Nav: Home

A shy galactic neighbor

September 16, 2015

The Sculptor Dwarf Galaxy, pictured in this new image from the Wide Field Imager camera, installed on the 2.2-metre MPG/ESO telescope at ESO's La Silla Observatory, is a close neighbour of our galaxy, the Milky Way. Despite their close proximity, both galaxies have very distinct histories and characters. This galaxy is much smaller and older than the Milky Way, making it a valuable subject for studying both star and galaxy formation in the early Universe. However, due to its faintness, studying this object is no easy task.

The Sculptor Dwarf Galaxy -- also known as the Sculptor Dwarf Elliptical or the Sculptor Dwarf Spheroidal -- is a dwarf spheroidal galaxy, and is one of the fourteen known satellite galaxies orbiting the Milky Way [1]. These galactic hitchhikers are located close by in the Milky Way's extensive halo, a spherical region extending far beyond our galaxy's spiral arms. As indicated by its name, this galaxy is located in the southern constellation of Sculptor (constellation) and lies about 280 000 light-years away from Earth. Despite its proximity, the galaxy was only discovered in 1937, as its stars are faint and spread thinly across the sky.

Although difficult to pick out, the Sculptor Dwarf Galaxy was among the first faint dwarf galaxies found orbiting the Milky Way. The tiny galaxy's shape intrigued astronomers at the time of its discovery, but nowadays dwarf spheroidal galaxies play a more important role in allowing astronomers to dig deeply into the Universe's past.

The Milky Way, like all large galaxies, is thought to have formed from the build-up of smaller galaxies during the early days of the Universe. If some of these small galaxies still remain today, they should now contain many extremely old stars. The Sculptor Dwarf Galaxy fits the bill as a primordial galaxy, thanks to a large number of ancient stars, visible in this image.

Astronomers can determine the age of stars in the galaxy because their light carries the signatures of only a small quantity of heavy chemical elements. These heavy elements accumulate in galaxies with successive generations of stars. A low level of heavy elements thus indicates that the average age of the stars in the Sculptor Dwarf Galaxy is high.

This quantity of old stars makes the Sculptor Dwarf Galaxy a prime target for studying the earliest periods of star formation. In a recent study, astronomers combined all the data available for the galaxy to create the most accurate star formation history ever determined for a dwarf spheroidal galaxy. This analysis revealed two distinct groups of stars in the galaxy. The first, predominant group is the older population, which is lacking in heavier elements. The second, smaller population, in contrast, is rich with heavy elements. Like young people crowding into city centres, this youthful stellar population is concentrated toward the galaxy's core.

The stars within dwarf galaxies like the Sculptor Dwarf Galaxy can exhibit complex star formation histories. But as most of these dwarf galaxies' stars have been isolated from each other and have not interacted for billions of years, each collection of stars has charted its own evolutionary course. Studying the similarities in dwarf galaxies' histories, and explaining the occasional outliers, will help to explain the development of all galaxies, from the most unassuming dwarf to the grandest spirals. There is indeed much for astronomers to learn from the Milky Way's shy neighbours.
-end-
Notes

[1] This faint galaxy should not be confused with the much brighter [Sculptor Galaxy (NGC 253)] in the same constellation.

More information

ESO is the foremost intergovernmental astronomy organisation in Europe and the world's most productive ground-based astronomical observatory by far. It is supported by 16 countries: Austria, Belgium, Brazil, the Czech Republic, Denmark, France, Finland, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Poland, Portugal, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland and the United Kingdom, along with the host state of Chile. ESO carries out an ambitious programme focused on the design, construction and operation of powerful ground-based observing facilities enabling astronomers to make important scientific discoveries. ESO also plays a leading role in promoting and organising cooperation in astronomical research. ESO operates three unique world-class observing sites in Chile: La Silla, Paranal and Chajnantor. At Paranal, ESO operates the Very Large Telescope, the world's most advanced visible-light astronomical observatory and two survey telescopes. VISTA works in the infrared and is the world's largest survey telescope and the VLT Survey Telescope is the largest telescope designed to exclusively survey the skies in visible light. ESO is a major partner in ALMA, the largest astronomical project in existence. And on Cerro Armazones, close to Paranal, ESO is building the 39-metre European Extremely Large Telescope, the E-ELT, which will become "the world's biggest eye on the sky".

