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.
According to predominant theories of galaxy formation, the earliest galaxies in the Universe were born from the merger of globular clusters, which were in turn created by the first stars coming together. Today, these spherical clusters of stars are found orbiting around the a galactic core of every observable galaxy and are a boon for astronomers seeking to study galaxy formation and some of the oldest stars in the Universe.
Interestingly enough, it appears that some of these globular clusters may not have survived the merger process. According to a new study by an international team of astronomers, a cluster was torn apart by our very own galaxy about two billion years ago. This is evidenced by the presence of a metal-poor debris ring that they observed wrapped around the entire Milky Way, a remnant from this ancient collision.
This galaxy looks a lot like our own Milky Way galaxy. But while our galaxy is actively forming lots of new stars, this one is birthing stars at only half the rate of the Milky Way. It’s been mostly quiet for billions of years, feeding lightly on the thin gas in intergalactic space.
According to current cosmological theories, the Milky Way started to form approximately 13.5 billion years ago, just a few hundred million years after the Big Bang. This began with globular clusters, which were made up of some of the oldest stars in the Universe, coming together to form a larger galaxy. Over time, the Milky Way cannibalized several smaller galaxies within its cosmic neighborhood, growing into the spiral galaxy we know today.
Many new stars formed as mergers added more clouds of dust and gas and caused them to undergo gravitational collapse. In fact, it is believed that our Sun was part of a cluster that formed 4.6 billion years ago and that its siblings have since been distributed across the galaxy. Luckily, an international team of astronomers recently used a novel method to locate one of the Sun’s long-lost “solar siblings“, which just happens to be an identical twin!
Globular clusters have been a source of fascination ever since astronomers first observed them in the 17th century. These spherical collections of stars are among the oldest known stars in the Universe, and can be found in the outer regions of most galaxies. Because of their age and the fact that almost all larger galaxies appear to have them, their role in galactic evolution has remained something of a mystery.
Previously, astronomers were of the opinion that globular clusters were some of the earliest stars to have formed in the Universe, roughly 13 billion years ago. However, new research has indicated that these clusters may actually be about 4 billion years younger, being roughly 9 billion years old. These findings may alter our understanding of how the Milky Way and other galaxies formed, and how the Universe itself came to be.
The study, titled “Reevaluating Old Stellar Populations“, recently appeared online and is being evaluated for publication in The Monthly Notices for the Royal Astronomical Society. The study was led by Dr. Elizabeth Stanway, an Associate Professor in the Astronomy group at the University of Warwick, UK, and was assisted by Dr. J.J. Eldridge, a Senior Lecturer at the University of Auckland, New Zealand.
For the sake of their study, Dr. Stanway and Dr. Eldridge developed a series of new research models designed to reconsider the evolution of stars. These models, known as Binary Population and Spectral Synthesis (BPASS) models, had previously proven effective in exploring the properties of young stellar populations within the Milky Way and throughout the Universe.
Using these same models, Dr. Stanway and Dr. Eldridge studied a sample of globular clusters in the Milky Way and nearby quiescent galaxies. They also took into account the details of binary star evolution within globular clusters and used them to explore the colors of light and spectra from old binary populations. In short, binary star system evolution consists of one star expanding into a giant while the gravitational force of the smaller star strips away the atmosphere of the giant.
What they found was that these binary systems were about 9 billion years old. Since these stars are thought to have formed at the same time as the globular clusters themselves, this demonstrated that globular clusters are not as old as other models have suggested. As Dr. Stanway said of the BPASS models she and Dr. Eldridge developed:
“Determining ages for stars has always depended on comparing observations to the models which encapsulate our understanding of how stars form and evolve. That understanding has changed over time, and we have been increasingly aware of the effects of stellar multiplicity – the interactions between stars and their binary and tertiary companions.
If correct, this study could open up new pathways of research into how massive galaxies and their stars are formed. However, Dr. Stanway admits that much work still lies ahead, which includes looking at nearby star systems where individual stars can be resolved – rather than considering the integrated light of a cluster. Nevertheless, the study could have immense significant for our understanding of how and when galaxies in our Universe formed.
