When Galaxies Collide, Black Holes Don’t Always Get the Feast They Were Hoping for

What happens when galaxies collide? Well, if any humans are around in about a billion years, they might find out. That’s when our Milky Way galaxy is scheduled to collide with our neighbour the Andromeda galaxy. That event will be an epic, titanic, collision. The supermassive black holes at the center of both galaxies will feast on new material and flare brightly as the collision brings more gas and dust within reach of their overwhelming gravitational pull. Where massive giant stars collide with each other, lighting up the skies and spraying deadly radiation everywhere. Right?

Maybe not. In fact, there might be no feasting at all, and hardly anything titanic about it.

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Ancient Impacts Shaped the Structure of the Milky Way

Understanding how the Universe came to be is one of the greater challenges of being an astrophysicist. Given the observable Universe’s sheer size (46.6 billion light years) and staggering age (13.8 billion years), this is no easy task. Nevertheless, ongoing observations, calculations and computer simulations have allowed astrophysicists to learn a great deal about how galaxies and larger structures have changed over time.

For example, a recent study by a team from the University of Kentucky (UK) has challenged previously-held notions about how our galaxy has evolved to become what we see today. Based on observations made of the Milky Way’s stellar disk, which was previously thought to be smooth, the team found evidence of asymmetric ripples. This indicates that in the past, our galaxy may have been shaped by ancient impacts.

The study, titled “Milky Way Tomography with K and M Dwarf Stars: The Vertical Structure of the Galactic Disk“, recently appeared in the The Astrophysical Journal. Led by Deborah Ferguson, a 2016 UK graduate, the team consisted of Professor Susan Gardner – from the UK College of Arts and Sciences – and Brian Yanny, an astrophysicist from the Fermilab Center for Particle Astrophysics (FCPA).

This study evolved from Ferguson’s senior thesis, which was overseen by Prof. Gardner. At the time, Ferguson sought to expand on previous research by Gardner and Yanny, which also sought to understand the presence of ripples in our galaxy’s stellar disk. For the sake of this new study, the team relied on data obtained by the Sloan Digital Sky Survey‘s (SDSS) 2.5m Telescope, located at the Apache Point Observatory in New Mexico.

This allowed the team to examine the spatial distribution of 3.6 million stars in the Milky Way Galaxy, from which they confirmed the presence of asymmetric ripples. These, they claim, can be interpreted as evidence of the Milky Way’s ancient impacts – in other words, that these ripples resulted from our galaxy coming into contact with other galaxies in the past.

These could include a merger between the Milky Way and the Sagittarius dwarf galaxy roughly 0.85 billion years ago, as well as our galaxy’s current merger with the Canis Major dwarf galaxy. As Prof. Gardner explained in a recent UK press release:

“These impacts are thought to have been the ‘architects’ of the Milky Way’s central bar and spiral arms. Just as the ripples on the surface of a smooth lake suggest the passing of a distant speed boat, we search for departures from the symmetries we would expect in the distributions of the stars to find evidence of ancient impacts. We have found extensive evidence for the breaking of all these symmetries and thus build the case for the role of ancient impacts in forming the structure of our Milky Way.”

Illustration showing a stage in the predicted merger between our Milky Way galaxy and the neighboring Andromeda galaxy, as it will unfold over the next several billion years. Credit: NASA; ESA; Z. Levay and R. van der Marel, STScI; T. Hallas; and A. Mellinger

As noted, Gardner’s previous work also indicated that when it came to north/south symmetry of stars in the Milky Way’s disk, there was a vertical “ripple”. In other words, the number of stars that lay above or below the stellar disk would increase from one sampling to the next the farther they looked from the center of the galactic disk. But thanks to the most recent data obtained by the SDSS, the team had a much larger sample to base their conclusions on.

And ultimately, these findings confirmed the observations made by Ferguson and Lally, and also turned up evidence of an asymmetry in the plane of the galactic disk as well. As Ferguson explained:

“Having access to millions of stars from the SDSS allowed us to study galactic structure in an entirely new way by breaking the sky up into smaller regions without loss of statistics. It has been incredible watching this project evolve and the results emerge as we plotted the stellar densities and saw intriguing patterns across the footprint. As more studies are being done in this field, I am excited to see what we can learn about the structure of our galaxy and the forces that helped to shape it.”

Understanding how our galaxy evolved and what role ancient impact played is essential to understanding the history and evolution of the Universe as a whole. And in addition to helping us confirm (or update) our current cosmological models, studies like this one can also tell us much about what lies in store for our galaxy billions of years from now.

For decades, astronomers have been of the opinion that in roughly 4 billion years, the Milky Way will collide with Andromeda. This event is likely to have tremendous repercussions, leading to the merger of both galaxy’s supermassive black holes, stellar collisions, and stars being ejected. While it’s doubtful humanity will be around for this event, it would still be worthwhile to know how this process will shape our galaxy and the local Universe.

