Gaia Looks Beyond our Galaxy to Other Islands of Stars

The European Space Agency’s (ESA) Gaia mission is an ambitious project. Having launched in December of 2013, the purpose of this space observatory has been to measure the position and distances of 1 billion objects – including stars, extra-solar planets, comets, asteroids and even quasars. From this, astronomers hope to create the most detailed 3D space catalog of the cosmos ever made.

Back in 2016, the first batch of Gaia data (based on its first 14 months in space) was released. Since then, scientists have been poring over the raw data to obtain clearer images of the neighboring stars and galaxies that were studied by the mission. The latest images to be released, based on Gaia data, included revealing pictures of the Large Magellanic Cloud (LMC), the Andromeda galaxy, and the Triangulum galaxy.

The first catalog of Gaia data consisted of information on 1.142 billion stars, including their precise position in the night sky and their respective brightness. Most of these stars are located in the Milky Way, but a good fraction were from galaxies beyond ours, which included about ten million belonging to the LMC. This satellite galaxy, located about 166 000 light-years away, has about 1/100th the mass of the Milky Way.

Gaia’s view of the Large Magellanic Cloud. Click here for further details, full credits, and larger versions of the image. Credit: ESA/Gaia/DPAC

The two images shown above display composite data obtained by the Gaia probe. The image on the left, which was compiled by mapping the total density of stars detected by Gaia, shows the large-scale distribution of stars in the LMC. This image also delineates the extent of the LMC’s spiral arms, and is peppered with bright dots that represent faint clusters of stars.

The image on the right, on the other hand, reveals other aspects of the LMC and its stars. This image was created by mapping radiation flux in the LMC and is dominated by the brightest and most massive stars. This allows the bar of the LMC to be more clearly defined and also shows individual regions of star-formation – like 30 Doradus, which is visible just above the center of the galaxy in the picture.

The next set of images (shown below), which were also obtained using data from the first 14 months of the Gaia mission, depict two nearby spiral galaxies – the Andromeda galaxy (M31) and its neighbor, the Triangulum galaxy (M33). The Andromeda galaxy, located 2.5 million light-years away, is the largest galaxy in our vicinity and slightly more massive than our own. It is also destined to merge with the Milky Way in roughly 4 billion years.

The Triangulum galaxy, meanwhile, is a fraction the size of the Milky Way (with an estimated fifty billion stars) and is located slightly farther from us than Andromeda – about 2.8 million light-years distant. As with the LMC images, the images on the left are based on the total density of stars and show stars of all types, while images on the right are based on the radiation flux of each galaxy and mainly show the bright end of the stellar population.

Gaia’s view of the Andromeda galaxy. Credit: ESA/Gaia/DPAC

Another benefit of the images on the right is that they indicate the regions where the most intense star formation is taking place. For many years, astronomers have known that the LMC boasts a significant amount of star-forming activity, forming stars at five times the rate of the Milky Way Galaxy. Andromeda, meanwhile, has reached a point of near-inactivity in the past 2 billion years when it comes to star formation.

In comparison, the Triangulum Galaxy still shows signs of star formation, at a rate that is about four and a half times that of Andromeda. Thanks to the Gaia images, which indicate the relative rates of star formation from elevated levels of radiation flux and brightness, these differences between Andromeda, Triangulum and the LMC is illustrated quite beautifully.

What’s more, by analyzing the motions of individual stars in external galaxies like the LMC, Andromeda, or Triangulum, it will be possible to learn more about the overall rotation of stars within these galaxies. It will also be possible to determine the orbits of the galaxies themselves, which are all part of the larger structure known as the Local Group.

This region of space, which the Milky Way is part of, measures roughly 10 million light-years across and has an estimated 1.29 billion Solar masses. This, in turn, is just one of several collections of galaxies in the even larger Virgo Supercluster. Measuring how stars and galaxies orbit about these larger structures is key to determining cosmic evolution, how the Universe came to be as it is today and where it is heading.

The Triangulum galaxy (M33), based on data compiled by the Gaia mission. Credit: ESA/Gaia/DPAC

An international team of astronomers recently attempted to do just that using the CosmicFlows surveys. These studies, which were conducted between 2011 and 2016, calculated the distance and speed of neighboring galaxies. By pairing this data with other distance estimates and data on the galaxies gravity fields, they were able to chart the motions of almost 1,400 galaxies within 100 million light years over the course of the past 13 billion years.

