For decades, astronomers have been trying to understand why the Milky Way galaxy is warped the way it is. In recent years, astronomers have theorized that it could be our neighbors, the Magellanic Clouds, that are responsible for this phenomenon. According to this theory, these dwarf galaxies pull on the Milky Way’s dark matter, causing oscillations that pull on our galaxy’s supply of hydrogen gas.
However, according to new data from the European Space Agency’s (ESA) star-mapping Gaia Observatory, it is possible that this warp is the result of an ongoing collision with a smaller galaxy. These findings confirm that the warp in our galaxy is not static, but subject to change over time (aka. precession), and that this process is happening faster than anyone would have thought!
Between 300 million and 900 million years ago, our Milky Way galaxy nearly collided with the Sagittarius dwarf galaxy. Data from the ESA’s Gaia mission shows the ongoing effect of this event, with stars moving like ripples on the surface of a pond. The galactic collision is part of an ongoing cannibalization of the dwarf galaxy by the much-larger Milky Way.
Welcome back to Messier Monday! In our ongoing tribute to the great Tammy Plotner, we take a look at globular cluster known as Messier 54!
During the 18th century, famed French astronomer Charles Messier noted the presence of several “nebulous objects” in the night sky. Having originally mistaken them for comets, he began compiling a list of these objects so others would not make the same mistake he did. In time, this list (known as the Messier Catalog) would come to include 100 of the most fabulous objects in the night sky.
One of these objects is the globular cluster known as Messier 54. Located in the direction of the Sagittarius constellation, this cluster was once thought to be part of the Milky Way, located about 50,000 light years from Earth, In recent decades, astronomers have come to realize that it is actually part of the Sagittarius Dwarf Galaxy, located some 87,000 light-years away.
What You Are Looking At:
Running away from us at a speed of 142 kilometers per second, this compact globe of stars could be as wide as 150 light years in diameter and as far away as 87,400 light years. Wait… Hold the press… Almost 90 thousand light years? Yeah. Messier 54 isn’t part of our own Milky Way Galaxy!
In 1994 astronomers made a rather shocking discovery… this tough to resolve globular was actually part of the Sagittarius Dwarf Elliptical Galaxy. As Michael H. Siegal (et al) said in their study:
“As part of the ACS Survey of Galactic Globular Clusters, we present new Hubble Space Telescope photometry of the massive globular cluster M54 (NGC 6715) and the superposed core of the tidally disrupted Sagittarius (Sgr) dSph galaxy. Our deep (F606W ~ 26.5), high-precision photometry yields an unprecedentedly detailed color-magnitude diagram showing the extended blue horizontal branch and multiple main sequences of the M54+Sgr system. Multiple turnoffs indicate the presence of at least two intermediate-aged star formation epochs with 4 and 6 Gyr ages and [Fe/H]=-0.4 to -0.6. We also clearly show, for the first time, a prominent, ~2.3 Gyr old Sgr population of near-solar abundance. A trace population of even younger (~0.1-0.8 Gyr old), more metal-rich ([Fe/H]~0.6) stars is also indicated. The Sgr age-metallicity relation is consistent with a closed-box model and multiple (4-5) star formation bursts over the entire life of the satellite, including the time since Sgr began disrupting.”
Inside its compact depths lurk at least 82 known variable stars – 55 of which are the RR Lyrae type. But astronomers using the Hubble Space telescope have have also discovered there are two semi-regular red variables with periods of 77 and 101 days. Kevin Charles Schlaufman and Kenneth John Mighell of the National Optical Astronomy Observatory explained in their study:
“Most of our candidate variable stars are found on the PC1 images of the cluster center – a region where no variables have been reported by previous ground-based studies of variables in M54. These observations cannot be done from the ground, even with AO as there are far too many stars per resolution element in ground-based observations.”
