Evidence: Milky Way galaxy is destroying its dwarf-galaxy neighbors

Our Milky Way Galaxy continues to devour its small neighboring dwarf galaxies, reports a research team that includes a Penn State astronomer. The scientists have found evidence of the stellar snacking spread out across the sky. "Our study gives further striking evidence that we live in a galaxy that is constantly changing its structure via cannibalism of its smaller neighbors," said Donald Schneider, Distinguished Professor of Astronomy and Astrophysics and a coauthor of the paper describing the discovery.

The research team, led by Sergey Koposov and Vasily Belokurov of the University of Cambridge in the United Kingdom, recently discovered two streams of stars in the southern galactic hemisphere that were torn off the neighboring Sagittarius Dwarf Galaxy. This discovery came from analyzing data from the latest data from the Sloan Digital Sky Survey (SDSS-III) and was announced in a recently released paper, which connects these new streams of stars with two previously known streams in the northern galactic hemisphere. Schneider is the Survey Coordinator for the SDSS-III, a large international collaboration.

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"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," Koposov said. The Sagittarius Dwarf Galaxy used to be one of the brightest of the Milky Way satellites, but its disrupted remnant now lies on the other side of the galaxy, breaking up as it is crushed and stretched by huge tidal forces. It is so small that it has lost half of its stars and all its gas over the last billion years.

Before SDSS-III, Sagittarius was known to have two tails, one in front of and one behind the remnant. Previous SDSS imaging already had found the Sagittarius tidal tail in the northern galactic sky in 2006, and had revealed that one of the tails was forked into two. "That was an amazing discovery," said Belokurov, "but the remaining piece of the puzzle, the structure in the south, was missing until now."

The scientists analyzed density maps of over 13-million stars in the latest release of Sloan Digital Sky Survey data, including the crucial coverage of the southern galactic sky. The new data show that the Sagittarius stream in the south is also split into two, a fatter and brighter stream alongside a thinner and fainter stream. This brighter stream is more enriched with iron and other metals than its dimmer companion. Because each generation of stars makes and distributes more metals into the next generation, the Cambridge astronomers concluded that the brighter stream is younger than the older, fainter one. "Sagittarius is like a beast with four tails," observed Wyn Evans, from the Institute of Astronomy at the University of Cambridge.

No one knows the mechanism that caused the splitting of the tidal tails. However, scientists believe that perhaps the Sagittarius Dwarf Galaxy was once a part of a binary galactic system, similar to the present-day Large and Small Magellanic Clouds. Each of the two galaxies in this hypothetical earlier system could have produced a leading and trailing tail on falling into the Milky Way Galaxy, yielding four tails in all.

But co-author Geraint Lewis of Sydney University has another idea. He says, "Perhaps the Sagittarius Dwarf Galaxy has suffered an encounter with another object in the game of galactic billiards. Maybe a collision with a massive clump of dark matter, or even another satellite galaxy, has split each of the streams into two."

A final theory suggests that, just as meteors have spread into different streams throughout the evolution of our Solar system, debris from Sagittarius may have spread into different streams at different points in time. Different epochs may suffer different amounts of wobbling -- or precession -- in the galaxy, causing the split streams. "I have been running hundreds of simulations of the disruption of the Sagittarius dwarf and this idea looks very plausible," commented Jorge Penarrubia of the Astrophysics Institute of Andalucia (IAA) in Granada, who also was involved in the study.

Whatever the explanation, SDSS-III has provided a wealth of new information on our galaxy's destruction of the Sagittarius galaxy, as well as other events that are shaping our Milky Way and much of the rest of the universe.

Last Updated January 16, 2012