Links

Contacts

Richard Hook
ESO education and Public Outreach Department
Garching bei München, Germany
Tel: +49 89 3200 6655
Cell: +49 151 1537 3591
Email: rhook@eso.org

ESO

Related Star Formation Articles:

Star formation project maps nearby interstellar clouds
Astronomers have captured new, detailed maps of three nearby interstellar gas clouds containing regions of ongoing high-mass star formation.
Scientists discover pulsating remains of a star in an eclipsing double star system
Scientists from the University of Sheffield have discovered a pulsating ancient star in a double star system, which will allow them to access important information on the history of how stars like our Sun evolve and eventually die.
Distant milky way-like galaxies reveal star formation history of the universe
Thousands of galaxies are visible in this radio image of an area in the Southern Sky, made with the MeerKAT telescope.
Cascades of gas around young star indicate early stages of planet formation
What does a gestating baby planet look like? New research in Nature by a team including Carnegie's Jaehan Bae investigated the effects of three planets in the process of forming around a young star, revealing the source of their atmospheres.
Massive exoplanet orbiting tiny star challenges planet formation theory
Astronomers have discovered a giant Jupiter-like exoplanet in an unlikely location -- orbiting a small red dwarf star.
ALMA pinpoints the formation site of planet around nearest young star
Researchers using ALMA (Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array) found a small dust concentration in the disk around TW Hydrae, the nearest young star.
Star formation burst in the Milky Way 2-3 million years ago
A team led by researchers of the Institute of Cosmos Sciences of the University of Barcelona and the Besançon Astronomical Observatory have found, analysing data from the Gaia satellite, that a severe star formation burst occurred in the Milky Way about to and three thousand million years ago.
The rise and fall of Ziggy star formation and the rich dust from ancient stars
Researchers have detected a radio signal from abundant interstellar dust in MACS0416_Y1, a galaxy 13.2 billion light-years away in the constellation Eridanus.
Lifting the veil on star formation in the Orion Nebula
Writing in 'Nature', an international research team including astronomers from Cologne describe their discovery that stellar wind from a newborn star in the Orion Nebula is preventing more stars from forming nearby.
Massive star's unusual death heralds the birth of compact neutron star binary
Carnegie's Anthony Piro was part of a Caltech-led team of astronomers who observed the peculiar death of a massive star that exploded in a surprisingly faint and rapidly fading supernova, possibly creating a compact neutron star binary system.
More Star Formation News and Star Formation Current Events

Trending Science News

Current Coronavirus (COVID-19) News

Top Science Podcasts

We have hand picked the top science podcasts of 2020.
Now Playing: TED Radio Hour

Listen Again: Meditations on Loneliness
Original broadcast date: April 24, 2020. We're a social species now living in isolation. But loneliness was a problem well before this era of social distancing. This hour, TED speakers explore how we can live and make peace with loneliness. Guests on the show include author and illustrator Jonny Sun, psychologist Susan Pinker, architect Grace Kim, and writer Suleika Jaouad.
Now Playing: Science for the People

#565 The Great Wide Indoors
We're all spending a bit more time indoors this summer than we probably figured. But did you ever stop to think about why the places we live and work as designed the way they are? And how they could be designed better? We're talking with Emily Anthes about her new book "The Great Indoors: The Surprising Science of how Buildings Shape our Behavior, Health and Happiness".
Now Playing: Radiolab

The Third. A TED Talk.
Jad gives a TED talk about his life as a journalist and how Radiolab has evolved over the years. Here's how TED described it:How do you end a story? Host of Radiolab Jad Abumrad tells how his search for an answer led him home to the mountains of Tennessee, where he met an unexpected teacher: Dolly Parton.Jad Nicholas Abumrad is a Lebanese-American radio host, composer and producer. He is the founder of the syndicated public radio program Radiolab, which is broadcast on over 600 radio stations nationwide and is downloaded more than 120 million times a year as a podcast. He also created More Perfect, a podcast that tells the stories behind the Supreme Court's most famous decisions. And most recently, Dolly Parton's America, a nine-episode podcast exploring the life and times of the iconic country music star. Abumrad has received three Peabody Awards and was named a MacArthur Fellow in 2011.