A new analysis of data from one of humanity’s most powerful space observatories, Gaia, suggests that the closest star cluster to Earth is being ripped apart by the phenomenal gravity of a massive object that we cannot see.
Astronomer Tereza Jerabkova and her colleagues from the European Space Agency and the European Southern Observatory carefully studied the information contained in Gaia Data Release 2.5 (DR2.5) and DR3.
The Gaia space observatory maps the Milky Way in three dimensions with the greatest degree of detail that current generation technology will allow, with a view to pinpointing the position and velocity data of as many stars as possible.
Upon detailed analysis of this raw data, the researchers noticed something peculiar about the spherical star cluster Hyades, located about 153 light-years away in the constellation Taurus.
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Recognizing some strange findings in the data, the team expanded their search parameters to capture previously overlooked stars and found hundreds of new stars.
Dense star clusters naturally tear apart over time due to gravitational forces, both internal and with the gravity exerted by the galaxy around them, which can often transform a cluster into what is known as a tidal stream, a long band of stars.
In the case of Hyades, the central cluster is about 60 light-years across, while the tidal tail stretches for thousands of light-years.
When the researchers ran simulations to explain the stellar distribution within the tail, they found more stars than are actually visible to humanity’s instruments, meaning that some had disappeared.
The team then ran repeated simulations to try to figure out what had caused these stars to go AWOL and the best theory they came up with was that a close encounter with an object that measures roughly 10 million times the mass of the Sun could explain the strange scattering the stars. .
Astronomers are already theorizing that it may well have been a close encounter with a large accumulation or “cluster” of dark matter.
“There must have been a close interaction with this really massive group, and the Hyades were just crushed,” Jerabkova said.
The dark matter hypothesis is, as always, complicated as humanity cannot directly detect dark matter and instead can only infer its existence and position by observing its influence on the universe around it. Despite this, best estimates suggest that dark matter may, in fact, make up about 80% of the universe.
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In fact, it is theorized that clumps of dark matter, suspected of being the drivers of galaxy formation, still exist today in the form of ‘dark halos’ that span entire galaxies. Within the structure of these halos, astronomers predict the existence of dark matter subhalos that may be responsible for the unusual tearing of the Hyades.
“With Gaia, the way we see the Milky Way has completely changed.” Jerabkova said. “And with these discoveries, we will be able to map the substructures of the Milky Way much better than ever.”
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