In the case of the LMC, another team of astronomers recently attempted to measure its orbit using a subset of data from the first Gaia release – the Tycho–Gaia Astrometric Solution (TGAS). Combined with additional parallax and proper motion data from the Hipparcos mission, the team was able to identify 29 stars in the LMC and measure their proper motion, which they then used to estimate the rotation of the galaxy.

Gaia’s observations of the LMC and the Small Magellanic Cloud (SMC) are also important when it comes to studying Cepheid and RR Lyrae variables. For years, astronomers have indicated that these stars could be used as indicators of cosmic distances for galaxies beyond our own. In addition, astronomers working at the Gaia Data Processing and Analysis Consortium (DPAC) tested this method on hundreds of LMC variable stars in order to validate data from the first release.

Astronomers are eagerly awaiting the second release of Gaia data, which is scheduled for April of 2018. This will also contain measurements on stellar distances and their motions across the sky, and is expected to reveal even more about our galaxy and its neighbors. But in the meantime, there are still plenty of revelations to be found from the first release, and scientists expect to be busy with it for many years to come.

Further Reading: ESA

Messier 33 – The Triangulum Galaxy

Welcome back to Messier Monday! In our ongoing tribute to the great Tammy Plotner, we take a look at the Triangulum Galaxy, also known as Messier 33. Enjoy!

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 them so that 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 is the Triangulum Galaxy, a spiral galaxy located approximately 3 million light-years from Earth in the direction of the Triangulum constellation. As the third-largest member of the Local Group of galaxies (behind the Andromeda Galaxy and the Milky Way), it is the one of the most distant objects that can be seen with the naked eye. Much like M32, M33 is very close to Andromeda, and is believed to be a satellite of this major galaxy.


At some 3 million light years away from Earth, the Triangulum Galaxy is the third largest galaxy in our Local Group and it may be a gravitationally bound companion of the Andromeda Galaxy. Its beautiful spiral arms show multitudes of red HII regions and blue clouds of young stars. The largest of these HII regions (NGC 604) spans nearly 1500 across and is the largest so far known.

The Triangulum Galaxy (M33), taken by the Swift Gamma-Ray Burst Mission. Credit: NASA/Swift

It has a spectrum similar to the Orion Nebula – our own Milky Way’s most celebrated starbirth region. “M33 is a gigantic laboratory where you can watch dust being created in novae and supernovae, being distributed in the winds of giant stars, and being reborn in new stars,” said University of Minnesota researcher and lead author Elisha Polomski. By studying M33, “you can see the Universe in a nutshell.”

Of course, our curiousity about our neighboring galaxy has driven us to try to understand more over the years. Once Edwin Hubble set the standard with Cepheid variables, we began measuring distance by discovering about 25 of them in M33. By 2004 we were studying the red giant star branch to peer even further. As A.W. McConnachie said in a 2004 study of the galaxy:

“The absolute bolometric luminosity of the point of core helium ignition in old, metal-poor, red giant stars is of roughly constant magnitude, varying only very slightly with mass or metallicity. It can thus be used as a standard candle. This technique then allows for the determination of realistic uncertainties which reflect the quality of the luminosity function used. Finally, we apply our technique to the Local Group spiral galaxy M33 and the dwarf galaxies Andromeda I and II, and derive distance. The result for M33 is in excellent agreement with the Cepheid distances to this galaxy, and makes the possibility of a significant amount of reddening in this object unlikely.”

By 2005, astronomers had detected two water masers on either side of M33 and for the first time ever – revealed what direction it as going in. According to Andreas Brunthaler (et al), who published a study about the distance and proper motion of the galaxy in 2005:

“We measured the angular rotation and proper motion of the Triangulum Galaxy (M33) with the Very Long Baseline Array by observing two H2O masers on opposite sides of the galaxy. By comparing the angular rotation rate with the inclination and rotation speed, we obtained a distance of 730 +/- 168 kiloparsecs. This distance is consistent with the most recent Cepheid distance measurement. This distance is consistent with the most recent Cepheid distance measurement. M33 is moving with a velocity of 190 +/- 59 kilometers per second relative to the Milky Way. These measurements promise a method to determine dynamical models for the Local Group and the mass and dark-matter halos of M31, M33, and the Milky Way.”

