The outskirts of the Milky Way are home to the galaxy’s oldest stars. But astronomers have spotted something unexpected in this celestial retirement community: a flock of young stars.
More surprising still, spectral analysis suggests that the infantstarshave an extragalactic origin. The stars seemingly formed not from material from the Milky Way, but from two nearbydwarf galaxiesknown as the Magellanic Clouds. Thosegalaxiesare on a collision course with our own. The discovery suggests that a stream of gas extending from the galaxies is about half as far from crashing into the Milky Way as previously thought.
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The newfound stars could reveal new insights into the Milky Way’s history; they might, for example, tell if the Magellanic Clouds collided with our galaxy in the past.
Price-Whelan and his colleaguespresent their findingsJanuary 8 at the American Astronomical Society meeting in Honolulu. They previouslyreported the discoveryof Price-Whelan 1 on December 5 inThe Astrophysical Journaland
Identifying clusters of stars is tricky because our galaxy is chock-full of the radiant orbs. Some stars may appear to be close together in the sky but actually sit at drastically different distances from Earth. Other stars may temporarily neighbor one another but move on in opposite directions. Determining which stars are actually clustered together requires many precise measurements over time.
Price-Whelan started with the latest data collected by the Gaia spacecraft, which has measured and cataloged the distances and motions of 1.7 billion stars. He searched the Gaia dataset for very blue stars, which are rare in the universe, and identified clumps of stars moving alongside them. After cross-matching with and removing known clusters, one remained.
The newfound cluster is relatively young at million years old and is on the far outskirts of the Milky Way. “It’s really, really far away,” Price-Whelan says. “It’s further than any known young stars in the Milky Way, which are typically in the disk. So right away, I was like, ‘Holy smokes, what is this?’ ‘
The cluster inhabits a region near a river of gas, dubbed the Magellanic Stream, that forms the outmost edge of the Large and Small Magellanic Clouds and reaches toward the Milky Way. Gas in the stream does not contain much metal, unlike gases in the outer reaches of the Milky Way. David Nidever, assistant professor of physics at Montana State University in Bozeman, led an analysis of the metal content of the brightest stars in the cluster. Just like the Magellanic Stream, the stars contain meager levels of metal.