But what other kinds of unusual stars could be discovered inside such distant cosmic stellar evolutionary laboratory? Try a phenomena known as blue hook stars! As Alfred Rosenberg (et al) said in their study:
“We present BV photometry centered on the globular cluster M54 (NGC 6715). The color-magnitude diagram clearly shows a blue horizontal branch extending anomalously beyond the zero-age horizontal-branch theoretical models. These kinds of horizontal-branch stars (also called “blue hook” stars), which go beyond the lower limit of the envelope mass of canonical horizontal-branch hot stars, have so far been known to exist in only a few globular clusters: NGC 2808, Omega Centauri (NGC 5139), NGC 6273, and NGC 6388. Those clusters, like M54, are among the most luminous in our Galaxy, indicating a possible correlation between the existence of these types of horizontal-branch stars and the total mass of the cluster. A gap in the observed horizontal branch of M54 around Teff = 27,000 K could be interpreted within the late helium flash theoretical scenario, which is a possible explanation for the origin of blue hook stars.”
But with the stars packaged together so tightly, even more has been bound to occur inside of Messier 54. As Tim Adams (et al) indicated in their study:
“We investigate a means of explaining the apparent paucity of red giant stars within post-core-collapse globular clusters. We propose that collisions between the red giants and binary systems can lead to the destruction of some proportion of the red giant population, by either knocking out the core of the red giant or by forming a common envelope system which will lead to the dissipation of the red giant envelope. Treating the red giant as two point masses, one for the core and another for the envelope (with an appropriate force law to take account of the distribution of mass), and the components of the binary system also treated as point masses, we utilize a four-body code to calculate the time-scales on which the collisions will occur. We then perform a series of smooth particle hydrodynamics runs to examine the details of mass transfer within the system. In addition, we show that collisions between single stars and red giants lead to the formation of a common envelope system which will destroy the red giant star. We find that low-velocity collision between binary systems and red giants can lead to the destruction of up to 13 per cent of the red giant population. This could help to explain the colour gradients observed in PCC globular clusters. We also find that there is the possibility that binary systems formed through both sorts of collision could eventually come into contact perhaps producing a population of cataclysmic variables.”
But the discoveries haven’t ended yet…. Because 2009 studies have revealed evidence for an intermediate mass black hole inside Messier 54 – the first known to have ever been discovered in a globular cluster.
“We report the detection of a stellar density cusp and a velocity dispersion increase in the center of the globular cluster M54, located at the center of the Sagittarius dwarf galaxy (Sgr). The central line-of-sight velocity dispersion is 20.2 ± 0.7 km s-1, decreasing to 16.4 ± 0.4 km s-1 at 2farcs5 (0.3 pc). Modeling the kinematics and surface density profiles as the sum of a King model and a point-mass yields a black hole mass of ~9400 M sun.” says R. Ibata (et al), “However, the observations can alternatively be explained if the cusp stars possess moderate radial anisotropy. A Jeans analysis of the Sgr nucleus reveals a strong tangential anisotropy, probably a relic from the formation of the system.”
History of Observation:
On July 24, 1778 when Charles Messier first laid eyes on this faint fuzzy, he had no clue that he was about to discover the very first extra-galactic globular cluster. In his notes he writes: “Very faint nebula, discovered in Sagittarius; its center is brilliant and it contains no star, seen with an achromatic telescope of 3.5 feet. Its position has been determined from Zeta Sagittarii, of 3rd magnitude.”
Years later Sir William Herschel would also study M54, and in his private notes he writes: “A round, resolvable nebula. Very bright in the middle and the brightness diminishing gradually, about 2 1/2′ or 3′ in diameter. 240 shews too pretty large stars in the faint part of the nebulosity, but I rather suppose them to have no connection with the nebula. I believe it to be no other than a miniature cluster of very compressed stars.”
Countless other observations would follow as the M54 became cataloged by other astronomers and each would in turn describe it only as having a much brighter core and some resolution around the edges. Have fun trying to crack this one!
Locating Messier 54:
M54 isn’t hard to find… Just skip down to Zeta Sagittarii, the southwestern-most star of Sagittarius “teapot” and hop a half degree south and a finger width (1.5 degrees) west. The problem is seeing it! In small optics, such as binoculars or a finder scope, it will appear almost stellar because of its small size. However, if you just look for what appears like a larger, dim star that won’t quite come into perfect focus, then you’ve found it.
In smaller telescopes, you’ll get no resolution on this class III globular cluster because it is so dense. Large aperture doesn’t fare much better either, with only some individual stars making their appearance at the outer perimeters. Because of magnitude and size, Messier 54 is better suited to dark sky conditions.
