Space

August 9, 2013

NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope finds source of Magellanic Stream

nasa-hubble
Astronomers using NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope have solved a 40-year mystery on the origin of the Magellanic Stream, a long ribbon of gas stretching nearly halfway around our Milky Way galaxy.

The Large and Small Magellanic Clouds, two dwarf galaxies orbiting the Milky Way, are at the head of the gaseous stream. Since the stream’s discovery by radio telescopes in the early 1970s, astronomers have wondered whether the gas comes from one or both of the satellite galaxies. New Hubble observations reveal most of the gas was stripped from the Small Magellanic Cloud about 2 billion years ago, and a second region of the stream originated more recently from the Large Magellanic Cloud.

A team of astronomers, led by Andrew J. Fox of the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore, Md., determined the source of the gas filament by using Hubble’s Cosmic Origins Spectrograph to measure the amount of heavy elements, such as oxygen and sulfur, at six locations along the Magellanic Stream. They observed faraway quasars, the brilliant cores of active galaxies, that emit light that passes through the stream. They detected the heavy elements from the way the elements absorb ultraviolet light.

Fox’s team found a low amount of oxygen and sulfur along most of the stream, matching the levels in the Small Magellanic Cloud about 2 billion years ago, when the gaseous ribbon is thought to have formed. In a surprising twist, the team discovered a much higher level of sulfur in a region of the stream that is closer to the Magellanic Clouds.

“We’re finding a consistent amount of heavy elements in the stream until we get very close to the Magellanic Clouds, and then the heavy element levels go up,” said Fox. “This inner region is very similar in composition to the Large Magellanic Cloud, suggesting it was ripped out of that galaxy more recently.”

“Only Hubble can measure these abundances,” Fox explained. “These abundances can only be measured in ultraviolet light, which Earth’s atmosphere absorbs, and so the observations can only be done from a telescope in space.”

Unlike other satellite galaxies of the Milky Way the Magellanic Clouds have been able to retain their gas and still are forming stars because they’re more massive than the other satellites. However, as they’re now approaching the Milky Way, they’re feeling its gravity more and also encountering its halo of hot gas, which pushes their own gas out. That process, together with the gravitational tug-of-war between the Magellanic Clouds, leads to the production of a stream.

Ultimately, the gaseous stream may rain down onto the Milky Way’s disk, fueling the birth of new stars. This infusion of fresh gas is part of a process that triggers star formation in a galaxy. Astronomers want to know the origin of that wayward gas in order to more fully understand how galaxies make new stars.

“We want to understand how galaxies like the Milky Way strip the gas from small galaxies that fall into them and then use it to form new stars,” Fox explained. “This seems like it’s an episodic process. It’s not a smooth process where a slow stream of gas comes in continuously. Instead, once in a while a large gas cloud falls in. We have a way of testing that here, where two galaxies are coming in. We’ve shown which of them is producing the gas that ultimately will fall into the Milky Way.”

The team reported its results in two papers that appeared in the Aug. 1 issue of The Astrophysical Journal. Fox is the lead author of one paper; the other paper’s lead author is Philipp Richter of the University of Potsdam in Germany.

The Hubble Space Telescope is a project of international cooperation between NASA and the European Space Agency. NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md., manages the telescope. The Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore, Md., conducts Hubble science operations. STScI is operated by the Association of Universities for Research in Astronomy Inc., in Washington.




All of this week's top headlines to your email every Friday.


 
 

 

NASA launches new Micro-g NExT for undergraduates

NASA is offering undergraduate students an opportunity to participate in a new microgravity activity called Micro-g Neutral Buoyancy Experiment Design Teams. The deadline for proposals is Jan. 28, 2015. Micro-g NExT challenges students to work in teams to design and build prototypes of spacewalking tools to be used by astronauts for spacewalk training in the...
 
 
launch1

Storm fails to quench liftoff of secret reconnaissance satellite

The fiery launch of an Atlas V (541), among the most powerful of the venerable Atlas family, briefly dispelled the gloom over Californiaís Central Coast on the evening of Dec. 12. A team of personnel from United Launch Allianc...
 
 

Lockheed Martin wins Alaska spaceport bid

ANCHORAGE, Alaska – The state-owned space agency Dec. 12 named Lockheed Martin the winner of a bidding process to reconfigure a launch pad to accommodate larger rockets than what the Kodiak Launch Complex can currently handle. Lockheed Martin beat out three other bidders to reconfigure launch pad one at the Kodiak site, officials with the...
 

 
LM-orion-recover

Orion spacecraft heading home after successful at-sea recovery by U.S. Navy, NASA

Engineers are getting their first look at the Lockheed Martin-built Orion spacecraft following its successful flight test and recovery Dec. 5. With the spacecraft recovered from the Pacific and brought to port in San Diego, tec...
 
 
Northrop Grumman image

Northrop Grumman to supply navigation system for SBIRS GEO-5 satellite

Northrop Grumman image Artist’s rendering of the Space-Based Infrared System’s Geosynchronous Earth Orbit satellite.   WOODLAND HILLS, Calif. –¬†Northrop Grumman has been selected by prime contractor Lock...
 
 
boeing-spacecraft

Boeing CST-100 spacecraft moves another step closer to flight

Boeing and NASA recently completed the Ground Segment Critical Design Review and set the baseline design for the company’s Commercial Crew Transportation System, moving a step closer to the planned early 2017 voyage to th...
 




0 Comments


Be the first to comment!


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>