Sunday, 25 February 2018

Stars around the Milky Way: Cosmic space invaders or victims of galactic eviction?

An international team of astronomers led by the Max Planck Institute for Astronomy (MPIA) has made a surprising discovery about the birthplace of groups of stars located in the halo of our Milky Way galaxy.

Stars around the Milky Way: Cosmic space invaders or victims of galactic eviction?
The Milky Way galaxy, perturbed by the tidal interaction with a dwarf galaxy, as predicted by N-body simulations. 
The locations of the observed stars above and below the disc, which are used to test the perturbation scenario, 
are indicated [Credit: T.Mueller/NASA/JPL-Caltech]
These halo stars are grouped together in giant structures that orbit the center of our galaxy, above and below the flat disk of the Milky Way. Researchers thought they may have formed from debris left behind by smaller galaxies that invaded the Milky Way in the past.

But in a study published today in the journal Nature, astronomers now have compelling evidence showing that some of these halo structures actually originate from the Milky Way's disk itself, but were kicked out.

"This phenomenon is called galactic eviction," said co-author Judy Cohen, Kate Van Nuys Page Professor of Astronomy at Caltech. "These structures are pushed off the plane of the Milky Way when a massive dwarf galaxy passes through the galactic disk. This passage causes oscillations, or waves, that eject stars from the disk, either above or below it depending on the direction that the perturbing mass is moving."

"The oscillations can be compared to sound waves in a musical instrument," said lead author Maria Bergemann of MPIA. "We call this 'ringing' in the Milky Way galaxy 'galactoseismology,' which has been predicted theoretically decades ago. We now have the clearest evidence for these oscillations in our galaxy's disk obtained so far!"

For the first time, Bergemann's team presented detailed chemical abundance patterns of these halo stars using the W. M. Keck Observatory on Maunakea, Hawaii."

The analysis of chemical abundances is a very powerful test, which allows, in a way similar to the DNA matching, to identify the parent population of the star. Different parent populations, such as the Milky Way disk or halo, dwarf satellite galaxies or globular clusters, are known to have radically different chemical compositions. So once we know what the stars are made of, we can immediately link them to their parent populations," said Bergemann.

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