“If true, it changes our picture of the early stages of galaxy evolution and where the stars that have ended up in today’s massive galaxies, such as the Milky Way, may have formed,” she said. “We aim to follow up this research in the future, exploring both improvements in modelling and the observable predictions which arise from them.”
An integral part of cosmology is understanding when the Universe came to be the way it is, not just how. By determining how old globular clusters are, astronomers will have another crucial piece of the puzzle as to how and when the earliest galaxies formed. And these, combined with observations that look to the earliest epochs of the Universe, could just yield a complete model of cosmology.
Astronomers have been fascinated with globular clusters ever since they were first observed in 17th century. These spherical collections of stars are among the oldest known stellar systems in the Universe, dating back to the early Universe when galaxies were just beginning to grow and evolve. Such clusters orbit the centers of most galaxies, with over 150 known to belong to the Milky Way alone.
One of these clusters is known as NGC 3201, a cluster located about 16,300 light years away in the southern constellation of Vela. Using the ESO’s Very Large Telescope (VLT) at the Paranal Observatory in Chile, a team of astronomers recently studied this cluster and noticed something very interesting. According to the study they released, this cluster appears to have a black hole embedded in it.
For the sake of their study, the team relied on the Multi Unit Spectroscopic Explorer (MUSE) instrument on the VLT to observe NGC 3201. This instrument is unique because of the way it allows astronomers to measure the motions of thousands of far away stars simultaneously. In the course of their observations, the team found that one of the cluster’s stars was being flung around at speeds of several hundred kilometers an hour and with a period of 167 days.
“It was orbiting something that was completely invisible, which had a mass more than four times the Sun — this could only be a black hole! The first one found in a globular cluster by directly observing its gravitational pull.”
This finding was rather unexpected, and constitutes the first time that astronomers have been able to detect an inactive black hole at the heart of a globular cluster – meaning that it is not currently accreting matter or surrounded by a glowing disc of gas. They were also able to estimate the black hole’s mass by measuring the movements of the star around it and thus extrapolating its enormous gravitational pull.
From its observed properties, the team determined that the rapidly-moving star is about 0.8 times the mass of our Sun and the mass of its black hole counterpart to be around 4.36 times the Sun’s mass. This put’s it in the “stellar-mass black hole” category, which are stars that exceeds the maximum mass allowance of a neutron star, but are smaller than supermassive black holes (SMBHs) – which exist at the centers of most galaxies.
This finding is highly significant, and not just because it was the first time that astronomers have observed a stellar-mass black hole in a globular cluster. In addition, it confirms what scientists have been suspecting for a few years now, thanks to recent radio and x-ray studies of globular clusters and the detection of gravity wave signals. Basically, it indicates that black holes are more common in globular clusters than previously thought.
“Until recently, it was assumed that almost all black holes would disappear from globular clusters after a short time and that systems like this should not even exist!” said Giesers. “But clearly this is not the case – our discovery is the first direct detection of the gravitational effects of a stellar-mass black hole in a globular cluster. This finding helps in understanding the formation of globular clusters and the evolution of black holes and binary systems – vital in the context of understanding gravitational wave sources.”
This find was also significant given that the relationship between black holes and globular clusters remains a mysterious, but highly important one. Due to their high masses, compact volumes, and great ages, astronomers believe that clusters have produced a large number of stellar-mass black holes over the course of the Universe’s history. This discovery could therefore tell us much about the formation of globular clusters, black holes, and the origins of gravitational wave events.
And be sure to enjoy this ESO podcast explaining the recent discovery:
Welcome back to another edition of Messier Monday! Today, we continue in our tribute to Tammy Plotner with a look at the M12 globular cluster!
In the 18th century, French astronomer Charles Messier noted the presence of several “nebulous objects” in the night sky which he originally mistook for comets. After realizing his mistake, he began compiling a list of these objects in order to ensure that other astronomers did not make the same error. In time, this list would include 100 objects, and would come to be known as the Messier Catalog to posterity.
One the many objects included in this is Messier 12 (aka. M12 or NGC 6218), a globular cluster located in the Ophiuchus constellation some 15,700 light-years from Earth. M12 is positioned just 3° from the cluster M10, and the two are among the brightest of the seven Messier globulars located in Ophiuchus. It is also interesting to note that M12 is approaching our Solar System at a velocity of 16 km/s.
