes through the galactic disk. This process causes oscillations that eject stars from the disk, in whichever the dwarf galaxy is moving.

“The oscillations can be compared to sound waves in a musical instrument,” added Bergemann. “We call this ‘ringing’ in the Milky Way galaxy ‘galactoseismology,’ which has been predicted theoretically decades ago. We now have the clearest evidence for these oscillations in our galaxy’s disk obtained so far!”

These observations were made possible thanks to the High-Resolution Echelle Spectrometer (HiRES) on the Keck Telescope. As Judy Cohen, the Kate Van Nuys Page Professor of Astronomy at Caltech and a co-author on the study, explained:

“The high throughput and high spectral resolution of HIRES were crucial to the success of the observations of the stars in the outer part of the Milky Way. Another key factor was the smooth operation of Keck Observatory; good pointing and smooth operation allows one to get spectra of more stars in only a few nights of observation. The spectra in this study were obtained in only one night of Keck time, which shows how valuable even a single night can be.”

360-degree panorama view of the Milky Way (an assembled mosaic of photographs) by ESO. Credit: ESO/S. Brunier

These findings are very exciting for two reasons. On the one hand, it demonstrates that halo stars likely originated in the Galactic think disk – a younger part of the Milky Way. On the other hand, it demonstrates that the Milky Way’s disk and its dynamics are much more complex than previously thought. As Allyson Sheffield of LaGuardia Community College/CUNY, and a co-author on the paper, said:

“We showed that it may be fairly common for groups of stars in the disk to be relocated to more distant realms within the Milky Way – having been ‘kicked out’ by an invading satellite galaxy. Similar chemical patterns may also be found in other galaxies, indicating a potential galactic universality of this dynamic process.”

As a next step, the astronomers plan to analyze the spectra of additional stars in the Tri-And and A13 overdensities, as well as stars in other stellar structures further away from the disk. They also plan to determine masses and ages of these stars so they can constrain the time limits of when this galactic eviction took place.

In the end, it appears that another long-held assumption on galactic evolution has been updated. Combined with ongoing efforts to probe the nuclei of galaxies – to see how their Supermassive Black Holes and star formation are related – we appear to be getting closer to understanding just how our Universe evolved over time.

Further Reading: W.M. Keck Observatory, Nature

Astronomers Find One of the Oldest Stars in the Milky Way

According to modern cosmological models, the Universe began in a cataclysm event known as the Big Bang. This took place roughly 13.8 billion years ago, and was followed by a period of expansion and cooling. During that time, the first hydrogen atoms formed as protons and electrons combined and the fundamental forces of physics were born. Then, about 100 million years after the Big Bang, that the first stars and galaxies began to form.

The formation of the first stars was also what allowed for the creation of heavier elements, and therefore the formation of planets and all life as we know it. However, until now, how and when this process took place has been largely theoretical since astronomers did not know where the oldest stars in our galaxy were to be found. But thanks to a new study by a team of Spanish astronomers, we may have just found the oldest star in the Milky Way!

The study, titled “J0815+4729: A chemically primitive dwarf star in the Galactic Halo observed with Gran Telescopio Canarias“, recently appeared in The Astrophysical Journal Letters. Led by David S. Aguado of the Instituto de Astrofisica de Canarias (IAC), the team included members from the University of La Laguna and the Spanish National Research Council (CSIC).

Artist’s impression of the Milky Way Galaxy. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/R. Hurt (SSC-Caltech)

This star is located roughly 7,500 light years from the Sun, and was found in the halo of the Milky Way along the line of sight to the Lynx constellation. Known as J0815+4729, this star is still in its main sequence and has a low mass, (around 0.7 Solar Masses), though the research team estimates that it has a surface temperature that is about 400 degrees hotter – 6,215 K (5942 °C; 10,727 °F) compared to 5778 K (5505 °C; 9940 °F).