Further Reading: University of Kentucky, The Astrophysical Journal

Galactic Gong – Milky Way Struck and Still Ringing After 100 Million Years

Small Magellanic Cloud

When galaxies collide, stars are thrown from orbits, spiral arms are stretched and twisted, and now scientists say galaxies ring like a bell long after the cosmic crash.

A team of astronomers from the United States and Canada say they have heard echoes of that ringing, possible evidence of a galactic encounter 100 million years ago when a small satellite galaxy or dark matter object passed through the Milky Way Galaxy; close to our position in the galaxy, as if a rock were thrown into a still pond causing the stars to bounce up and down on the waves. Their results were published in the Astrophysical Journal Letters.

“We have found evidence that our Milky Way had an encounter with a small galaxy or massive dark matter structure perhaps as recently as 100 million years ago,” said Larry Widrow, professor at Queen’s University in Canada. “We clearly observe unexpected differences in the Milky Way’s stellar distribution above and below the Galaxy’s midplane that have the appearance of a vertical wave — something that nobody has seen before.”

Astronomers took observations from about 300,000 nearby stars in the Sloan Digital Sky Survey. Stars move up and down at 20-30 kilometers per second while see-sawing around the galaxy at 220 kilometers per second. By comparison, the International Space Station putters around Earth at 7.71 kilometers per second; Voyager 1, the fastest man-made object, currently is leaving the solar system at about 17.46 kilometers per second. Widrow and colleagues at the University of Kentucky, The University of Chicago and Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory found that the positions of nearby stars is not quite as regular as previously thought. The team noticed a small but statistically significant difference in the distribution of stars above and below the midplane of the Milky Way.

“Our part of the Milky Way is ringing like a bell,” said Brian Yanny, of the Department of Energy’s Fermilab. “But we have not been able to identify the celestial object that passed through the Milky Way. It could have been one of the small satellite galaxies that move around the center of our galaxy, or an invisible structure such as a dark matter halo.”

Susan Gardner, professor of physics at the University of Kentucky added, “The perturbation need not have been a single isolated event in the past, and it may even be ongoing. Additional observations may well clarify its origin.”

Other possibilities considered for the variations were the effect of interstellar dust or simply the way the stars were selected in the survey. But as those events failed to explain fully the observations, the astronomers began to explore possible recent events in the history of the galaxy.

More than 20 visible satellite galaxies circle the Milky Way. Invisible satellites made up of dark matter, hypothetical matter that cannot be seen but is thought to make up a majority of the mass of the Universe, might also orbit our galaxy. Scientists believe that most of the mass orbiting the galaxy is in the form of dark matter. Using computer simulations to explore the effects of a small galaxy or dark matter structure passing through the disk of the Milky Way, the scientists developed a clearer picture of the see-saw effects they were seeing.

In terms of the nine-billion lifetime of the Milky Way Galaxy, the effects are short-lived. This part of the galaxy has been “ringing” for 100 million years and will continue for 100 million years more as the up-and-down motion dissipates, say the astronomers – unless we are hit again.

Image caption: The Small Magellanic Cloud is one of 20 visible satellite galaxies that orbit the Milky Way Galaxy. Astronomers report that a smaller counterpart or dark matter object passed through the Milky Way near our position about 100 million years ago.

Milky Way Arm Wrestles With Dark Matter


For a good number of years, astronomers have hypothesized the Sagittarius Dwarf Galaxy has been loaded up with dark matter. As one of our nearest neighboring galaxies and part of our local group, Sag DEG has been hanging around for billions of years and may have orbited us as many as ten times. However, in order to survive the tidal strain of such interaction, this loop-shaped elliptical has got to have some muscle. Now UC Irvine astronomers are speculating on how these close encounters may have shaped the Milky Way’s spiral arms.

In a study released in today’s Nature publication, astronomers are citing telescopic data and computer modeling to show how our local galactic collision has sent streams of stars out in loops in both galaxies. These long streamers continue to collect stellar members and the rotation of the Milky Way forms them into our classic spiral pattern. The news is the presence of dark matter in Sag DEG is responsible for the initial push.

“It’s kind of like putting a fist into a bathtub of water as opposed to your little finger,” said James Bullock, a theoretical cosmologist who studies galaxy formation.

But the little Sagittarius Dwarf, as strong as the dark matter might be, isn’t going to win this cosmic arm wrestling match. Each time we interact, the small galaxy gets further torn apart and about all that’s left is four globular clusters and a smattering of old stars which spans roughly 10,000 light-years in diameter.

“When all that dark matter first smacked into the Milky Way, 80 percent to 90 percent of it was stripped off,” explained lead author Chris Purcell, who did the work with Bullock at UCI and is now at the University of Pittsburgh. “That first impact triggered instabilities that were amplified, and quickly formed spiral arms and associated ring-like structures in the outskirts of our galaxy.”

Will we meet again? Yes. The Sagittarius galaxy is due to strike the southern face of the Milky Way disk fairly soon, Purcell said – in another 10 million years or so.

Original Story Source: University of Irvine News. Further Reading: The Sagittarius impact as an architect of spirality and outer rings in the Milky Way.