Stars are gravitationally fastened to their galaxies and move in concert with their surroundings. But sometimes, something breaks the bond. If a star gets too close to a supermassive black hole, for example, the black hole can expel it out into space as a rogue star.
What would happen to Earth if one of these stellar interlopers got too close?
Hypervelocity stars (HVS) certainly live up to their name, traveling thousands of kilometers per second or a fraction of the speed of light (relativistic speeds). These speed demons are thought to be the result of galactic or black hole mergers, globular clusters kicking out members, or binary pairs where one star is kicked out when the other goes supernova. Occasionally, these stars are fast enough to escape our galaxy and (in some cases) take their planetary systems along for the ride. This could have drastic implications for our theories of how life could be distributed throughout the cosmos (aka. panspermia theory).
There are thousands of these stars in our galaxy, and tracking them has become the task of cutting-edge astrometry missions (like the ESA’s Gaia Observatory). In previous research, astronomers suggested that these stars could be used to determine the mass of the Milky Way. In a recent study from Leiden University in the Netherlands, Ph.D. candidate Fraser Evans showed how data on HVS could be used to probe the mysteries of the most extreme objects in our Universe – supermassive black holes (SMBHs) and the violent supernovae of massive stars.
All the stars we can see with the naked eye are part of the Milky Way. The gravitational power of the galaxy’s combined mass binds the stars to the galaxy. But sometimes stars are evicted from the galaxy.
These stars are called hypervelocity stars, and some of them are born from powerful gravitational interactions in globular clusters.
Dark matter is notoriously difficult to study. It’s essentially invisible to astronomers since it can’t be seen directly. So astronomers rely on effects such as the gravitational lensing of light to map its presence in the universe. That method works well for other galaxies, but not so well for our own. To map dark matter in the Milky Way, we rely mostly on the motions of stars in our galaxy. Since dark matter attracts regular matter gravitationally, the method works well for areas of the galaxy where there are stars. Unfortunately, most of the stars lie along the galactic plane, making it difficult to map dark matter above and below that plane. But a recent study proposes a way to map more of our galaxy’s dark matter using runaway stars.
Within our galaxy, there are thousands of stars that orbit the center of the Milky Way at high velocities. On occasion, some of them pick up so much speed that they break free of our galaxy and become intergalactic objects. Because of the extreme dynamical and astrophysical processes involved, astronomers are most interested in studying these stars – especially those that are able to achieve escape velocity and leave our galaxy.
Every once in a while, the Milky Way ejects a star. The evicted star is typically ejected from the chaotic area at the center of the galaxy, where our Super Massive Black Hole (SMBH) lives. But at least one of them was ejected from the comparatively calm galactic disk, a discovery that has astronomers rethinking this whole star ejection phenomenon.
For almost two centuries, scientists have theorized that life may be distributed throughout the Universe by meteoroids, asteroids, planetoids, and other astronomical objects. This theory, known as Panspermia, is based on the idea that microorganisms and the chemical precursors of life are able to survive being transported from one star system to the next.
Expanding on this theory, a team of researchers from the Harvard Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics (CfA) conducted a study that considered whether panspermia could be possible on a galactic scale. According to the model they created, they determined that the entire Milky Way (and even other galaxies) could be exchanging the components necessary for life.
In December of 2013, the European Space Agency (ESA) launched the Gaia mission. Since that time, this space observatory has been busy observing over 1 billion astronomical objects in our galaxy and beyond – including stars, planets, comets, asteroids, quasars, etc. – all for the sake of creating the largest and most precise 3D space catalog ever made.
The ESA has also issued two data releases since then, both of which have led to some groundbreaking discoveries. The latest comes from the Leiden Observatory, where a team of astronomers used Gaia data to track what they thought were high-velocity stars being kicked out of the Milky Way, but which actually appeared to be moving into our galaxy.
For centuries, astronomers have been looking beyond our Solar System to learn more about the Milky Way Galaxy. And yet, there are still many things about it that elude us, such as knowing its precise mass. Determining this is important to understanding the history of galaxy formation and the evolution of our Universe. As such, astronomers have attempted various techniques for measuring the true mass of the Milky Way.
