Andromeda Now Makes Sense

andromeda IRThe Andromeda Galaxy is bigger than previously thought. Perhaps as much as five times bigger. I know that you’re thinking – “Oh, that’s because most of it is dark matter, right?” No, this is not another dark matter story. In fact, there are many newly discovered stars from a recent study! The suburbs of the galaxy are much more extensive than previously identified. It’s rather good news, since the galaxy makes more sense than it did before, in the context of our understanding of how galaxies form and evolve. (Image above is of Andromeda in the infra-red, from NASA.)

The point here is that current theories of evolution for galaxies have the oldest stars out in the suburbs (or “halo” as is said in the trade) – not in the central bright bulge you’re familiar with from the typical galaxy shape. They form first, and so get oldest first. So in a typical galaxy of this sort (such as ours, the Milky Way, and Andromeda, one of our neighbours) you expect to find a certain amount of those older stars in the outer parts of the galaxy, containing a particular proportion of heavy metals. It was apparently always a bit of an anomaly for Andromeda. It did not seem to have as many of these sorts of stars in the right location. So a new close study of the galaxy was conducted to have a look at what was going on, and they found lots of red giant stars (i.e., old stars) that had not been taken into account before, with the right distribution of heavy metals that you would expect from galaxy formation theory. You can read more about this on the BBC site, and also at a site at UCSC here, from which I quote:

…collaborators at UCSC, UCLA, and the University of Virginia are conducting an ongoing study of Andromeda’s stellar halo, using observations at the Kitt Peak National Observatory in Arizona and the W. M. Keck Observatory in Hawaii. Their new findings are based on data gathered using the 4-meter Mayall Telescope at Kitt Peak and the DEIMOS spectrograph on the 10-meter Keck II Telescope in Hawaii.

The researchers detected a sparse population of red giant stars–bright, bloated stars in a late stage of stellar evolution–that appear to be smoothly distributed around the galaxy out to a distance of at least 500,000 light-years from the center. Even at that great distance, the stars are bound to the galaxy by gravity. These stars probably represent Andromeda’s stellar halo, a distinct structural component of the galaxy that has eluded astronomers for over 20 years…

-cvj

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7 Responses to Andromeda Now Makes Sense

  1. Amara says:

    Fantastic! I have friends who have been promoting the concept that there is an extended cold dust emission probably/perhaps present in all types of gas-rich galaxies and carrying the bulk of the dust luminosity (seen by ISO):
    http://adsabs.harvard.edu/cgi-bin/nph-bib_query?bibcode=2005SSRv..119..313S&db_key=AST&data_type=HTML&format=&high=4534ff5d9f10590
    These old stars (red giants) are large dust producers, so I would say that Andromeda makes even more sense!

  2. F. says:

    Why are the oldest stars lurking predominantly in the halo? Is it that they are delurked earlier if they are closer to the black hole in the center?
    F.

  3. Clifford says:

    They are the first form, apparently.

    -cvj

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  5. *Sob* My fourth-grade paper is now out of date!

    Oh well, we live and learn, don’t we.

    Cheers,
    IP

  6. Clifford says:

    Tell us about your project/paper! What was it about?

    -cvj

  7. The halo has older stars because gas is thinner in the halo than near the center. Therefore, creating smaller stars. Smaller stars burn much slower than large stars and thus the stars in the halo are older.

    I have also read somewhere that the Milky way was about twice as large as previously thought. Thats great, when we collide with Andromeda it will be a much bigger splash than planed.