Institute of Astronomy

Unveiling substructures at the edge of the Galaxy

Published on 14/12/2021 

An international team of astronomers, including researchers at the Institute of Astronomy, Cambridge, has revealed a new map of the Milky Way’s outer disc using data from the Gaia space misison. The findings have been published in the journal Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society.

“Typically this region of the Milky Way has remained poorly explored due to the intervening dust which severely obscures most of the Galactic midplane”, says Chervin Laporte, researcher at the ICCUB (IEEC-UB) and lead author of the article. “While dust affects – he adds - the luminosity of a star, its motion remains unaffected. As a result, one can use the stars motion to perform tomography of the Galaxy’s outermost regions.” The team analysed the Gaia motion data, available from December 2020, to identify coherent structures.

The map revealed the existence of many previously unknown coherently rotating filamentary structures at the edge of the disc. It also gave a sharper global view of previously known structures. Numerical simulations predict such filamentary structures to form in the outer disc from past satellite interactions, however the sheer quantity of substructure revealed by this map was not expected and remains a mystery.

What could these thin structures be?

Our Galaxy is surrounded by 50 satellite galaxies and has engulfed numerous galaxies in its past. At present, the Milky Way is thought to have been perturbed  by the Sagittarius dwarf galaxy which confirmed earlier theoretical models. However, in its more distant past it interacted with another intruder, the Gaia Sausage, which has now dispersed its debris into the stellar halo. Accordingly, the researchers formulated the hypothesis that states that these thin structures are remains of tidal arms from the Milky Way disc, which were excited at diferent times by various satellites.

“In an earlier study, we showed that one of the thread-like structures in the outer disc, called the Anticenter Stream, had stars which were predominantly older than 8 billion years, making it potentially too old to have been caused by Sagittarius alone but more in line with a Sausage origin, says Laporte. “Another possibility  would be that not all these structures are actually genuine disc substructures, but instead form the crests of vertical density waves in the disc seen in projection forming an optical illusion that the disc is highly substructured”.

To disentangle the two, the team has secured a dedicated follow-up programme with the WEAVE spectrograph to study the similarities/differences in stellar populations in each substructure. Future upcoming surveys (WEAVE, SDSS-V and PFS) will also shed light into their origins through complementary radial velocities, chemical abundances and potentially stellar ages.


Article Reference

C. Laporte, S. E. Koposov, V. Belokurov. “Kinematics beats dust: unveiling nested substructure in the perturbed outer disc of the Milky Way”. Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society, December 2021. DOI:10.1093/mnrasl/slab109

Page last updated: 14 December 2021 at 14:54