And here are the quick facts on this Messier Object to help you get started:
Object Name: Messier 54 Alternative Designations: M54, NGC 6715 Object Type: Class III Extragalactic Globular Cluster Constellation: Sagittarius Right Ascension: 18 : 55.1 (h:m) Declination: -30 : 29 (deg:m) Distance: 87.4 (kly) Visual Brightness: 7.6 (mag) Apparent Dimension: 12.0 (arc min)
Our Milky Way is a pretty vast and highly-populated space. All told, its stars number between 100 and 400 billion, with some estimates saying that it may have as many as 1 trillion. But just where did all these stars come from? Well, as it turns out, in addition to forming many of its own and merging with other galaxies, the Milky Way may have stolen some of its stars from other galaxies.
At one time, the Sagittarius Dwarf Elliptical Galaxy was thought to be the closest galaxy to our own (a position now held by the Canis Major dwarf galaxy). As one of several dozen dwarf galaxies that surround the Milky Way, it has orbited our galaxy several times in the past. With each passing orbit, it becomes subject to our galaxy’s strong gravity, which has the effect of pulling it apart.
The long-term effects of this can be seen by looking to the farthest stars in our galaxy, which consist of the eleven stars that are at a distance of about 300,000 light-years from Earth (well beyond the Milky Way’s spiral disk). According the study produced by Marion Dierickx, a graduate student at Harvard University’s Department of Astronomy, half of these stars were taken from the Sagittarius dwarf galaxy in the past.
“We see evidence for streams of stars connected to the core of the galaxy, and indicating that this dwarf galaxy passed multiple times around the Milky Way center and was ripped apart by the tidal gravitational field of the Milky Way. We are all familiar with the tide in the ocean caused by the gravitational pull of the moon, but if the moon was a much more massive object – it would have pulled the oceans apart from the Earth and we would see a stream of vapor stretched away from the Earth.”
For the sake of their study, Dierickx and Loeb ran computer models to simulate the movements of the Sagittarius dwarf over the past 8 billion years. These simulations reproduced the streams of stars stretching away from the Sagittarius dwarf galaxy to the center of our galaxy. They also varied Sagittarius’ velocity and angle of approach to see if the resulting exchanges would match current observations.
“We attempted to match the distance and velocity data for the core of the Sagitarrius galaxy, and then compared the resulting prediction for the position and velocity of the streams of stars,” said Loeb. “The results were very encouraging for some particular set of initial conditions regarding the start of the Sagittarius galaxy journey when the universe was roughly half its present age.”
What they found was that over time, the Sagittarius dwarf lost about one-third of its stars and nine-tenths of its dark matter to the Milky Way. The end result of this was the creation of three distinct streams of stars that reach one million light-years from galactic center to the very edge of the Milky Way’s halo. Interestingly enough, one of these streams has been predicted by simulations conducted by projects like the Sloan Digital Survey.
The simulations also showed that five of Sagittarius’ stars would end becoming part of the Milky Way. What’s more, the positions and velocities of these stars coincided with five of the most distant stars in our galaxy. The other six do not appear to be from Sagittarius dwarf, and may be the result of gravitational interactions with another dwarf galaxy in the past.
“The dynamics of stars in the extended arms we predict (which is the largest Galactic structure on the sky ever predicted) can be used to measure the mass and structure of the Milky Way,” said Loeb. “The outer envelope of the Milky Way was never probed directly, because no other stream was known to extend that far.”
Given the way the simulations match up with current observations, Dierickx is confident that more Sagittarius dwarf interlopers are out there, just waiting to be found. For instance, future instruments – like the Large Synoptic Survey Telescope (LSST), which is expected to begin full-survey operations by 2022 – may be able to detect the two remaining streams of stars which were predicted by the survey.
Given the time scales and the distances involved, it is rather difficult to probe our galaxy (and by extension, the Universe) to see exactly how it evolved over time. Pairing observational data with computer models, however, has been proven to test our best theories of how things came to be. In the future, thanks to improved instruments and more detailed surveys, we just might know for certain!
