The heart of the Milky Way can be a mysterious place. A gigantic black hole resides there, and it’s surrounded by a retinue of stars that astronomers call a Nuclear Star Cluster (NSC). The NSC is one of the densest populations of stars in the Universe. There are about 20 million stars in the innermost 26 light years of the galaxy.
New research shows that about 7% of the stars in the NSC came from a single source: a globular cluster of stars that fell into the Milky Way between 3 and 5 billion years ago.
For some time, astronomers have known that collisions or mergers between galaxies are an integral part of cosmic evolution. In addition to causing galaxies to grow, these mergers also trigger new rounds of star formation as fresh gas and dust are injected into the galaxy. In the future, astronomers estimate that the Milky Way Galaxy will merge with the Andromeda Galaxy, as well as the Small and Large Magellanic Clouds in the meantime.
According to new results obtained by researchers at the Flatiron Institute’s Center for Computational Astrophysics (CCA) in New York city, the results of our eventual merger with the Magellanic Clouds is already being felt. According to results presented at the 235th meeting of the American Astronomical Society this week, stars forming in the outskirts of our galaxy could be the result of these dwarf galaxies merging with our own.
What happens when two galaxies collide? The Milky Way and the Andromeda Galaxy are on a collision course, and in about 4.5 billion years, they will meet. Now astronomers using the Hubble have provided some visual insight into what that collision might look like.
Scientists have long understood that in the course of cosmic evolution, galaxies become larger by consuming smaller galaxies. The evidence of this can be seen by observing galactic halos, where the stars of cannibalized galaxies still remain. This is certainly true of the Andromeda Galaxy (aka. M31, Earth’s closest neighbor) which has a massive and nearly-invisible halo of stars that is larger than the galaxy itself.
For some time, scientists believed that this halo was the result of hundreds of smaller mergers. But thanks to a new study by a team of researchers at the University of Michigan, it now appears that Andromeda’s halo is the result of it cannibalizing a massive galaxy some two billion years ago. Studying the remains of this galaxy will help astronomers understand how disk galaxies (like the Milky Way) evolve and survive large mergers.
Using computer models, Richard D’Souza and Eric Bell were able to piece together how a once-massive galaxy (named M32p) disrupted and eventually came to merge with Andromeda. From their simulations, they determined that M32p was at least 20 times larger than any galaxy that has merged with the Milky Way over the course of its lifetime.
M32p would have therefore been the third-largest member of the Local Group of galaxies, after the Milky Way and Andromeda galaxies, and was therefore something of a “long-lost sibling”. However, their simulations also indicated that many smaller companion galaxies merged with Andromeda over time. But for the past, Andromeda’s halo is the result of a single massive merger. As D’Souza explained in a recent Michigan News press statement:
“It was a ‘eureka’ moment. We realized we could use this information of Andromeda’s outer stellar halo to infer the properties of the largest of these shredded galaxies. Astronomers have been studying the Local Group—the Milky Way, Andromeda and their companions—for so long. It was shocking to realize that the Milky Way had a large sibling, and we never knew about it.”
This study will not only help astronomers understand how galaxies like the Milky Way and Andromeda grew through mergers, it might also shed light on a long-standing mystery – which is how Andromeda’s satellite galaxy (M32) formed. According to their study, D’Souza and Bell believe that M32 is the surviving center of M32p, which is what remained after its spiral arms were stripped away.
“M32 is a weirdo,” said Bell. “While it looks like a compact example of an old, elliptical galaxy, it actually has lots of young stars. It’s one of the most compact galaxies in the universe. There isn’t another galaxy like it.” According to D’Souza and Bell, this study may also alter the traditional understanding of how galaxies evolve. In astronomy, conventional wisdom says that large interactions would destroy disk galaxies and form elliptical galaxies.
But if Andromeda did indeed survive an impact with a massive galaxy, it would indicate that this is not the case. The timing of the merger may also explain recent research findings which indicated that two billion years ago, the disk of the Andromeda galaxy thickened, leading to a burst in star formation. As Bell explained:
“The Andromeda Galaxy, with a spectacular burst of star formation, would have looked so different 2 billion years ago. When I was at graduate school, I was told that understanding how the Andromeda Galaxy and its satellite galaxy M32 formed would go a long way towards unraveling the mysteries of galaxy formation.”
In the end, this method could also be used to study other galaxies and determine which were the most massive mergers they underwent. This could allow scientists to better understand the complicated process that drives galaxy growth and how mergers affect galaxies. This knowledge will certainly come in handy when it comes to determining what will happen to our galaxy when it merges with Andromeda in a few billion years.
In about 4 billion years, scientists estimate that the Andromeda and the Milky Way galaxies are expected to collide, based on data from the Hubble Space Telescope. And when they merge, they will give rise to a super-galaxy that some are already calling Milkomeda or Milkdromeda (I know, awful isn’t it?) While this may sound like a cataclysmic event, these sorts of galactic collisions are quite common on a cosmic timescale.
As an international group of researchers from Japan and California have found, galactic “hookups” were quite common during the early universe. Using data from the Hubble Space Telescope and the Subaru Telescope at in Mauna Kea, Hawaii, they have discovered that 1.2 billion years after the Big Bang, galactic clumps grew to become large galaxies by merging. As part of the Hubble Space Telescope (HST) “Cosmic Evolution Survey (COSMOS)”, this information could tell us a great about the formation of the early universe.
At this time of year, festive displays of light are to be expected. This tradition has clearly not been lost on the galaxies NHC 2207 and IC 2163. Just in time for the holidays, these colliding galaxies, which are located within the Canis Major constellation (some 130 million light-years from Earth,) were seen putting on a spectacular lights display for us folks here on Earth!