So far, none of these methods have been particularly successful. However, a new study by a team of researchers from the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics proposed a new and interesting way to determine how much mass is in the Milky Way. By using hypervelocity stars (HVSs) that have been ejected from the center of the galaxy as a reference point, they claim that we can constrain the mass of our galaxy.
To be clear, determining the mass of the Milky Way Galaxy is no simple task. On the one hand, observations are difficult because the Solar System lies deep within the disk of the galaxy itself. But at the same time, there’s also the mass of our galaxy’s dark matter halo, which is difficult to measure since it is not “luminous”, and therefore invisible to conventional methods of detection.
Current estimates of the galaxy’s total mass are based on the motions of tidal streamers of gas and globular clusters, which are both influenced by the gravitational mass of the galaxy. But so far, these measurements have produced mass estimates that range from one to several trillion solar-masses. As Professor Loeb explained to Universe Today via email, precisely measuring the mass of the Milky Way is of great importance to astronomers:
“The Milky Way provides a laboratory for testing the standard cosmological model. This model predicts that the number of satellite galaxies of the Milky Way depends sensitively on its mass. When comparing the predictions to the census of known satellite galaxies, it is essential to know the Milky Way mass. Moreover, the total mass calibrates the amount of invisible (dark) matter and sets the depth of the gravitational potential well and implies how fast should stars move for them to escape to intergalactic space.”
For the sake of their study, Prof. Loeb and Dr. Fragione therefore chose to take a novel approach, which involved modeling the motions of HVSs to determine the mass of our galaxy. More than 20 HVSs have been discovered within our galaxy so far, which travel at speeds of up to 700 km/s (435 mi/s) and are located at distances of about 100 to 50,000 light-years from the galactic center.
These stars are thought to have been ejected from the center of our galaxy thanks to the interactions of binary stars with the supermassive black hole (SMBH) at the center of our galaxy – aka. Sagittarius A*. While their exact cause is still the subject of debate, the orbits of HVSs can be calculated since they are completely determined by the gravitational field of the galaxy.
As they explain in their study, the researchers used the asymmetry in the radial velocity distribution of stars in the galactic halo to determine the galaxy’s gravitational potential. The velocity of these halo stars is dependent on the potential escape speed of HVSs, provided that the time it takes for the HVSs to complete a single orbit is shorter than the lifetime of the halo stars.
From this, they were able to discriminate between different models for the Milky Way and the gravitational force it exerts. By adopting the nominal travel time of these observed HVSs – which they calculated to about 330 million years, about the same as the average lifetime of halo stars – they were able to derive gravitational estimates for the Milky Way which allowed for estimates on its overall mass.
“By calibrating the minimum speed of unbound stars, we find that the Milky Way mass is in the range of 1.2-1.9 trillions solar masses,” said Loeb. While still subject to a range, this latest estimate is a significant improvement over previous estimates. What’s more, these estimates are consistent our current cosmological models that attempt to account for all visible matter in the Universe, as well as dark matter and dark energy – the Lambda-CDM model.
“The inferred Milky Way mass is in the range expected within the standard cosmological model,” said Leob, “where the amount of dark matter is about five times larger than that of ordinary (luminous) matter.”
Based on this breakdown, it can be said that normal matter in our galaxy – i.e. stars, planets, dust and gas – accounts for between 240 and 380 billion Solar Masses. So not only does this latest study provide more precise mass constraints for our galaxy, it could also help us to determine exactly how many star systems are out there – current estimates say that the Milky Way has between 200 to 400 billion stars and 100 billion planets.
Beyond that, this study is also significant to the study of cosmic formation and evolution. By placing more precise estimates on our galaxy’s mass, ones which are consistent with the current breakdown of normal matter and dark matter, cosmologists will be able to construct more accurate accounts of how our Universe came to be. One step clsoer to understanding the Universe on the grandest of scales!