Scientists have known for some time that the Milky Way Galaxy is not alone in the Universe. In addition to our galaxy being part of the Local Group – a collection of 54 galaxies and dwarf galaxies – we are also part of the larger formation known as the Virgo Supercluster. So you could say the Milky Way has a lot of neighbors.
Of these, most people consider the Andromeda Galaxy to be our closest galactic cohabitant. But in truth, Andromeda is the closest spiral galaxy, and not the closest galaxy by a long shot. This distinction falls to a formation that is actually within the Milky Way itself, a dwarf galaxy that we’ve only known about for a little over a decade.
At present, the closet known galaxy to the Milky Way is the Canis Major Dwarf Galaxy – aka. the Canis Major Overdensity. This stellar formation is about 42,000 light years from the galactic center, and a mere 25,000 light years from our Solar System. This puts it closer to us than the center of our own galaxy, which is 30,000 light years away from the Solar System.
The Canis Major Dwarf Galaxy Dwarf Galaxy is believed to contain one billion stars in all, a relatively high-percentage of which are in the Red Giant Branch phase of their lifetimes. It has a roughly elliptical shape and is thought to contain as many stars as the Sagittarius Dwarf Elliptical Galaxy, the previous contender for closest galaxy to our location in the Milky Way.
In addition to the dwarf galaxy itself, a long filament of stars is visible trailing behind it. This complex, ringlike structure – which is sometimes referred to as the Monoceros Ring – wraps around the galaxy three times. The stream was first discovered in the early 21st century by astronomers conducting the Sloan Digital Sky Survey (SDSS).
It was in the course of investigating this ring of stars, and a closely spaced group of globular clusters similar to those associated with the Sagittarius Dwarf Elliptical Galaxy, that the Canis Major Dwarf Galaxy was first discovered. The current theory is that this galaxy was accreted (or swallowed up) by the Milky Way Galaxy.
Other globular clusters that orbit the center of our Milky Way as a satellite – i.e. NGC 1851, NGC 1904, NGC 2298 and NGC 2808 – are thought to have been part of the Canis Major Dwarf Galaxy before its accretion. It also has associated open clusters, which are thought to have formed as a result of the dwarf galaxy’s gravity perturbing material in the galactic disk and stimulating star formation.
Prior to its discovery, astronomers believed that the Sagittarius Dwarf Galaxy was the closest galactic formation to our own. At 70,000 light years from Earth, this galaxy was determined in 1994 to be closer to us than the Large Magellanic Cloud (LMC), the irregular dwarf galaxy that is located 180,000 light years from Earth, and which previously held the title of the closest galaxy to the Milky Way.
All of that changed in 2003 when The Canis Major Dwarf Galaxy was discovered by the Two Micron All-Sky Survey (2MASS). This collaborative astronomical mission, which took place between 1997 and 2001, relied on data obtained by the Mt. Hopkins Observatory in Arizona (for the Northern Hemisphere) and the Cerro Tololo Inter-American Observatory in Chile (for the southern hemisphere).
From this data, astronomers were able to conduct a survey of 70% of the sky, detecting about 5,700 celestial sources of infrared radiation. Infrared astronomy takes advantage of advances in astronomy that see more of the Universe, since infrared light is not blocked by gas and dust to the same extent as visible light.
Because of this technique, the astronomers were able to detect a very significant over-density of class M giant stars in a part of the sky occupied by the Canis Major constellation, along with several other related structures composed of this type of star, two of which form broad, faint arcs (as seen in the image close to the top).
The prevalence of M-class stars is what made the formation easy to detect. These cool, “Red Dwarfs” are not very luminous compared to other classes of stars, and cannot even be seen with the naked eye. However, they shine very brightly in the infrared, and appeared in great numbers.
The discovery of this galaxy, and subsequent analysis of the stars associated with it, has provided some support for the current theory that galaxies may grow in size by swallowing their smaller neighbors. The Milky Way became the size it is now by eating up other galaxies like Canis Major, and it continues to do so today. And since stars from the Canis Major Dwarf Galaxy are technically already part of the Milky Way, it is by definition the nearest galaxy to us.
