Image of the Week

omega Centauri's lost stars

 

A wide view towards the center of the Milky Way, as seen by Gaia. The "Fimbulthul" stream of co-moving stars are shown coloured according to their motions as measured by Gaia. This study reports that these stars have been lost from the omega Centauri globular cluster (white box) as the latter slowly dissolves along its orbit (white line) through the Milky Way. Image credit: Rodrigo A. Ibata, Michele Bellazzini, Khyati Malhan, Nicolas Martin and Paolo Bianchini.

A team of researchers from the Strasbourg Astronomical Observatory, Bologna Observatory and the University of Stockholm has identified a stream of stars that was torn off the globular cluster ω Centauri. Searching through the 1.7 billion stars observed by the ESA Gaia mission, they have identified 309 stars that suggest that this globular cluster may actually be the remnant of a dwarf galaxy that is being torn apart by the gravitational forces of our Galaxy.

In 1677, Edmond Halley gave the name “omega Centauri” (ω Cen) to what he thought was a star in the Centaurus constellation. Later in 1830 John Herschel realized that it was in fact a globular cluster that could be resolved into individual stars. We now know that ω Centauri is the most massive globular cluster in the Milky Way: it is about 18,000 light years from us and contains several million stars that are about 12 billion years old.

The nature of this object has been the subject of much debate: is it really a globular cluster, or could it be the heart of a dwarf galaxy whose periphery has been dispersed by the Milky Way? This last hypothesis is based on the fact that ω Cen contains several stellar populations, with a large range of metallicities (i.e. heavy element content) that betray a formation over an extended period of time.

An additional argument in favour of this hypothesis would be to find debris from the cluster scattered along its orbit in the Milky Way. Indeed, when a dwarf galaxy interacts with a massive galaxy like our own, stars are torn off by gravitational tidal forces, and these stars remain visible for a time as stellar streams, before becoming dispersed in the vast volumes of interstellar space surrounding the massive galaxy.

Gaia has measured the motions of the stars on the celestial sphere with such a high precision, that researchers identified several star streams. This identification was performed with the use of an algorithm called STREAMFINDER. One of them, named “Fimbulthul” (after one of the rivers in Norse mythology that existed at the beginning of the world), contains 309 stars stretching over 18° in the sky. By modeling the trajectories of the stars, the team showed that the Fimbulthul structure is a stellar tidal stream torn off ω Cen, extending up to 28° from the cluster.

Spectroscopic observations of five stars of this stream with the Canada-France Hawaii Telescope show that their velocities are very similar, and that they have metallicities comparable to the stars of ω Cen itself, which reinforces the idea that the tidal stream is linked to ω Cen. The researchers were then able to show that the stream is also present in the very crowded area of sky in the immediate vicinity of the cluster.

Further modeling of the tidal stream will constrain the dynamical history of the dwarf galaxy that was the progenitor of ω Cen, and could help to find even more stars lost by this system into the halo of the Milky Way.

The story was based on the paper "Identification of the Long Stellar Stream of the Prototypical Massive Globular Cluster omega Centauri" appearing today in Nature Astronomy. The work in this paper is also based upon the following article: "The Streams of the Gaping Abyss: A Population of Entangled Stellar Streams Surrounding the Inner Galaxy".

Credits: Rodrigo Ibata, Michele Bellazzini, Khyati Malhan, Nicolas Martin, Paolo Bianchini

[Published: 22/04/2019]

 

Image of the Week Archive

2019
17/06: Whitehead Eclipse Avoidance Manoeuvre
28/06: Following up on Gaia Solar System Objects
19/06: News from the Gaia Archive
29/05: Spectroscopic variability of emission lines stars with Gaia
24/05: Evidence of new magnetic transitions in late-type stars
03/05: Atmospheric dynamics of AGB stars revealed by Gaia
25/04: Geographic contributions to DPAC
22/04: omega Centauri's lost stars
18/04: 53rd ESLAB symposium "the Gaia universe"
18/02: A river of stars
2018
21/12: Sonification of Gaia data
18/12: Gaia captures a rare FU Ori outburst
12/12: Changes in the DPAC Executive
26/11:New Very Low Mass dwarfs in Gaia data
19/11: Hypervelocity White Dwarfs in Gaia data
15/11: Hunting evolved carbon stars with Gaia RP spectra
13/11: Gaia catches the movement of the tiny galaxies surrounding the Milky Way
06/11: Secrets of the "wild duck" cluster revealed
12/10: 25 years since the initial GAIA proposal
09/10: 3rd Gaia DPAC Consortium Meeting
30/09: A new panoramic sky map of the Milky Way's Stellar Streams
25/09: Plausible home stars for interstellar object 'Oumuamua
11/09: Impressions from the IAU General Assembly
30/06: Asteroids in Gaia Data
14/06: Mapping and visualising Gaia DR2