For the sake of their study, the team was looking for a star that showed signs of being metal-poor, which would indicate that it has been in its main sequence for a very long time. The team first selected J0815+4729 from the Sloan Digital Sky Survey-III Baryon Oscillation Spectroscopic Survey (SDSS-III/BOSS) and then conducted follow-up spectroscopic investigations to determine its composition (and hence its age).

This was done using the Intermediate dispersion Spectrograph and Imaging System (ISIS) at the William Herschel Telescope (WHT) and the Optical System for Imaging and low-intermediate-Resolution Integrated Spectroscopy (OSIRIS) at Gran Telescopio de Canarias (GTC), both of which are located at the Observatorio del Roque de los Muchachos on the island of La Palma.

Consistent with what modern theory predicts, the star was found in the Galactic halo – the extended component of our galaxy that reaches beyond the galactic disk (the visible portion). It is in this region that the oldest and most metal-poor stars are believed to be found in galaxies, hence why the team was confident that a star dating back to the early Universe would be found here.

The William Herschel Telescope, part of the Isaac Newton group of telescopes, located on Canary Island. Credit: ing.iac.es

As Jonay González Hernández – a professor from the University of La Laguna, a member of the IAC and a co-author on the paper – explained in an IAC press release:

“Theory predicts that these stars could use material from the first supernovae, whose progenitors were the first massive stars in the galaxy, around 300 million years after the Big Bang. In spite of its age, and its distance away from us, we can still observe it.”

Spectra obtained by both the ISIS and OSIRIS instruments confirmed that the star was poor in metals, indicating that J0815+4729 has only one-millionth of the calcium and iron that the Sun contains. In addition, the team also noticed that the star has a higher carbon content than our Sun, accounting for almost 15% percent of its solar abundance (i.e. the relative abundance of its elements).

In short, J0815+4729 may be the most iron-poor and carbon-rich star currently known to astronomers. Moreover, finding it was rather difficult since the star is both weak in luminosity and was buried within a massive amount of SDSS/BOSS archival data. As Carlos Allende Prieto, another IAC researcher and a co-author on the paper, indicated:

“This star was tucked away in the database of the BOSS project, among a million stellar spectra which we have analysed, requiring a considerable observational and computational effort. It requires high-resolution spectroscopy on large telescopes to detect the in the star, which can help us to understand the first supernovae and their progenitors.”

In the near future, the team predicts that next-generation spectrographs could allow for further research that would reveal more about the star’s chemical abundances. Such instruments include the HORS high-resolution spectrograph, which is presently in a trial phase on the Gran Telescopio Canarias (GTC).

“Detecting lithium gives us crucial information related to Big Bang nucleosynthesis,” said Rafael Rebolo, the director of the IAC and a coauthor of the paper. “We are working on a spectrograph of high-resolution and wide spectral range in order to measure the detailed chemical composition of stars with unique properties such as J0815+4719.”

These future studies are sure to be a boon for astronomers and cosmologists. In addition to being a chance to study stars that formed when the Universe was still in its infancy, they could provide new insight into the early stages of the universe, the formation of the first stars, and the properties of the first supernovae. In other words, they would put us a step closer to know how the Universe as we know it formed and evolved.

Further Reading: IAC, The Astrophysical Journal Letters

Milky Way Leftover Shell Stars Discovered In Galactic Halo

Like tantalizing tidbits stored in the vast recesses of one’s refrigerator, astronomers using NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope have evidence of a shell of stars left over from one of the Milky Way’s meals. In a study which will appear in an upcoming issue of the Astrophysical Journal researchers have revealed a group of stars moving sideways – a motion which points to the fact our galaxy may have consumed another during its evolution.

“Hubble’s unique capabilities are allowing astronomers to uncover clues to the galaxy’s remote past. The more distant regions of the galaxy have evolved more slowly than the inner sections. Objects in the outer regions still bear the signatures of events that happened long ago,” said Roeland van der Marel of the Space Telescope Science Institute (STScI) in Baltimore, Maryland.

