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Galactic thief: “I would have gotten away with it but for those meddling astronomers!”

One of the closest galaxies to the Milky Way almost got away with theft. However, new simulations convicted the Large Magellanic Cloud (LMC) of stealing stars from its neighbor, the Small Magellanic Cloud (SMC). And the crucial evidence came from surveys looking for something entirely different – dark objects on the outskirts of the Milky Way.

Astronomers have been monitoring the LMC to hunt for evidence of massive compact halo objects, or MACHOs. MACHOs were thought to be faint objects, roughly the mass of a star, but their exact nature was unknown. Several surveys looked for MACHOs in order to find out if they could be a major component of dark matter – the unseen stuff that holds galaxies together.

Image above: As the Milky Way rises over the horizon at the European Southern Observatory, its companion galaxies also come into view. The Large Magellanic Cloud (LMC) at far left lies about 160,000 light-years away, while the Small Magellanic Cloud (SMC, above and to the right of the LMC) lies about 200,000 light-years away. New simulations show that the LMC stole stars from the SMC when the two galaxies collided 300 million years ago.  (Click to enlarge)

In order for MACHOs to make up dark matter, they must be so faint that they can’t be directly detected. Instead, astronomers looked for a phenomenon known as microlensing. During a microlensing event, a nearby object passes in front of a more distant star. The gravity of the closer object bends light from the star like a lens, magnifying it and causing it to brighten.

By studying the LMC, astronomers hoped to see MACHOs within the Milky Way lensing distant LMC stars. The number of microlensing events observed by various teams was smaller than needed to account for dark matter, but much higher than expected from the known population of stars in the Milky Way. This left the origin of the observed events a puzzle and the existence of MACHOs as exotic objects a possibility.

“We originally set out to understand the evolution of the interacting LMC and SMC galaxies,” explains lead author Gurtina Besla of Columbia University. “We were surprised that, in addition, we could rule out the idea that dark matter is contained in MACHOs.”

“Instead of MACHOs, a trail of stars removed from the SMC is responsible for the microlensing events,” says co-author Avi Loeb of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics.

“You could say we discovered a crime of galactic proportions,” he adds.

Computer simulations showed that the most likely explanation for the observed microlensing events was an unseen population of stars removed by the LMC from its companion, the SMC. Foreground stars in the LMC are gravitationally lensing the trail of removed stars located behind the LMC from our point of view.

Only a fast-moving population of stars could yield the observed rate and durations of the microlensing events. The best way to get such a stellar population is a galactic collision, which appears to have occurred in the LMC-SMC system.

“By reconstructing the scene, we found that the LMC and SMC collided violently hundreds of millions of years ago. That’s when the LMC stripped out the lensed stars,” says Loeb.

Their research also supports recent findings suggesting that both Magellanic Clouds are on their first pass by the Milky Way.

Although the evidence for the trail of lensed stars is persuasive, they haven’t been directly observed yet. A number of teams are searching for the signatures of these stars within a bridge of gas that connects the Magellanic Clouds.

The simulation results will be published in the Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society and are available online.



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One Comment

  • Nickmaleswlp2012

    Dark matter is one of the more
    fascinating questions the scientific community has yet to answer. Overall,
    there really is no consensus as to what it is and how it affects the universe. All
    that scientists postulate are generalizations based on observation of theories
    they are confident in. However, dark matter itself has never been directly
    observed. That is why research into the subject is so vitally important to
    modern society. Learning about the unknown and the offshoots of knowledge that
    come from research are significant drivers of the economy and of society’s
    progression as a whole.

    due to the current fiscal crisis, the White House has proposed to cut NASA’s
    budget by 38.5% for FY 2013. These draconian cuts would decimate crucial
    programs, barring astronauts from reaching Mars, from going to the moon, and
    from developing a plethora of useful technologies. The popular “Penny for NASA”
    campaign has risen out of the outcry against this. They cite that it has been
    estimated that for every dollar invest in NASA, ten dollars are put back into the
    US economy, and advocate allocating a penny for every dollar collected by the
    government to NASA. In addition, programs like NASA have the potential to
    inspire. In education reform, rhetoric focuses on improving the hard sciences.
    What better way than to inspire students to become engineers and scientists
    again? Given the economic and intangible benefits, cuts to NASA budget are an
    injustice to the people of the United States.