Rogue stars sail in intergalactic space

Animation of a rogue star

Illustration of a rogue star being ejected from the galaxy after tangling with the Milky Way’s central black hole.

IT’S VERY DIFFICULT to knock a star out of our Milky Way galaxy. In fact, the main mechanism that astronomers have come up with that can give a star the three-million-plus kilometre-per-hour kick it takes involves tangling with the supermassive black hole at the Milky Way’s core.

So far astronomers have found 16 of these “hypervelocity” stars. Although they are travelling fast enough to eventually escape galaxy’s gravitational grasp, they have actually been discovered while they are still inside the galaxy.

Now, astronomers report in a recent issue of the Astronomical Journal that they’ve identified a group of more than 675 stars on the outskirts of the Milky Way, which they argue are hypervelocity stars that have been ejected from the galactic core.

They selected these stars based on their location in intergalactic space between the Milky Way and the nearby Andromeda galaxy and by their peculiar red coloration.

“These stars really stand out. They are red giant stars with high metallicity which gives them an unusual colour,” says Vanderbilt University Assistant Professor Kelly Holley-Bockelmann who conducted the study with graduate student Lauren Palladino.

In astronomy and cosmology, “metallicity” is a measure of the proportion of chemical elements other than hydrogen and helium that a star contains. In this case, high metallicity is a signature that indicates an inner galactic origin—older stars and stars from the galactic fringes tend to have lower metallicities.

The researchers identified the candidates by analysing millions of stars catalogued in the Sloan Digital Sky Survey.

Illustration of a supermassive black hole

Illustration of a supermassive black hole, like the one thought to reside at the core of our Milky Way galaxy.

Encounter with a black hole

“We figured that these rogue stars must be there, outside the galaxy, but no one had ever looked for them. So we decided to give it a try,” said Holley-Bockelmann, who is studying the behaviour of the black hole at the centre of the Milky Way galaxy.

Astronomers have now found evidence for giant black holes at the centres of many galaxies. They estimate that the Milky Way’s central black hole has a mass of four million solar masses. They calculate that the gravitational field surrounding such a supermassive black hole is strong enough to accelerate stars to hypervelocities.

The typical scenario involves a binary pair of stars that get caught in the black hole’s grip. As one of the stars spirals in towards the black hole, its companion is flung outward at a tremendous velocity. A second scenario takes place during periods when the central black hole is in the process of ingesting a smaller black hole. Any star that ventures too close to the circling pair can also get a hypervelocity kick.

Even travelling at hypervelocities, it would take a star about 10 million years to travel from the Milky Way’s central hub to its outskirts 50,000 light years away.

Adapted from information issued by Vanderbilt University. Images courtesy Michael Smelzer / Vanderbilt University / Jenni Ohnstad / NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

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