Researchers identify two of the Milky Way's earliest building blocks

Astronomers have identified what could be two of the Milky Way’s earliest building blocks: Named “Shakti” and “Shiva”, these appear to be the remnants of two galaxies that merged between 12 and 13 billion years ago with an early version of the Milky Way, contributing to our home galaxy’s initial growth. The new find is the astronomical equivalent of archeologists identifying traces of an initial settlement that grew into a large present-day city. It required combining data for nearly 6 million stars from ESA’s Gaia mission with measurements from the SDSS survey. The results have been published in the Astrophysical Journal.

The early history of our home galaxy, the Milky Way, is one of joining smaller galaxies, which makes for fairly large building blocks. Now, Khyati Malhan and Hans-Walter Rix of the Max Planck Institute for Astronomy have succeeded in identifying what could be two of the earliest building blocks that can still be recognized as such today: proto-galactic fragments that merged with an early version of our Milky Way between 12 and 13 billion years ago, at the very beginning of the era of galaxy formation in the Universe. The components, which the astronomers have named Shakti and Shiva, were identified by combining data from ESA’s astrometry satellite Gaia with data from the SDSS survey. For astronomers, the result is the equivalent of finding traces of an initial settlement that grew into a large present-day city.

Tracing the origins of stars that came from other galaxies

When galaxies collide and merge, several processes happen in parallel. Each galaxy carries along its own reservoir of hydrogen gas. Upon collision, those hydrogen gas clouds are destabilized, and numerous new stars are formed inside. Of course, the incoming galaxies also already have their own stars, and in a merger, stars from the galaxies will mingle. In the long run, such “accreted stars” will also account for some of the stellar population of the newly-formed combined galaxy. Once the merger is completed, it might seem hopeless to identify which stars came from which predecessor galaxy. But in fact, at least some ways of tracing back stellar ancestry exist.

Help comes from basic physics. When galaxies collide and their stellar populations mingle, most of the stars retain very basic properties, which are directly linked to the speed and direction of the galaxy in which they originated. Stars from the same pre-merger galaxy share similar values for both their energy and what physicists call angular momentum – the momentum associated with orbital motion or rotation. For stars moving in a galaxy’s gravitational field, both energy and angular momentum are conserved: they remain the same over time. Look for large groups of stars with similar, unusual values for energy and angular momentum – and chances are, you might find a merger remnant.

Additional pointers can assist identification. Stars that formed more recently contain more heavier elements, what astronomers call “metals”, than stars that formed a long time ago. The lower the metal content (“metallicity”), the earlier the star presumably formed. When trying to identify stars that already existed 13 billion years ago, one should look for stars with very low metal content (“metal-poor”).

Virtual excavations in a large data set

Identifying the stars that joined our Milky Way as parts of another galaxy has only become possible comparatively recently. It requires large, high-quality data sets, and the analysis involves sifting the data in clever ways so as to identify the searched-for class of objects. This kind of data set has only been available for a few years. The ESA astrometry satellite Gaia provides an ideal data set for this kind of big-data galactic archeology. Launched in 2013, it has produced an increasingly accurate data set over the past decade, which by now includes positions, changes in position and distances for almost 1.5 billion stars within our galaxy.

Gaia data revolutionized studies of the dynamics of stars in our home galaxy, and has already led to the discovery of previously unknown substructures. This includes the so-called Gaia Enceladus/Sausage stream, a remnant of the most recent larger merger our home galaxy has undergone, between 8 and 11 billion years ago. It also includes two structures identified in 2022: the Pontus stream identified by Malhan and colleagues and the “poor old heart” of the Milky Way identified by Rix and colleagues. The latter is a population of stars that newly formed during the initial mergers that created the proto-Milky Way, and continue to reside in our galaxy’s central region.

Traces of Shakti and Shiva

For their present search, Malhan and Rix used Gaia data combined with detailed stellar spectra from the Sloan Digital Sky Survey (DR17). The latter provide detailed information about the stars’ chemical composition. Malhan says: “We observed that, for a certain range of metal-poor stars, stars were crowded around two specific combinations of energy and angular momentum.”

In contrast with the “poor old heart”, which was also visible in those plots, the two groups of like-minded stars had comparatively large angular momentum, consistent with groups of stars that had been part of separate galaxies which had merged with the Milky Way. Malhan has named these two structures Shakti and Shiva, the latter one of the principal deities of Hinduism and the former a female cosmic force often portrayed as Shiva’s consort.

Their energy and angular momentum values, plus their overall low metallicity on par with that of the “poor old heart”, makes Shakti and Shiva good candidates for some of the earliest ancestors of our Milky Way. Rix says: “Shakti and Shiva might be the first two additions to the ‘poor old heart’ of our Milky Way, initiating its growth towards a large galaxy.”

Several surveys that are either already ongoing or bound to start over the next couple of years promise relevant additional data, both spectra (SDSS-V, 4MOST) and precise distances (LSST/Rubin Observatory), should enable astronomers to make a firm decision on whether or not Shakti and Shiva are indeed a glimpse of our home galaxy's earliest prehistory.

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