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'Cosmic Mountain Ranges' Passing Through Milky Way Baffle Astronomers

According to a story published in Live Science, while tectonic activity on Earth creates a wide array of features, scientists are not exactly sure what is making those exceptional features in the Milky Way.


Updated:August 30, 2019, 8:27 PM IST
Milky Way, Galaxy, Astronomy, Space Science, Space Study, Space News, Space research
(Image for representational purpose only).

While to the naked eye, the night sky might look like a random array of stars, but astronomers are learning anew that some regions of the Milky Way galaxy have stars that are clumped into features akin to streams, waves, arches and mountain ridges — geographical features present on Earth.

The findings were published online in arXiv, and will be published in the journal Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society.

According to a story published in Live Science, while tectonic activity on Earth creates a wide array of features, scientists are not exactly sure what is making those exceptional features in the Milky Way. Researchers are now on a path to find out what are creating those features, and suspects include forces coming from outside the galaxy. However, scientists note, the Milky Way might itself be a suspect.

Notably, since 2013, a European Space Agency mission called Gaia has been running a census of the Milky Way, with the goal of cataloging more than 1 billion stars. Astronomers can now explore the galaxy with new dimensionality, using new data released in April 2018 on the precise measurements of stars' locations and movements.

While the galactic explorations have uncovered new terrain, scientists are yet to understand how the star structures are formed. A team of astronomers from the University of Sydney, Australia, decided to try to recreate in computer models some of the features that they see in the stars.

The researchers focused on a series of eight ridges in the Milky Way that folded up alongside each other like a mountain range. Subsequently, the Gaia data showed that the ridges, each, had a collection of unique stars studding the summits. They further noticed that all the stars had elemental compositions similar to the sun. Since elemental composition hints at a star's age, they realised that these young stars were not scattered as much older stars were, which helps in comprehending how the ridges were formed.

The team then used computer simulations to see if the distribution of stars could be recreated under different conditions. They found that the ridges more closely matched those created in isolated regions through an internal process called phase-mixing. Furthermore, presence of young stars which haven't had as much time to scatter as older stars, in the ridges also suggested a nearby force was the source for the features. In simulations of regions that had been hit gravitationally by a passing galaxy, the results showed much taller ridges than the ones seen in Milky Way.

Speaking about the same, lead author of the study Shourya Khanna said the height of the ridges may be one way to discriminate between internal and external processes.

However, there are still some limitations. The researchers have yet to consider model gas in their simulation, which may affect the results.

Researchers found evidence that a nearby galaxy once passed through the Milky Way. It could be this type of external interaction that tends to create streams of stars, while the internal processes — like phase-mixing — are more responsible for ridges, the researchers concluded in their study.

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