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HomeScienceHubble Tracks 'String of Pearls' Star Clusters in Galaxy Collisions

Hubble Tracks ‘String of Pearls’ Star Clusters in Galaxy Collisions


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Galaxy AM 1054-325 has been distorted into an S shape from a normal pancake-like spiral shape by the gravitational pull of a neighboring galaxy, as seen in this Hubble Space Telescope image. A consequence of this is that clusters of newborn stars form along a tidal tail elongated for thousands of light years, similar to a string of pearls. They form when lumps of gas gravitationally collapse to create about 1 million newborn stars per cluster. Credit: NASA, ESA, STScI, Jayanne English (University of Manitoba)

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Galaxy AM 1054-325 has been distorted into an S shape from a normal pancake-like spiral shape by the gravitational pull of a neighboring galaxy, as seen in this Hubble Space Telescope image. A consequence of this is that clusters of newborn stars form along a tidal tail elongated for thousands of light years, similar to a string of pearls. They form when lumps of gas gravitationally collapse to create about 1 million newborn stars per cluster. Credit: NASA, ESA, STScI, Jayanne English (University of Manitoba)

Contrary to what one might think, galaxy collisions do not destroy stars. In fact, the churning dynamics trigger new generations of stars and, presumably, accompanying planets.

Now, NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope has focused on 12 interacting galaxies that have long, tadpole-like tidal tails of gas, dust and a large number of stars. Hubble’s exquisite sharpness and sensitivity to ultraviolet light have discovered 425 newborn star clusters along these tails, which look like strings of Christmas lights. Each cluster contains up to 1 million newborn blue stars.

Cumulus clouds in tidal tails have been known for decades. When galaxies interact, gravitational tidal forces carry long streams of gas and dust. Two popular examples are the Antennae and Mouse galaxies with their long, narrow finger-like projections.

A team of astronomers used a combination of new observations and archival data to obtain ages and masses of tidal tail star clusters. They discovered that these clusters are very young: they are only 10 million years old. And they appear to form at the same rate along tails that extend across thousands of light years.

“It’s a surprise to see a lot of young objects in the tails. It tells us a lot about the efficiency of cluster formation,” said lead author Michael Rodruck of Randolph-Macon College in Ashland, Virginia. “With tidal tails, new generations of stars will be built that otherwise would not have existed.”

The tails look as if they are taking the spiral arm of a galaxy and stretching it out into space. The outer part of the arm is dragged like candy by the gravitational tug-of-war between a pair of interacting galaxies.

Before the mergers, galaxies were rich in clouds of molecular hydrogen dust that may have simply remained inert. But the clouds pushed and collided with each other during the encounters. This compressed the hydrogen to the point where it precipitated a storm of star birth.

The fate of these extended star clusters is uncertain. They may remain gravitationally intact and evolve into globular star clusters, like those orbiting outside the plane of our Milky Way galaxy. They can either disperse to form a halo of stars around their host galaxy or be ejected and become wandering intergalactic stars.

This string-of-pearl star formation may have been more common in the early universe, when galaxies collided with each other more frequently. These nearby galaxies observed by Hubble are a representation of what happened long ago and are therefore laboratories for looking into the distant past.



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