25/04: In-depth stories on Gaia DR2

14/04: Gaia tops one trillion observations
16/03: Gaia DR2 Passbands
27/02: Triton observation campaign
11/02: Gaia Women In Science
29/01: Following-up on Gaia
2017
19/12: 4th launch anniversary
24/11: Gaia-GOSA service
27/10: German Gaia stamp in the making
19/10: Hertzsprung-russell diagram using Gaia DR1
05/10: Updated prediction to the Triton occultation campaign
04/10: 1:1 Gaia model arrives at ESAC
31/08: Close stellar encounters from the first Gaia data release
16/08: Preliminary view of the Gaia sky in colour
07/07: Chariklo stellar occultation follow-up
24/04: Gaia reveals the composition of asteroids
20/04: Extra-galactic observations with Gaia
10/04: How faint are the faintest Gaia stars?
24/03: Pulsating stars to study Galactic structures
09/02: Known exoplanetary transits in Gaia data
31/01: Successful second DPAC Consortium Meeting
2016
23/12: Interactive and statistical visualisation of Gaia DR1 with vaex
16/12: Standard uncertainties for the photometric data (in GDR1)
25/11: Signature of the rotation of the galactic bar uncovered
15/11: Successful first DR1 Workshop
27/10: Microlensing Follow-Up
21/10: Asteroid Occultation
16/09: First DR1 results
14/09: Pluto Stellar Occultation
15/06: Happy Birthday, DPAC!
10/06: 1000th run of the Initial Data Treatment system
04/05: Complementing Gaia observations of the densest sky regions
22/04: A window to Gaia - the focal plane
05/04: Hipparcos interactive data access tool
24/03: Gaia spots a sunspot
29/02: Gaia sees exploding stars next door
11/02: A new heart for the Gaia Object Generator
04/02: Searching for solar siblings with Gaia
28/01: Globular cluster colour-magnitude diagrams
21/01: Gaia resolving power estimated with Pluto and Charon
12/01: 100th First-Look Weekly Report
06/01: Gaia intersects a Perseid meteoroid
2015
18/12: Tales of two clusters retold by Gaia
11/11: Lunar transit temperature plots
06/11: Gaia's sensors scan a lunar transit
03/11: Celebrity comet spotted among Gaia's stars
09/10: The SB2 stars as seen by Gaia's RVS
02/10: The colour of Gaia's eyes
24/09: Estimating distances from parallaxes
18/09: Gaia orbit reconstruction
31/07: Asteroids all around
17/07: Gaia satellite and amateur astronomers spot one in a billion star
03/07: Counting stars with Gaia
01/07: Avionics Model test bench arrives at ESOC
28/05: Short period/faint magnitude Cepheids in the Large Magellanic Cloud
19/05: Visualising Gaia Photometric Science Alerts
09/04: Gaia honours Einstein by observing his cross
02/04: 1 April - First Look Scientists play practical joke
05/03: RR Lyrae stars in the Large Magellanic Cloud as seen by Gaia
26/02: First Gaia BP/RP deblended spectra
19/02: 13 months of GBOT Gaia observations
12/02: Added Value Interface Portal for Gaia
04/02: Gaia's potential for the discovery of circumbinary planets
26/01: DIBs in three hot stars as seen by Gaia's RVS
15/01: The Tycho-Gaia Astrometric Solution
06/01: Close encounters of the stellar kind
2014
12/12: Gaia detects microlensing event
05/12: Cat's Eye Nebula as seen by Gaia
01/12: BFOSC observation of Gaia at L2
24/11: Gaia spectra of six stars
13/11: Omega Centauri as seen by Gaia
02/10: RVS Data Processing
12/09: Gaia discovers first supernova
04/08: Gaia flag arrives at ESAC
29/07: Gaia handover
15/07: Eclipsing binaries
03/07: Asteroids at the "photo finish"
19/06: Calibration image III - Messier 51
05/06: First Gaia BP/RP and RVS spectra
02/06: Sky coverage of Gaia during commissioning
03/04: Gaia source detection
21/02: Sky-background false detections in the sky mapper
14/02: Gaia calibration images II
06/02: Gaia calibration image I
28/01: Gaia telescope light path
17/01: First star shines for Gaia
14/01: Radiation Campaign #4
06/01: Asteroid detection by Gaia
2013
17/12: Gaia in the gantry
12/12: The sky in G magnitude
05/12: Pre-launch release of spectrophotometric standard stars
28/11: From one to one billion pixels
21/11: The Hipparcos all-sky map
15/10: Gaia Sunshield Deployment Test
08/10: Initial Gaia Source List
17/09: CU1 Operations Workshop
11/09: Apsis
26/08: Gaia arrival in French Guiana
20/08: Gaia cartoons
11/07: Model Soyuz Fregat video
01/07: Acoustic Testing
21/06: SOVT
03/06: CU4 meeting #15
04/04: DPCC (CNES) 
26/03: Gaia artist impression 
11/02: Gaia payload testing  
04/01: Space flyby with Gaia-like data
2012
10/12: DPAC OR#2. Testing with Planck
05/11: Galaxy detection with Gaia
09/10: Plot of part of the GUMS-10 catalogue
23/07: "Gaia" meets at Gaia
29/06: The Sky as seen by Gaia
31/05: Panorama of BAM clean room
29/03: GREAT school results
12/03: Scanning-law movie
21/02: Astrometric microlensing and Gaia
03/02: BAM with PMTS
12/01: FPA with all the CCDs and WFSs
2011
14/12: Deployable sunshield
10/11: Earth Trojan search
21/10: First Soyuz liftoff from the French Guiana
20/09: Fast 2D image reconstruction algorithm
05/09: RVS OMA
10/08: 3D distribution of the Gaia catalogue
13/07: Dynamical Attitude Model
22/06: Gaia's view of open clusters
27/05: Accuracy of the stellar transverse velocity
13/05: Vibration test of BAM mirrors
18/04: L. Lindegren, Dr. Honoris Causa of the Observatory of Paris
19/01: Detectability of stars close to Jupiter
05/01: Delivery of the WFS flight models
2010
21/12: The 100th member of CU3
17/11: Nano-JASMINE and AGIS
27/10: Eclipsing binary light curves fitted with DPAC code
13/10: Gaia broad band photometry
28/09: Measuring stellar parameters and interstellar extinction
14/09: M1 mirror
27/08: Quest for the Sun's siblings
 
Please note: Entries from the period 2003-2010 are available in this PDF document.