As curious as this shell of stars is, they offer even more information by revealing a chance to study the mysterious hidden mass of Milky Way – dark matter. With more than a hundred billion galaxies spread over the Universe, what better place to get a closer look than right here at home? The team of astronomers led by Alis Deason of the University of California, Santa Cruz, and van der Marel studied the outer halo, a region roughly 80,000 light years from our galaxy’s center, and identified 13 stars which may have come to light at the very beginning of the Milky Way’s formation.

What’s so special about this group of geriatric suns? In this case, it’s their movement. Instead of cruising along in a radial orbit, these elderly stars show tangential motion – an unexpected observation. Normally halo stars travel towards the galactic center, only to return outwards again. What could cause this double handful of stars to move differently? The research team speculates there could be an “over-density” of stars at the 80,000 light year mark.

As intriguing as these stars are, this strange shell was discovered somewhat by accident. Deason and her team winnowed out the outer halo stars from a seven year study of archival images taken by the Hubble telescope of the Andromeda galaxy. While looking some twenty times further away at our neighboring galaxy’s stars, these strange moving stars came to light as foreground objects… objects that “cluttered” the images. While these halo stars were bad for that particular study, they were very good for Deason and the team. It gave them the chance to take a really close look at the motion of the Milky Way’s halo stars.

However, seeing these stars wasn’t easy. Thanks to Hubble’s incredible resolution and light gathering power, each image contained more than 100,000 individual stars. “We had to somehow find those few stars that actually belonged to the Milky Way halo,” van der Marel said. “It was like finding needles in a haystack.”

So how did the astronomers separate the shell stars from those that belonged to the outer fringes of the Andromeda? The initial observations picked the stars out based on their color, brightness and sideways motion. Thanks to parallax, our halo stars seem to move far faster simply because they are closer. Through the work of team member Tony Sohn of STSci, these revolutionary stars were identified and measured. Their tangential motion was observed and recorded with five percent precision. Not a speedy process when you consider these shell stars only move across the sky at a rate of about one milliarcsecond per year!

“Measurements of this accuracy are enabled by a combination of Hubble’s sharp view, the many years’ worth of observations, and the telescope’s stability. Hubble is located in the space environment, and it’s free of gravity, wind, atmosphere, and seismic perturbations,” van der Marel said.

What makes the team so confident in their findings? As we know, stars at home in our galaxy’s inner halo have highly radial orbits. When a comparison was made between the sideways motion of the outer halo stars with the inner motions, the researchers found equality. According to computer simulations of galaxy formation, outer stars should continue to have radial motion as they move outward into the halo, but these new findings prove opposite. What could cause it? A natural explanation would be an accretion event involving a satellite galaxy.

To further substantiate their findings, the team compared their results with data taken by the Sloan Digital Sky Survey involving halo stars. It was a eureka moment. The observations taken by the SDSS revealed a higher density of stars at roughly the same distance as the shell-shocked travelers. And the Milky Way isn’t alone. Other studies of halo stars involved in both the Triangulum and Andromeda show a large number of halo stars existing to a certain point – only to drop off. Deason realized this wasn’t just a weird coincidence. “What may be happening is that the stars are moving quite slowly because they are at the apocenter, the farthest point in their orbit about the hub of our Milky Way,” Deason explained. “The slowdown creates a pileup of stars as they loop around in their path and travel back towards the galaxy. So their in and out or radial motion decreases compared with their sideways or tangential motion.”

As exciting as these findings are, they aren’t news. Shell stars have been observed in the halos of other galaxies and were predicted to be part of the Milky Way. By nature, they should have been there – but they were simply to dim and too far-flung to make astronomers positive of their presence. Not any more. Now that astronomers know what to look for, they are even more anxious to dig into Hubble’s archives. “These unexpected results fuel our interest in looking for more stars to confirm that this is really happening,” Deason said. “At the moment we have quite a small sample. So we really can make it a lot more robust with getting more fields with Hubble.” The Andromeda observations only cover a very small “keyhole view” of the sky.