And while this galaxy has been known to produce a lot of intense light over the years, the image above is especially luminous. A composite using data from the Chandra Observatory and the Hubble and Spitzer Space Telescopes, it shows the combination of visible, x-ray, and infrared light coming from the galactic pair.
In the past fifteen years, NGC 2207 and IC 2163 have hosted three supernova explosions and produced one of the largest collections of super bright X-ray lights in the known universe. These special objects – known as “ultraluminous X-ray sources” (ULXs) – have been found using data from NASA’s Chandra X-ray Observatory.
While the true nature of ULXs is still being debated, it is believed that they are a peculiar type of star X-ray binary. These consist of a star in a tight orbit around either a neutron star or a black hole. The strong gravity of the neutron star or black hole pulls matter from the companion star, and as this matter falls toward the neutron star or black hole, it is heated to millions of degrees and generates X-rays.
Data obtained from Chandra has determined that – much like the Milky Way Galaxy – NGC 2207 and IC 2163 are sprinkled with many star X-ray binaries. In the new Chandra image, this x-ray data is shown in pink, which shows the sheer prevalence of x-ray sources within both galaxies.
Meanwhile, optical light data from the Hubble Space Telescope is rendered in red, green, and blue (also appearing as blue, white, orange, and brown due to color combinations,) and infrared data from the Spitzer Space Telescope is shown in red.
The Chandra observatory spent far more time observing these galaxies than any previous ULX study, roughly five times as much. As a result, the study team – which consisted of researchers from Harvard University, MIT, and Sam Houston State University – were able to confirm the existence of 28 ULXs between NGC 2207 and IC 2163, seven of which had never before been seen.
In addition, the Chandra data allowed the team of scientists to observe the correlation between X-ray sources in different regions of the galaxy and the rate at which stars are forming in those same regions.
As the new Chandra image shows, the spiral arms of the galaxies – where large amounts of star formation is known to be occurring – show the heaviest concentrations of ULXs, optical light, and infrared. This correlation also suggests that the companion star in the star X-ray binaries is young and massive.
This in turn presents another possibility which has to do with star formation during galactic mergers. When galaxies come together, they produce shock waves that cause clouds of gas within them to collapse, leading to periods of intense star formation and the creation of star clusters.
The fact that the ULXs and the companion stars are young (the researchers estimate that they are only 10 million years old) would seem to confirm that they are the result of NGC 2207 and IC 2163 coming together. This seem a likely explanation since the merger between these two galaxies is still in its infancy, which is attested to by the fact that the galaxies are still separate.
They are expected to collide soon, a process which will make them look more like the Mice Galaxies (pictured above). In about one billion years time, they are expected to finish the process, forming a spiral galaxy that would no doubt resemble our own.
The image above looks like a classic example of a collision between two galaxies. However, Hubble scientists have determined, this is just an illusion, a trick of perspective. The two galaxies, NGC 3314A and B are actually tens of millions of light years apart instead of merging in a galactic pileup. From our vantage point on Earth the two just happen to appear to be overlapping at great distances from each other.
How did the Hubble scientists figure this out? The biggest hint as to whether galaxies are interacting is usually their shapes. The immense gravitational forces involved in galactic mergers are enough to pull a galaxy out of shape long before it actually collides. Deforming a galaxy like this does not just warp its structure, but it can trigger new episodes of star formation, usually visible as bright blue stars and glowing nebulae.
In the case of NGC 3314, there is some deformation in the foreground galaxy (called NGC 3314A, NGC 3314B lies in the background), but the Hubble team says this is almost certainly misleading. NGC 3314A’s deformed shape, particularly visible below and to the right of the core, where streams of hot blue-white stars extend out from the spiral arms, is not due to interaction with the galaxy in the background.
Studies of the motion of the two galaxies indicate that they are both relatively undisturbed, and that they are moving independently of each other. This indicates in turn that they are not, and indeed have never been, on any collision course. NGC 3314A’s warped shape is likely due instead to an encounter with another galaxy, perhaps nearby NGC 3312 (visible to the north in wide-field images) or another nearby galaxy.
The chance alignment of the two galaxies is more than just a curiosity, though. It greatly affects the way the two galaxies appear to us.
NGC 3314B’s dust lanes, for example, appear far lighter than those of NGC 3314A. This is not because that galaxy lacks dust, but rather because they are lightened by the bright fog of stars in the foreground. NGC 3314A’s dust, in contrast, is backlit by the stars of NGC 3314B, silhouetting them against the bright background.
Such an alignment of galaxies is also helpful to astronomers studying gravitational microlensing, a phenomenon that occurs when stars in one galaxy cause small perturbations in the light coming from a more distant one. Indeed, the observations of NGC 3314 that led to this image were carried out in order to investigate this phenomenon.
This mosaic image covers a large field of view (several times the size of an individual exposure from Hubble’s Advanced Camera for Surveys). Thanks to a long exposure time of more than an hour in total exposure time for every frame, the image shows not only NGC 3314, but also many other more distant galaxies in the background.
The color composite was produced from exposures taken in blue and red light.
Image caption: The Hubble Space Telescope has produced an incredibly detailed image of a pair of overlapping galaxies called NGC 3314. While the two galaxies look as if they are in the midst of a collision, this is in fact a trick of perspective: the two are in chance alignment from our vantage point. Credit: NASA, ESA, the Hubble Heritage (STScI/AURA)-ESA/Hubble Collaboration, and W. Keel (University of Alabama)