Composite image of the Triangulum Galaxy (Messier 33), taken at Mount Lemmon Observatory. Credit: Adam Block/Mount Lemmon SkyCenter/University of Arizona

Yes, it’s moving toward the Andromeda Galaxy, much like how Andromeda is moving towards us! In 2006, a group of astronomers announced the discovery of an eclipsing binary star in M33. As A.Z. Bonanos, the lead author of the study that detailed the discovery, said:

“We present the first direct distance determination to a detached eclipsing binary in M33, which was found by the DIRECT Project. Located in the OB 66 association, it was one of the most suitable detached eclipsing binaries found by DIRECT for distance determination, given its 4.8938 day period.”

By studying the eclipsing binary, astronomers soon knew their size, distance, temperature and absolute magnitude. But more was yet to come! In 2007, the Chandra X-ray Observatory revealed even more when a black hole nearly 16 times the mass of the Sun was revealed. The black hole, named M33 X-7, orbits a companion star which it eclipses every 3.5 days. This means the companion star must also have an incredibly large mass as well….

Yet how huge must the parent star have been to have formed a black hole in advance of its companion? As Jerome Orosz, of San Diego State University, was quoted as saying in a 2007 Chandra press release:

“This discovery raises all sorts of questions about how such a big black hole could have been formed. Massive stars can be much less extravagant than people think by hanging onto a lot more of their mass toward the end of their lives. This can have a big effect on the black holes that these stellar time-bombs make.”

Artist’s rendering of the black hole found in orbit of the large blue star in M33 . Credit: Chandra/Harvard/HST

Stellar bombs? You bet. Gigantic stellar explosions even. Although no supernovae events have been detected in the Triangulum galaxy, it certainly doesn’t lack for evidence of supernova remnants. According to a 2004 study by F. Haberl and W. Pietsch of the Max-Planck-Institute:

“We present a catalogue of 184 X-ray sources within 50′ of the nucleus of the local group spiral galaxy M 33. The catalogue is derived from an analysis of the complete set of ROSAT archival data pointed in the direction of M 33 and contains X-ray position, existence likelihood, count rates and PSPC spectral hardness ratios. To identify the sources the catalog was correlated with previous X-ray catalogues, optical and radio catalogues. In addition sources were classified according to their X-ray properties. We find seven candidates for supersoft X-ray sources, of which two may be associated with known planetary nebulae in M 33. The majority of X-ray detected supernova remnants is also detected at radio frequencies and seen in optical lines. The low overall X-ray detection rate of optically selected SNRs can probably be attributed to their expansion into interstellar matter of low density.”

Or the creation of black holes…

History of Observation:

While the Triangulum Galaxy was probably first observed by Hodierna before 1654 (back when skies were dark), it was independently rediscovered by Charles Messier, and cataloged by him on August 25, 1764. As he recorded in his notes on the occasion:

“I have discovered a nebula between the head of the northern Fish and the large Triangle, a bit distant from a star which had not been known, of sixth magnitude, of which I have determined the position; the right ascension of that star was 22d 7′ 13″, and its declination 29d 54′ 10″ north: near that star, there is another one which is the first of Triangulum, described by the letter b. Flamsteed described it in his catalog, of sixth magnitude; it is less beautiful than that of which I have given the position, and one should set it to the rank of the stars of the eighth class. The nebula is a whitish light of 15 minutes in diameter, of an almost even density, despite a bit more luminous at two third of its diameter; it doesn’t contain any star: one sees it with difficulty with an ordinary refractor of one foot.”

The location of the Triangulum Galaxy in the night sky. Credit: Wikisky

While Sir William Herschel wouldn’t publish papers on Messier’s findings, he was an astronomically curious soul and couldn’t help but study M33 intently on his own, writing:

“There is a suspicion that the nebula consists of exceedingly small stars. With this low power it has a nebulous appearance; and it vanishes when I put on the higher magnifying powers of 278 and 460.” He would continue to observe this grand galaxy again and again over the years, cataloging its various regions with their own separate numbers and keeping track of his findings: “The stars of the cluster are the smallest points imaginable. The diameter is nearly 18 minutes.”

Yet it would take a very special observer, one named Bill Parsons – the third Earl of Rosse – to become the very first to describe it as spiral. As he wrote of it:

“September 16, 1849. – New spiral: Alpha the brighter branch; Gamma faint; Delta short but pretty bright; Beta pretty distinct; Epsilon but suspected; the whole involved in a faint nebula, which probably extends past several knots which lie about it in different directions. Faint nebula seems to extend very far following: drawing taken.”

Quite the description indeed, since it would eventually lead to Rosse’s description of M33 being “…full of knots. Spiral arrangement. Two similar curves like an “S” cross in the center”, and to other astronomers discovering that these “spiral nebulae” were extra-galactic!