So what’s next? Now the team can paint an even more fine portrait of the Milky Way’s evolutionary history. By understanding the motions and orbits of the “shell” of stars in the halo, they might even by able to give us a accurate mass. “Until now, what we have been missing is the stars’ tangential motion, which is a key component. The tangential motion will allow us to better measure the total mass distribution of the galaxy, which is dominated by dark matter. By studying the mass distribution, we can see whether it follows the same distribution as predicted in theories of structure formation,” Deason said.

Until then we’ll enjoy the “leftovers”…

Original Story Source: HubbleSite News Release.

Galactic Archaeology: NGC 5907 – The Dragon Clash

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The sprawling northern constellation of Draco is home to a monumental galactic merger which left a singular spectacle – NGC 5907. Surrounded by an ethereal garment of wispy star trails and currents of stellar material, this spiral galaxy is the survivor of a “clash of the dragons” which may have occurred some 8 to 9 billion years ago. Recent theory suggests galaxies of this type may be the product of a larger galaxy encountering a smaller satellite – but this might not be the case. Not only is NGC 5907 a bit different in some respects, it’s a lot different in others… and peculiar motion is just the beginning.

“If the disc of many spirals is indeed rebuilt after a major merger, it is expected that tidal tails can be a fossil record and that there should be many loops and streams in their halos. Recently Martínez-Delgado et al. (2010) have conducted a pilot survey of isolated spiral galaxies in the Local Volume up to a low surface brightness sensitivity of ~28.5 mag/arcsec2 in V band. They find that many of these galaxies have loops or streams of various shapes and interpret these structures as evidence of minor merger or satellite infall.” says J. Wang of the Chinese Academy of Sciences. “However, if these loops are caused by minor mergers, the residual of the satellite core should be detected according to numerical simulations. Why is it hardly ever detected?”

The “why” is indeed the reason NGC 5907 is being intensively studied by a team of six scientists of the Observatoire de Paris, CNRS, Chinese Academy of Sciences, National Astronomical Observatories of China NAOC and Marseille Observatory. Even though NGC 5907 is a member of a galactic group, there are no galaxies near enough to it to be causing an interaction which could account for its streamers of stars. It is truly a warped galaxy with gaseous and stellar disks which extend beyond the nominal cut-off radius. But that’s not all… It also has a peculiar halo which includes a significant fraction of metal enriched stars. NGC 5907 just doesn’t fit the patterns.

“For some of our models, we assume a star formation history with a varying global efficiency in transforming gas to stars, in order to preserve enough gas from being consumed before fusion.” explains the research team. “Although this fine-tuned star formation history may have some physical motivations, its main role is also to ensure the formation of stars after the emergence of the gaseous disc just after fusion.”

On left, the NGC 5907 galaxy. It is compared to the simulations, on right. Both cases show an edge-on galactic disk surrounded by giant loops of old stars, which are witnessing of a former, gigantic collision. (Jay Gabany, cosmotography.com / Observatoire de Paris / CNRS / Pythéas / NAOC)

Now enter the 32- and 196-core computers at the Paris Observatory center and the 680-core Graphic Processor Unit supercomputer of Beijing NAOC with the capability to run 50000 billion operations per second. By employing several state of the art, hydrodynamical, and numerical simulations with particle numbers ranging from 200 000 to 6 millions, the team’s goal was to show the structure of NGC 5907 may have been the result of the clash of two dragon-sized galaxies… or was it?

“The exceptional features of NGC 5907 can be reproduced, together with the central galaxy properties, especially if we compare the observed loops to the high-order loops expected in a major merger model.” says Wang. “Given the extremely large number of parameters, as well as the very numerous constraints provided by the observations, we cannot claim that we have already identified the exact and unique model of NGC 5907 and its halo properties. We nevertheless succeeded in reproducing the loop geometry, and a disc-dominated, almost bulge-less galaxy.”

