UCI News

How the Milky Way's spiral arms are formed

UCI astronomers have modeled how the galaxy's arms form.

September 14, 2011

UC Irvine astronomers have shown how the Milky Way galaxy’s iconic spiral arms form, according to research published today in the journal Nature.

A dwarf galaxy named Sagittarius loaded with dark matter has careened twice through our much larger home galaxy in the past two billion years, according to telescope data and detailed simulations, and is lined up to do it again. As the galaxies collide, the force of the impact sends stars streaming from both in long loops.  Those continue to swell with stars and are gradually tugged outward by the Milky Way’s rotation into a familiar ringed arm.

It’s the weighty dark matter from Sagittarius that provided the initial push, the researchers said.

“It’s kind of like putting a fist into a bathtub of water as opposed to your little finger,” said James Bullock, a theoretical cosmologist who studies galaxy formation.

The smaller galaxy pays a steep price though – sucked inward repeatedly by the Milky Way’s mightier gravity, it’s being ripped apart by the blows, sending huge amounts of its stars and dark matter reeling into the new arms.

“When all that dark matter first smacked into the Milky Way, 80 percent to 90 percent of it was stripped off,” explained lead author Chris Purcell, who did the work with Bullock at UCI and is now at the University of Pittsburgh. “That first impact triggered instabilities that were amplified, and quickly formed spiral arms and associated ring-like structures in the outskirts of our galaxy.”

The Sagittarius galaxy is due to strike the southern face of the Milky Way disk fairly soon, Purcell said – in another 10 million years or so.

Additional authors are UCI doctoral students Erik Tollerud and Miguel Rocha, and Sukanya Chakrabarti of Florida Atlantic University in Boca Raton.

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