Authors: Vedant Chandra, Charlie Conroy, Nelson Caldwell, et al.
First Author’s Institution: Center for Astrophysics | Harvard & Smithsonian, 60 Garden St, Cambridge, MA 02138, USA
Status: Accepted to ApJ [open access]
Some Stellar Snacks
When you think of a galaxy, your mind might conjure up images of grandiose spirals with beautiful dusty arms or the beautiful JWST image of Stephen’s Quintet, five galaxies sweeping out gas and dust while engaging in a complex dance. And when it comes to the Milky Way’s neighborhood, it may seem that Andromeda (and its companions Messier 32 and Triangulum) are the only other residents of our Local Group of galaxies. But besides these spectacular shapes, our universe also has other galactic guests lurking right in our backyard, hidden in not-so-plain sight.
These sneaky structures are some of our faintest neighbors, discovered to be haunting the periphery of galaxies in the late 1930’s. Dubbed “dwarf galaxies”, they’re much smaller than galaxies like our Milky Way (MW) and are only home to about a billion stars, hundreds of times fewer than typical galaxies. The Small Magellanic Cloud is a prime example of a nearby dwarf, a fuzzy patch floating in the Southern Hemisphere sky that can be seen with the naked eye. Our Local Group alone has dozens of known dwarfs, usually orbiting near the biggest galaxies like ours, but not all dwarfs are as fortunate – because of their smaller mass and size, an interaction with a much larger galaxy can be fatal. Tidal forces from the interaction can rip the dwarf apart, stretching it out and scattering its stars about the outskirts of the larger galaxy. These can be seen as stellar streams in the surrounding halos of dominant galaxies and can be vital clues in learning about the formation and evolution of present-day galaxies, as well as understanding the distribution of their dark matter. Our own Milky Way harbors many detected streams, including one made by the aforementioned Magellanic Clouds, but astronomers are always on the hunt for more signs of our galaxy’s hungry past. The ghost-busting authors of today’s paper uncovered another stellar stream haunting our galaxy, and this is the faintest one so far.
One might think that because these streams are so close by that they’d be easy-peasy to find, but unfortunately that’s not the case–the first stellar streams were only found in the early 1970s, half a century after the discovery of the dwarf galaxies they can originate from! Though they can be within the Milky Way, most of them are extremely faint. In fact they can be so faint that astronomers hunting for streams in the outskirts of our galaxy have a hard time deciding whether individual stars are part of a larger gravitationally bound structure, or just part of the Milky Way foreground. This detection method relies on measuring how bright a given patch of sky is and determining if there’s a significant overdensity that could be a disrupted dwarf galaxy, and relying on brightness alone makes this method more unreliable the fainter the stream you’re trying to uncover.
Putting the ‘Boo’ in Boötes
Today’s authors used the motions of stars and their chemical compositions to hunt for low-luminosity dwarfs, instead of the traditional detection method. They used data from the H3 Spectroscopic Survey, a collection of hundreds of thousands of stars in the Milky Way’s stellar halo that were analyzed with a spectrograph. This is an instrument that splits the light from these stars into different wavelengths so astronomers can tell what kind of elements are present and the velocity at which they’re moving. If a group of stars is moving with the same velocity and has very similar chemical composition, it’s likely they were once part of a dwarf galaxy or globular cluster that was disrupted by the Milky Way.
Out of six groups of co-moving stars they found, one group in the constellation Boötes did not look like it belonged to any known structures. These were two stars that were moving in space at the same velocity and were both pretty metal-poor. To determine whether these twin stars are part of a stellar stream, the authors used the newly released Gaia DR3 catalog to look for more stars around this pair that might also be moving with the same proper motion, along with additional searches through the SEGUE and LAMOST surveys. They also narrowed down the search by selecting only stars that lay close to a specific isochrone on a color-magnitude diagram (CMD): basically a line indicating a stellar population of the same age on a plot that relates the color of stars to how bright they are. They indeed found an overdense population of such stars in Gaia, whose positions they plotted and smoothed out. Overlaying the member stars that exist in the H3 survey and one extra star they found in LAMOST, the team uncovered the extended structure that you see in Figure 1, aptly named ‘Specter’ due to its ghostly nature found through spectroscopy.
A Fatal Attraction
Using the stars they identified, the authors modeled the structure of the stream and also analyzed its chemical composition, in part to determine whether the stream was created by a disrupted dwarf galaxy or large globular cluster. By looking at the ratios of number densities between different elements, they inferred that Specter’s progenitor dwarf galaxy was probably forming stars for an extended period of time – when massive stars in the galaxy went supernova, the remnants from those explosions would enrich the gas around them. This means there are multiple generations of stars living within the galaxy. They also fit the stream’s CMD with different isochrones to determine its age, and found that the stream is most likely pretty old – over 12 billion years old. Because Specter is also wide and has a large spread of metallicities, the authors make the conclusion that it is a disrupted dwarf galaxy and not a globular cluster. In fact, it’s wider than other intact dwarfs of similar luminosity, letting the authors infer that it might have gotten stretched out as it orbited around the uneven gravity well of the Milky Way.
So why has finding Specter been so difficult? Like a stereotypical ghost, it’s pretty much invisible to ordinary photometric detection methods since it has a very small amount of stars and has an extremely low surface brightness–in fact, the authors classify it as the faintest dwarf stellar stream ever discovered! And given its serendipitous detection, the authors worked out the probability of finding other “ghosts” at similar distances to Specter is about 3%. This suggests the possibility that there might be up to 20-50 undetected streams between 10-20 kpc from the Sun, meaning there’s a good chance there are many other Specter-like ghosts haunting our Milky Way. Specter’s discovery is the spark that can hopefully ignite the search for other extremely low-luminosity disrupted dwarf galaxies and their progenitors to teach us more about how galaxies can form on extremely small mass scales. The authors hope that in the near-future, spectroscopy and spectroscopic surveys can be the key to uncovering some of our faintest neighbors that lurk around our galactic community, waiting to be seen.
Astrobite edited by Aldo Panfichi
Featured image credit: https://theplanets.org/constellations/bootes-constellation/