The location of Messier 33 in the Triangulum constellation. Credit: IAU and Sky & Telescope magazine (Roger Sinnott & Rick Fienberg)

Locating Messier 33:

While actually locating Messier 33 isn’t so difficult, seeing Messier 33 can be. Even though it is billed at nearly unaided eye magnitude, this huge, low surface brightness galaxy requires some experience with equipment and observing conditions or you may hunt forever in the right place and never find it. Let’s begin first by getting you in the proper area! First locate the Great Square of Pegasus – and its easternmost bright star, Alpha. About a hand span further east you will see the brightest star in Triangulum – Alpha.

M33 is just a couple of degrees (about 2 finger widths) west. Now, the most important part to understand is that you must use the lowest magnification possible, or you won’t be able to see the proverbial forest because of the trees. The image you see here at the top of the page is around a full degree of sky – about 1/3 the field of view of average binoculars and far larger than your average telescope eyepiece.

However, by using the least amount of magnification with a telescope you are causing M33 to appear much smaller – allowing it to fit within eyepiece field of view range. The larger the aperture, the more light it gathers and the brighter the image will be. The next thing to understand is M33 really is low surface brightness… Light pollution, a fine haze in the sky, moonlight… All of these things will make it difficult to find. Yet, there are places left here on Earth where the Triangulum Galaxy can be seen with no optical aid at all!

Enjoy your quest for M33. You may find it your first time out and it may be years before you see it in all its glory. But when you do, we guarantee you’ll never forget! Be sure to enjoy this video of the Triangulum galaxy too, courtesy of the European Southern Observatory:

Enjoy your quest for M33. You may find it your first time out and it may be years before you see it in all its glory. But when you do, we guarantee you’ll never forget!

And here are the quick facts on M33 to help you get started:

Object Name: Messier 33
Alternative Designations: M33, NGC 598, Triangulum Galaxy, Pinwheel Galaxy
Object Type: Type Sc, Spiral Galaxy
Constellation: Triangulum
Right Ascension: 01 : 33.9 (h:m)
Declination: +30 : 39 (deg:m)
Distance: 3000 (kly)
Visual Brightness: 5.7 (mag)
Apparent Dimension: 73×45 (arc min)

We have written many interesting articles about Messier Objects here at Universe Today. Here’s Tammy Plotner’s Introduction to the Messier Objects, , M1 – The Crab Nebula, M8 – The Lagoon Nebula, and David Dickison’s articles on the 2013 and 2014 Messier Marathons.

Be to sure to check out our complete Messier Catalog. And for more information, check out the SEDS Messier Database.


Astrophoto: Can You Count the 292 Pink Nebulae in the Triangulum Galaxy?

Take a look at this stunning new close-up of M33, the Triangulum Galaxy by one of our favorite astrophotographers, John Chumack. “The thing that amazes me about M33 other than it being our neighbor and a beautiful spiral galaxy, is that M33 is loaded with 292 pink nebulae (HII Star Formation Regions),” John said via email, “the largest pink nebula being NGC-604, which is actually visible in a 6″ diameter telescope…to be able to see nebula visually in other galaxies — now that is really cool!”

Your challenge for the day: how many nebulae can you count in this beautiful new image? There are also star clusters and even a few globular clusters in the image, as well.

M33 is about 2.6 million light years away and is the second closest spiral galaxy to us, next to the Andromeda galaxy. “Due to its very low surface brightness it can be a challenge to see from or nearby cities,” John explained, “but from a dark location on a perfectly clear night and assuming you have 20/20 vision, it is the furthest object the Human eye could see into deep space without optical aid.”

John used a QHY8 CCD + 16″ reflector in this 4.3 hour exposure. Pretty in pink!

John Chumack's daughter Kayla took this picture of her Dad holding a 16x24 print of M33. Image courtesy of John Chumack.
John Chumack’s daughter Kayla took this picture of her Dad holding a 16×24 print of M33. Image courtesy of John Chumack.

John said he always runs his images by his wife and children to get their final okay, if it looks good to them, then he knows it’s a keeper! His daughter Kayla liked this one enough to want to take a picture of her Dad holding a print of it.

See more of John’s work at his website, Galactic Images, or on his Flickr page.

Want to get your astrophoto featured on Universe Today? Join our Flickr group or send us your images by email (this means you’re giving us permission to post them). Please explain what’s in the picture, when you took it, the equipment you used, etc.