Sunday, May 4, 2014

A Cluster of Stars Thrown Out of Its Galaxy at 2 Million MPH

A team of astronomers has discovered the first cluster of stars that has been thrown out of another galaxy. Whatever threw this rich grouping of stars out of the galaxy known by its catalog number as M87, was able to accelerate it to a speed of some 2 million miles per hour. Kids, don't try this at home without adult supervision!

It just so happens that the star cluster is being thrown roughly in our direction, but since M87 is 54 million light years away, no one is worried. The cluster will just wind up in the space between galaxies, wandering like the lost ships of legend, never finding its home port again.

M87 is a huge galaxy of stars and clusters, almost a million light years in diameter (our Milky Way Galaxy is about 100,000 light years across, by comparison.) In addition to thousands of billions of stars, M87 contains an estimated 12,000 "globular clusters" -- tightly bound groups of roughly 100,000 stars each. Our home galaxy only has about 150 of these globular clusters, and we are a pretty good-sized galaxy as far as cosmic requirements are concerned. So M87 makes us look like a 90-lb weakling in comparison.

So how did a cluster with many thousands of stars get loose from the considerable gravity of a giant galaxy like M87? No one knows for sure, but here is the clever idea that discoverers of the high-speed cluster are suggesting. Giant galaxies like M87 get bigger by eating smaller neighbor galaxies for lunch. Occasionally, they even merge with a big galaxy, gently pulling in the other galaxy's stars and other "inhabitants." What if M87, in the distant past, swallowed a big galaxy with a giant black hole at the center?

Astronomer have recently found that all big galaxies have big black holes in their crowded cores. The bigger the galaxy, the bigger the central black hole, in general. So M87 probably had a big black hole and the other galaxy would have had a big black hole too. As the two galaxies merged, their two black holes, like boxers circling each other in the ring, could have begun to orbit around each other. (We have seen pairs of big black holes in other such systems, so this is not a wild idea at all.)

Now, along comes our victim globular cluster, which had some orbit around the center of M87 that might well have brought it a bit too close to the pair of black holes. When the black holes interacted with the cluster, their gravity might have played a "game of pool" with it. In pool (or billiards, for some of you), you often see one ball interacting with another and then causing a third ball to go shooting off into a distant pocket. When the two black holes and the cluster had their moment of gravitational interaction, the cluster could have been thrown out of the galaxy by the tremendous gravitational energy of the giant black holes.

Astronomers have seen superfast stars thrown out of galaxies, but this is our first instance of seeing a whole cluster of stars shooting out from its home galaxy. M87 is one of my favorite galaxies anyway, with many other signs of violence and inner turmoil. This makes it even more interesting. The accompanying image is an artist's attempt to show the cluster coming out of M87, which is correctly shown as a fuzzy rounded blob.

On a personal note, I would like to dedicate today's post to the memory of my good friend and colleague, Alan Friedman, the former director of the New York Hall of Science, who passed away this weekend.  Alan and I taught weekend courses on Einstein together, wrote papers on interdisciplinary approaches to teaching astronomy and physics, and bemoaned the state of science education in the U.S. over many dinners.  Alan also helped chart the course of the Lawrence Hall of Science in Berkeley, the Parc de la Villette science museum outside of Paris, and dozens of other museums and science centers where his advice was frequently sought.  He leaves an emptiness in the universe that will be impossible to fill.

1 comment:

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