In the meantime, major galaxy merger events will continue to be a top priority in formation research. “Future work will include modelling other nearby spiral galaxies with large and faint, extended features in their halos.” concludes the team. “These distant galaxies are likely similar to the progenitors, six billion years ago, of present-day spirals, and linking them together could provide another crucial test for the spiral rebuilding disc scenario.”

And sleeping dragons may one day arise…

Original Story Source: Paris Observatory News. For Further Reading: Loops formed by tidal tails as fossil records of a major merger and Fossils of the Hierarchical Formation of the Nearby Spiral Galaxy NGC 5907.

Do Galaxies Recycle Their Material?

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It’s a great question that’s now been validated by the Hubble Space Telescope. Recent observations have shown how galaxies are able to recycle huge amounts of hydrogen gas and heavy elements within themselves. In a process which begins at initial star formation and lasts for billions of years, galaxies renew their own energy sources.

Thanks to the HST’s Cosmic Origins Spectrograph (COS), scientists have now been able to investigate the Milky Way’s halo region along with forty other galaxies. The combined data includes instruments from large ground-based telescopes in Hawaii, Arizona and Chile whose goal was determine galaxy properties. In this colorful instance, the shape and spectra of each individual galaxy would appear to be influenced by gas flow through the halo in a type of “gas-recycling phenomenon”. The results are being published in three papers in the November 18 issue of Science magazine. The leaders of the three studies are Nicolas Lehner of the University of Notre Dame in South Bend, Ind.; Jason Tumlinson of the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore, Md.; and Todd Tripp of the University of Massachusetts at Amherst.

The focus of the research centered on distant stars whose spectra illuminated influxing gas clouds as they pass through the galactic halo. This is the basis of continual star formation, where huge pockets of hydrogen contain enough fuel to ignite a hundred million stars. But not all of this gas is just “there”. A substantial portion is recycled by both novae and supernovae events – as well as star formation itself. It not only creates, but “replenishes”.

The color and shape of a galaxy is largely controlled by gas flowing through an extended halo around it. All modern simulations of galaxy formation find that they cannot explain the observed properties of galaxies without modeling the complex accretion and "feedback" processes by which galaxies acquire gas and then later expel it after chemical processing by stars. Hubble spectroscopic observations show that galaxies like our Milky Way recycle gas while galaxies undergoing a rapid starburst of activity will lose gas into intergalactic space and become "red and dead." (Credit: NASA; ESA; A. Feild, STScI)

However, this process isn’t unique to the Milky Way. Hubble’s COS observations have recorded these recycling halos around energetic star-forming galaxies, too. These heavy metal halos are reaching out to distances of up to 450,000 light years outside the visible portions of their galactic disks. To capture such far-reaching evidence of galactic recycling wasn’t an expected result. According to the Hubble Press Release, COS measured 10 million solar masses of oxygen in a galaxy’s halo, which corresponds to about one billion solar masses of gas – as much as in the entire space between stars in a galaxy’s disk.

So what did the research find and how was it done? In galaxies with rapid star formation, the gases are expelled outward at speed of up to two million miles per hour – fast enough to be ejected to the point of no return – and with it goes mass. This confirms the theories of how a spiral galaxy could eventually evolve into an elliptical. Since the light from this hot plasma isn’t within the visible spectrum, the COS used quasars to reveal the spectral properties of the halo gases. Its extremely sensitive equipment was able to detect the presence of heavy elements, such as nitrogen, oxygen, and neon – indicators of mass of a galaxy’s halo.

So what happens when a galaxy isn’t “green”? According to these new observations, galaxies which have ceased star formation no longer have gas. Apparently, once the recycling process stops, stars will only continue to form for as long as they have fuel. And once it’s gone?

It’s gone forever…

Original Story Source: Hubble Space Telescope News Release.