TV reality show contestants aren’t the only ones under threat of exile. Astronomers using the MMT Observatory in Arizona have discovered two stars exiled from the Milky Way galaxy. Those stars are racing out of the Galaxy at speeds of more than 1 million miles per hour – so fast that they will never return.
“These stars literally are castaways,” said Smithsonian astronomer Warren Brown (Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics). “They have been thrown out of their home galaxy and set adrift in an ocean of intergalactic space.”
Brown and his colleagues spotted the first stellar exile in 2005. European groups identified two more, one of which may have originated in a neighboring galaxy known as the Large Magellanic Cloud. The latest discovery brings the total number of known exiles to five.
“These stars form a new class of astronomical objects – exiled stars leaving the Galaxy,” said Brown.
Astronomers suspect that about 1,000 exile stars exist within the Galaxy. By comparison, the Milky Way contains about 100,000,000,000 (100 billion) stars, making the search for exiles much more difficult than finding the proverbial “needle in a haystack.” The Smithsonian team improved their odds by preselecting stars with locations and characteristics typical of known exiles. They sifted through dozens of candidates spread over an area of sky almost 8,000 times larger than the full moon to spot their quarry.
“Discovering these two new exiled stars was neither lucky nor random,” said astronomer Margaret Geller (Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory), a co-author on the paper. “We made a targeted search for them. By understanding their origin, we knew where to find them.”
This research has been submitted to The Astrophysical Journal Letters for publication and is available online at http://arxiv.org/ abs/astro-ph/0601580. Authors on the paper are Brown, Geller, Scott Kenyon and Michael Kurtz (Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory).