Nav: Home

Welcome to the neighborhood: New dwarf galaxies discovered in orbit around the Milky Way

March 10, 2015

A team of astronomers from the University of Cambridge have identified nine new dwarf satellites orbiting the Milky Way, the largest number ever discovered at once. The findings, from newly-released imaging data taken from the Dark Energy Survey, may help unravel the mysteries behind dark matter, the invisible substance holding galaxies together.

The new results also mark the first discovery of dwarf galaxies - small celestial objects that orbit larger galaxies - in a decade, after dozens were found in 2005 and 2006 in the skies above the northern hemisphere. The new satellites were found in the southern hemisphere near the Large and Small Magellanic Cloud, the largest and most well-known dwarf galaxies in the Milky Way's orbit.

The Cambridge findings are being jointly released today with the results of a separate survey by astronomers with the Dark Energy Survey, headquartered at the US Department of Energy's Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory. Both teams used the publicly available data taken during the first year of the Dark Energy Survey to carry out their analysis.

The newly discovered objects are a billion times dimmer than the Milky Way, and a million times less massive. The closest is about 95,000 light years away, while the most distant is more than a million light years away.

According to the Cambridge team, three of the discovered objects are definite dwarf galaxies, while others could be either dwarf galaxies or globular clusters - objects with similar visible properties to dwarf galaxies, but not held together with dark matter.

"The discovery of so many satellites in such a small area of the sky was completely unexpected," said Dr Sergey Koposov of Cambridge's Institute of Astronomy, the study's lead author. "I could not believe my eyes."

Dwarf galaxies are the smallest galaxy structures observed, the faintest of which contain just 5000 stars - the Milky Way, in contrast, contains hundreds of billions of stars. Standard cosmological models of the universe predict the existence of hundreds of dwarf galaxies in orbit around the Milky Way, but their dimness and small size makes them incredibly difficult to find, even in our own 'backyard'.

"The large dark matter content of Milky Way satellite galaxies makes this a significant result for both astronomy and physics," said Alex Drlica-Wagner of Fermilab, one of the leaders of the Dark Energy Survey analysis.

Since they contain up to 99 percent dark matter and just one percent observable matter, dwarf galaxies are ideal for testing whether existing dark matter models are correct. Dark matter - which makes up 25 percent of all matter and energy in our universe - is invisible, and only makes its presence known through its gravitational pull.

"Dwarf satellites are the final frontier for testing our theories of dark matter," said Dr Vasily Belokurov of the Institute of Astronomy, one of the study's co-authors. "We need to find them to determine whether our cosmological picture makes sense. Finding such a large group of satellites near the Magellanic Clouds was surprising, though, as earlier surveys of the southern sky found very little, so we were not expecting to stumble on such treasure."

The closest of these pieces of 'treasure' is 97,000 light years away, about halfway to the Magellanic Clouds, and is located in the constellation of Reticulum, or the Reticle. Due to the massive tidal forces of the Milky Way, it is in the process of being torn apart.

The most distant and most luminous of these objects is 1.2 million light years away in the constellation of Eridanus, or the River. It is right on the fringes of the Milky Way, and is about to get pulled in. According to the Cambridge team, it looks to have a small globular cluster of stars, which would make it the faintest galaxy to possess one.

"These results are very puzzling," said co-author Wyn Evans, also of the Institute of Astronomy. "Perhaps they were once satellites that orbited the Magellanic Clouds and have been thrown out by the interaction of the Small and Large Magellanic Cloud. Perhaps they were once part of a gigantic group of galaxies that - along with the Magellanic Clouds - are falling into our Milky Way galaxy."

The Dark Energy Survey is a five-year effort to photograph a large portion of the southern sky in unprecedented detail. Its primary tool is the Dark Energy Camera, which - at 570 megapixels - is the most powerful digital camera in the world, able to see galaxies up to eight billion light years from Earth. Built and tested at Fermilab, the camera is now mounted on the four-metre Victor M Blanco telescope at the Cerro Tololo Inter-American Observatory in the Andes Mountains in Chile. The camera includes five precisely shaped lenses, the largest nearly a yard across, designed and fabricated at University College London (UCL) and funded by the UK Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC).
-end-
The Dark Energy Survey is supported by funding from the STFC, the US Department of Energy Office of Science; the National Science Foundation; funding agencies in Spain, Brazil, Germany and Switzerland; and the participating institutions.

The Cambridge research, funded by the European Research Council, will be published in The Astrophysical Journal.

University of Cambridge

Related Dark Matter Articles:

Physicists have found a way to 'hear' dark matter
Physicists at Stockholm University and the Max Planck Institute for Physics have turned to plasmas in a proposal that could revolutionise the search for the elusive dark matter.
Cesium vapor aids in the search for dark matter
Physicists at Mainz University manage to further narrow down range of the search for dark matter
New hunt for dark matter
Dark matter is only known by its effect on massive astronomical bodies, but has yet to be directly observed or even identified.
Tracking down dark matter
Over time, scientists have developed different theories to explain exactly what the mysterious dark matter might be made of.
A new candidate for dark matter and a way to detect it
Two theoretical physicists at UC Davis have a new candidate for dark matter and a possible way to detect it.
The mystery of the galaxy with no dark matter: Solved!
A group of researchers from the Instituto de Astrofísica de Canarias (IAC) has clarified one of the mysteries of 2018 in the field of extragalactic astrophysics: the supposed existence of a galaxy without dark matter.
Physicists constrain dark matter
Researchers from Russia, Finland, and the U.S. have put a constraint on the theoretical model of dark matter particles by analyzing data from astronomical observations of active galactic nuclei.
Dark matter on the move
Scientists have found evidence that dark matter can be heated up and moved around, as a result of star formation in galaxies.
Scientists refine the search for dark matter
Researchers from Lund University in Sweden, among others, have developed a more effective technique in the search for clues about dark matter in the universe.
In search of dark matter
An international team of scientists that includes UC Riverside physicist Hai-Bo Yu has imposed conditions on how dark matter may interact with ordinary matter.
More Dark Matter News and Dark Matter Current Events

Best Science Podcasts 2019

We have hand picked the best science podcasts for 2019. Sit back and enjoy new science podcasts updated daily from your favorite science news services and scientists.
Now Playing: TED Radio Hour

Rethinking Anger
Anger is universal and complex: it can be quiet, festering, justified, vengeful, and destructive. This hour, TED speakers explore the many sides of anger, why we need it, and who's allowed to feel it. Guests include psychologists Ryan Martin and Russell Kolts, writer Soraya Chemaly, former talk radio host Lisa Fritsch, and business professor Dan Moshavi.
Now Playing: Science for the People

#538 Nobels and Astrophysics
This week we start with this year's physics Nobel Prize awarded to Jim Peebles, Michel Mayor, and Didier Queloz and finish with a discussion of the Nobel Prizes as a way to award and highlight important science. Are they still relevant? When science breakthroughs are built on the backs of hundreds -- and sometimes thousands -- of people's hard work, how do you pick just three to highlight? Join host Rachelle Saunders and astrophysicist, author, and science communicator Ethan Siegel for their chat about astrophysics and Nobel Prizes.