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Data from the space telescope Gaia has revealed a Milky Way merger event that occurred about 10 billion years ago.
Using the first 22 months of observations, a team of astronomers led by Amina Helmi, University of Groningen, The Netherlands, looked at seven million stars – those for which the full 3D positions and velocities are available – and found that some 30,000 of them were part of an ‘odd collection’ moving through the Milky Way. The observed stars in particular are currently passing by our solar neighbourhood.
We are so deeply embedded in this collection that its stars surround us almost completely, and so can be seen across most of the sky.
Even though they are interspersed with other stars, the stars in the collection stood out in the Gaia data because they all move along elongated trajectories in the opposite direction to the majority of the Galaxy’s other hundred billion stars, including the Sun. They also stood out in the so-called Hertzprung-Russell diagram – which is used to compare the colour and brightness of stars – indicating that they belong to a clearly distinct stellar population.
The sheer number of odd-moving stars involved intrigued Amina and her colleagues, who suspected they might have something to do with the Milky Way’s formation history and set to work to understand their origins. In the past, Amina and her research group had used computer simulations to study what happens to stars when two large galaxies merge. When she compared those to the Gaia data, the simulated results matched the observations. “The collection of stars we found with Gaia has all the properties of what you would expect from the debris of a galactic merger,” says Amina, lead author of the paper published today in Nature.
At the time, the two galaxies were both probably about the same size, approximately equivalent to the Magellanic Clouds.
Must I mention that there is some uncertainty here? The data is good, and the conclusions seem quite reasonable. At the same time, the data is still somewhat thin. We need a lot more Gaia-type telescopes mapping out the motions and positions of all the stars of the Milky Way in far more detail before the uncertainties here will shrink.