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Tags: ancient | milky way | galaxy | star streams | unveiled | gaia telescope

Ancient Milky Way Star Streams Unveiled

By    |   Thursday, 21 March 2024 07:46 PM EDT

Astronomers have utilized the Gaia space telescope to uncover the earliest foundational elements of the Milky Way galaxy.

Two ancient streams of stars named Shakti and Shiva are believed to have contributed to the formation and development of our home galaxy over 12 billion years ago, CNN reported.

Named after Hindu deities, these star streams are remnants of galaxies that merged with an early incarnation of the Milky Way between 12 and 13 billion years ago, during the formative stages of galaxy formation.

The Shakti and Shiva structures are ancient, predating even the most ancient segments of the Milky Way's distinctive spiral arms and central disk.

In a study published Thursday in The Astrophysical Journal, lead study author Dr. Khyati Malhan, a postdoctoral scholar and Humboldt Research Fellow at Stockholm University in Sweden, expressed astonishment at the detectability of these ancient structures. "What's truly amazing is that we can detect these ancient structures at all," she said. "The Milky Way has changed so significantly since these stars were born that we wouldn't expect to recognize them so clearly as a group — but the unprecedented data we're getting from Gaia made it possible."

The researchers claimed that the discovery of Shakti and Shiva's stellar phenomena offers astronomers an opportunity to unravel the mysteries of the Milky Way's earliest epochs and the evolution of similarly immense galaxies across the cosmos.

The Gaia space telescope, launched by the European Space Agency in 2013, has been instrumental in these revelations. Utilizing Gaia's observations, astronomers have unveiled previously unknown structures within the Milky Way, aiding in reconstructing the galaxy's history.

The telescope's dataset, encompassing positions, distances, and movements for nearly 2 billion stars, has provided invaluable insights into the galaxy's composition and evolution.

In 2022, study coauthor Hans-Walter Rix and colleagues utilized Gaia to explore the Milky Way's core, discovering the oldest stars ever identified within the galaxy. Analyzing data from nearly 6 million stars observed by Gaia and the Sloan Digital Sky Survey unveiled two distinct streams, Shakti and Shiva, distinguished by their chemical composition.

Shakti and Shiva, located near the Milky Way's core, each contain an estimated mass equivalent to approximately 10 million suns. The uniformity in age, orbital trajectory, and composition among the ancient stars within these streams suggests that they originated from external sources before merging with the Milky Way.

Hans-Walter Rix, director of the Max Planck Institute for Astronomy's Department of Galaxies and Cosmology in Germany, likened the discovery to finding the initial traces of an ancient settlement that evolved into a modern city. "The stars there are so ancient that they lack many of the heavier metal elements created later in the Universe's lifetime," he explained. "These signify the first steps of our galaxy's growth towards its present size."

The evolution of the Milky Way, from its nascent stages to its current form, has been characterized by mergers with other galaxies, resulting in the accumulation of stars and hydrogen gas crucial for star formation. Gaia's precise data has facilitated the identification of past merger events and holds promise for further insights into the galaxy's development.

Timo Prusti, project scientist for Gaia at the European Space Agency, emphasized the significance of these discoveries in illuminating the Milky Way's infancy. "As we discover surprise parts of our galaxy like the Shiva and Shakti streams, we're filling the gaps and painting a fuller picture of not only our current home but our earliest cosmic history," he stated.

Jim Thomas

Jim Thomas is a writer based in Indiana. He holds a bachelor's degree in Political Science, a law degree from U.I.C. Law School, and has practiced law for more than 20 years.

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Astronomers have utilized the Gaia space telescope to uncover the earliest foundational elements of the Milky Way galaxy.
ancient, milky way, galaxy, star streams, unveiled, gaia telescope
Thursday, 21 March 2024 07:46 PM
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