As already noted, it was the Sagittarius Dwarf Elliptical Galaxy that held the position of closest galaxy to our own prior to 2003. At 75,000 light years away. This dwarf galaxy, which consists of four globular clusters that measure some 10,000 light-years in diameter, was discovered in 1994. Prior to that, the Large Magellanic Cloud was thought to be our closest neighbor.
The Andromeda Galaxy (M31) is the closest spiral galaxy to us, and though it’s gravitationally bound to the Milky Way, it’s not the closest galaxy by far – being 2 million light years away. Andromeda is currently approaching our galaxy at a speed of about 110 kilometers per second. In roughly 4 billion years, the Andromeda Galaxy is expected to merge with out own, forming a single, super-galaxy.
Future of the Canis Major Dwarf Galaxy:
Astronomers also believe that the Canis Major Dwarf Galaxy is in the process of being pulled apart by the gravitational field of the more massive Milky Way Galaxy. The main body of the galaxy is already extremely degraded, a process which will continue as it travels around and through our Galaxy.
In time, the accretion process will likely culminate with the Canis Major Dwarf Galaxy merging entirely with the Milky Way, thus depositing its 1 billion stars to the 200 t0 400 billion that are already part of our galaxy.
For more information, check out this article from the Spitzer Space Telescope‘s website about the galaxies that are closest to the Milky Way Galaxy. And here is a video by the same author on the subject.
Galactic interactions can have big effects on the shapes of the disks of galaxies. So what happens when a small galaxy intermingles with the outer part of our own larger Milky Way Galaxy? It’s not pretty, as rivers of stars are being sheared off from a neighboring dwarf galaxy, Sagittarius, according to research by a team of astronomers led by Sergey Koposov and Vasily Belokurov (University of Cambridge).
Analyzing data from the latest Sloan Digital Sky Survey (SDSS-III), the team found two streams of stars in the Southern Galactic hemisphere that were torn off Sagittarius dwarf galaxy. This new discovery also connects newly found streams with two previously discovered streams in the Northern Galactic hemisphere.
Describing the phenomenon, Koposov said, “We have long known that when small dwarf galaxies fall into bigger galaxies, elongated streams, or tails, of stars are pulled out of the dwarf by the enormous tidal field.”
Wyn Evans, one of the other team members commented, “Sagittarius is like a beast with four tails.”
At one time, the Sagittarius dwarf galaxy was one of the brightest of our Galaxy’s satellites. Now its remains are on the other side of our Galaxy, and in the process of being broken apart by immense tidal forces. Estimates show that the Sagittarius dwarf galaxy lost half its stars and gas over the past billion years.
Before the SDSS-III data analysis, it was known that Sagittarius had two tails – one in front of and one behind the remnant. This discovery was made by using previous SDSS imaging, specifically a 2006 study which found the Sagittarius tidal tail in the Northern Galactic sky appears to be split in two.
Commenting on the previous discovery, Belokurov added, “That was an amazing discovery, but the remaining piece of the puzzle, the structure in the South, was missing until now.”
Analyzing density maps of over 13 million stars in the SDSS-III data, Koposov and his team found that the Sagittarius stream in the South is also split into two. One stream is thicker and brighter, while the other is thinner and fainter. According to the paper, the fainter stream is simpler and more metal-poor, while the brighter stream is more complex and metal-rich.
The deduction makes sense since each successive generation of stars will create and distribute (via supernovae) more metals into the next generation of star formation.
While the exact cause of the tidal tail split is unknown, astronomers believe that the Sagittarius dwarf may have been part of a binary galactic system, much like the Large and Small Magellanic Clouds, visible in our Southern hemisphere. Despite the nature of the tidal tail split being presently unknown, astronomers have known that over time, many smaller galaxies have been torn apart or absorbed by our Milky Way Galaxy, as well as other galaxies in the Universe.
The movie (below) shows multiple streams produced by the disruption of the Sagittarius dwarf galaxy in the Milky Way halo. Our Sun is depicted by the orange sphere. The Sagittarius dwarf galaxy is in the middle of the stream. The area shown in the movie is roughly 200,000 parsecs (about 600,000 light-years.) Movie credit: S. Koposov and the SDSS-III collaboration.
If you’d like to learn more, you can read the full scientific paper at: arxiv.org
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.