Turns out, we may not know our extragalactic neighbors as well as we thought.
One of the promises held forth with the purchase of our first GoTo telescope way back in the late 1990s was the ability to quickly and easily hunt down ever fainter deep sky fuzzies. No more juggling star charts and red headlamps, no more star-hopping. Heck, it was fun to just aim the scope at a favorable target field, hit ‘identify,’ and see what it turned up.
One of our more interesting ‘discoveries’ on these expeditions was NGC 2419, a globular cluster that my AstroMaster GoTo controller (featuring a 10K memory database!) triumphantly announced was an ‘Intergalactic Wanderer…’
Or is it? The case for NGC 2419 as a lonely globular wandering the cosmic void between the galaxies is a romantic and intriguing notion, and one you see repeated around the echo chamber that is the modern web. First observed by Sir William Herschel in 1788 and re-observed by his son John in 1833, the debate has swung back and forth as to whether NGC 2419 is a true globular or—as has been also suggested of the magnificent southern sky cluster Omega Centauri—the remnant of a dwarf spheroidal galaxy torn apart by our Milky Way. Lord Rosse also observed NGC 2419 with the 72-inch Leviathan of Parsonstown, and Harlow Shapley made a distance estimate of about 163,000 light years to NGC 2419 in 1922.
Today, we know that NGC 2419 is about 270,000 light years from the Sun, and about 300,000 light years from the core of our galaxy. Think of this: we actually see NGC 2419 as it appeared back in the middle of the Pleistocene Epoch, a time when modern homo sapiens were still the new hipsters on the evolutionary scene of life on Earth. What’s more, photometric studies over the past decade suggest there is a true gravitational link between NGC 2419 and the Milky Way. This would mean at its current distance, NGC 2419 would orbit our galaxy once every 3 billion years, about 75% the age of the Earth itself.
This hands down makes NGC 2419 the distant of the more than 150 globular clusters known to orbit our galaxy.
At an apparent magnitude of +9 and 6 arc minutes in size, NGC 2419 occupies an area of the sky otherwise devoid of globulars. Most tend to lie towards the galactic core as seen from our solar vantage point, and in fact, there are no bright globulars within 60 degrees of NGC 2419. The cluster sits 7 degrees north of the bright star Castor just across the border of Gemini in the constellation of the Lynx at Right Ascension 7 Hours, 38 minutes and 9 seconds and declination +38 degrees, 52 minutes and 55 seconds. Mid-January is the best time to spy NGC 2419 when it sits roughly opposite to the Sun , though June still sees the cluster 20 degrees above the western horizon at dusk before solar conjunction in mid-July.
We know globular clusters (say ‘globe’ -ular, not “glob’ -ular) are some of the most ancient structures in the universe due to their abundance of metal poor, first generation stars. In fact, it was a major mystery up until about a decade ago as to just how these clusters could appear to be older than the universe they inhabit. Today, we know that NGC 2419 is about 12.3 billion years old, and we’ve refined the age of the Universe as per data from the Planck spacecraft down to 13.73 (+/-0.12) billion years.
What would the skies look like from a planet inside NGC 2419? Well, in addition to the swarm of hundreds of thousands of nearby stars, the Milky Way galaxy itself would be a conspicuous object extending about 30 degrees across and shining at magnitude -2. Move NGC 2419 up to 10 parsecs distant, and it would rival the brightness of our First Quarter Moon and be visible in the daytime shining at magnitude -9.5.
And ironically, another 2007 study has suggested that the relative velocity of Large and Small Magellanic Clouds suggest that they may not be bound to our galaxy, but are instead first time visitors passing by.
And speaking of passing by, yet another study suggests that the Milky Way and the Andromeda galaxy set on a collision course billions of years hence may be in contact… now.
Mind not blown yet?
A 2014 study looking at extragalactic background light during a mission known as CIBER suggests that there may actually be more stars wandering the universe than are bound to galaxies…
But that’s enough paradigm-shifting for one day. Be sure to check out NGC 2419 and friends and remember, everything you learned about the universe as a kid, is likely to be false.