Yesterday, ESA released further results of the Gaia mission:
"Gaia’s new data takes us to the Milky Way’s anticentre and beyond"
The motion of stars in the outskirts of our galaxy hints at significant changes in the history of the Milky Way. This and other equally fascinating results come from a set of papers that demonstrate the quality of ESA’s Gaia Early third Data Release (EDR3), which is made public today.
Astronomers from the Gaia Data Processing and Analysis Consortium (DPAC) saw the evidence of the Milky Way’s past by looking at stars in the direction of the galaxy’s ‘anticentre’. This is in the exact opposite direction on the sky from the centre of the galaxy.
The data show that in the outer regions of the disc there is a component of slow-moving stars above the plane of our galaxy that are heading downwards towards the plane, and a component of fast-moving stars below the plane that are moving upwards. This extraordinary pattern had not been anticipated before. It could be the result of the near-collision between the Milky Way and the Sagittarius dwarf galaxy that took place in our galaxy’s more recent past.
The Sagittarius dwarf galaxy contains a few tens of millions of stars and is currently in the process of being cannibalised by the Milky Way. Its last close pass to our galaxy was not a direct hit, but this would have been enough so that its gravity perturbed some stars in our galaxy like a stone dropping into water.
In one paper, Gaia has allowed scientists to measure the acceleration of the Solar System with respect to the rest frame of the Universe. Using the observed motions of extremely distant galaxies, the velocity of the Solar System has been measured to change by 0.23 nm/s every second. Because of this tiny acceleration, the trajectory of the Solar System is deflected by the diameter of an atom every second, and in a year this adds up to around 115 km. The acceleration measured by Gaia shows a good agreement with the theoretical expectations and provides the first measurement of the curvature of the Solar System’s orbit around the galaxy in the history of optical astronomy.
This mapping should all come in very handy once mankind sets sail past the boundaries of our solar system. ;-)A fourth demonstration paper analysed the Magellanic Clouds: two galaxies that orbit the Milky Way. Having measured the movement of the Large Magellanic Cloud’s stars to greater precision than before, Gaia EDR3 clearly shows that the galaxy has a spiral structure. The data also resolve a stream of stars that is being pulled out of the Small Magellanic Cloud, and hints at previously unseen structures in the outskirts of both galaxies.