How do you weigh a galaxy? Especially the one you're in?

June 6, 2018, University of Arizona
Our Milky Way's largest neighbor, the Andromeda Galaxy, spans about 220,000 light-years across. Two of its dwarf satellite galaxies, Messier 110 (bottom left) and Messier 32 (above Andromeda's central bulge), are visible as bright white spots in this image. Credit: Adam Block/University of Arizona

A new technique for estimating the mass of galaxies promises more reliable results, especially when applied to large datasets generated by current and future surveys, according to a research team led by Ekta Patel at the University of Arizona. Published in the Astrophysical Journal, the study is the first to combine the observed full three-dimensional motions of several of the Milky Way's satellite galaxies with extensive computer simulations to obtain a high-accuracy estimate for the mass of our home galaxy.

Determining the of plays a crucial part in unraveling fundamental mysteries about the architecture of the universe. According to current cosmological models, a galaxy's visible matter, such as stars, gas and dust, accounts for a mere 15 percent of its mass. The remaining 85 percent is believed to reside in dark matter, a mysterious component that never has been observed and whose physical properties remain largely unknown. The vast majority of a galaxy's mass (mostly dark matter) is located in its halo, a vast, surrounding region containing few, if any, stars and whose shape is largely unknown.

In a widely accepted cosmological model, dark-matter filaments span the entire universe, drawing luminous ("regular") matter with them. Where they intersect, gas and dust accumulate and coalesce into galaxies. Over billions of years, small galaxies merge to form into larger ones, and as those grow in size and their gravitational pull reaches farther and farther into space, they attract a zoo of other , which then become satellite galaxies. Their orbits are determined by their host galaxy, much like the sun's gravitational pull directs the movement of planets and bodies in the solar system.

"We now know that the universe is expanding," says Patel, a fourth-year graduate student in the UA's Department of Astronomy and Steward Observatory. "But when two galaxies come close enough, their mutual attraction is greater than the influence of the expanding universe, so they begin to orbit each other around a common center, like our Milky Way and our closest neighbor, the Andromeda Galaxy."

This movie shows the orbital paths for several of Milky Way satellites over the past 2 billion years, resulting from this study. Credit: Ekta Patel/University of Arizona

Although Andromeda is approaching the Milky Way at 110 kilometers per second, the two won't merge until about 4.5 billion years from now. According to Patel, tracking Andromeda's motion is "equivalent to watching a human hair grow at the distance of the moon."

Because it's impossible to "weigh" a galaxy simply by looking at it—much less when the observer happens to be inside of it, as is the case with our Milky Way—researchers deduce a galaxy's mass by studying the motions of celestial objects as they dance around the host galaxy, led by its . Such objects—also called tracers, because they trace the mass of their host galaxy—can be satellite galaxies or streams of stars created from the scattering of former galaxies that came too close to remain intact.

Unlike previous methods commonly used to estimate a galaxy's mass, such as measuring its tracers' velocities and positions, the approach developed by Patel and her co-authors uses their angular momentum, which yields more reliable results because it doesn't change over time. The angular momentum of a body in space depends on both its distance and speed. Since satellite galaxies tend to move around the Milky Way in elliptical orbits, their speeds increase as they get closer to our galaxy and decrease as they get farther away. Because the angular momentum is the product of both position and speed, there is no net change regardless of whether the tracer is at its closest or farthest position in its orbit.

"Think of a figure skater doing a pirouette," Patel says. "As she draws in her arms, she spins faster. In other words, her velocity changes, but her angular momentum stays the same over the whole duration of her act."

Artist's interpretation of what happens as a satellite merges with its host galaxy: These streams of stars arcing high over the Milky Way are remnants of galaxies and star clusters, mangled and torn apart by our galaxy's gravitational stresses over billions of years. Extending over much of the northern sky, the streams lie between 13,000 and 130,000 light-years from Earth. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/R. Hurt/SSC/Caltech

The study, which Patel presents on Thursday, June 7, at the 232nd meeting of the of the American Astronomical Society in Denver, is the first to look at the full three-dimensional motions of nine of the Milky Way's 50 known satellite galaxies at once and compare their measurements to a simulated universe containing a total of 20,000 that resemble our own galaxy. Together those simulated galaxies host about 90,000 satellite galaxies.

Patel's team pinned down the Milky Way's mass at 0.96 trillion solar masses. Previous estimates had placed our galaxy's mass between 700 billion and 2 trillion solar masses. The results also reinforce estimates suggesting that the Andromeda Galaxy (M31) is more massive than our Milky Way.

The authors hope to apply their method to the ever-growing data as they become available by current and future galactic surveys such as the Gaia space observatory and LSST, the Large Synoptic Survey Telescope. According to co-author Gurtina Besla, an assistant professor of astronomy at the UA, constraints on the mass of the Milky Way will improve as new observations are obtained that clock the speed of more satellite galaxies, and as next-generation simulations will provide higher resolution, allowing scientists to get better statistics for the smallest mass tracers, the so-called ultra-faint galaxies.

"Our method allows us to take advantage of measurements of the speed of multiple simultaneously to get an answer for what cold dark matter theory would predict for the mass of the Milky Way's halo in a robust way," Besla says. "It is perfectly suited to take advantage of the current rapid growth in both observational datasets and numerical capabilities."

Explore further: Milky Way vs Andromeda (because now we're in with a chance)

More information: "Estimating the Mass of the Milky Way Using the Ensemble of Classical Satellite Galaxies,"Astrophysical Journal (2018).

Related Stories

Milky Way ties with neighbor in galactic arms race

February 14, 2018

Astronomers have discovered that our nearest large neighbour, the Andromeda galaxy, is roughly the same size as the Milky Way. It had been thought that Andromeda was two to three times the size of the Milky Way, and that ...

Astronomers measure weight of galaxies, expansion of universe

July 30, 2014

Astronomers at the University of British Columbia have collaborated with international researchers to calculate the precise mass of the Milky Way and Andromeda galaxies, dispelling the notion that the two galaxies have similar ...

Is the Milky Way getting bigger?

April 2, 2018

The galaxy we inhabit, the Milky Way, may be getting even bigger, according to Cristina Martínez-Lombilla, a PhD candidate at the Instituto de Astrofísica de Canarias in Tenerife, Spain, and her collaborators. She will ...

Recommended for you

A new neptune-size exoplanet

December 16, 2018

The remarkable exoplanet discoveries made by the Kepler and K2 missions have enabled astronomers to begin to piece together the history of the Earth and to understand how and why it differs from its diverse exoplanetary cousins. ...

Mars InSight lander seen in first images from space

December 14, 2018

On Nov. 26, NASA's InSight mission knew the spacecraft touched down within an 81-mile-long (130-kilometer-long) landing ellipse on Mars. Now, the team has pinpointed InSight's exact location using images from HiRISE, a powerful ...

Video: Enjoying the Geminids from above and below

December 14, 2018

On the night of December 13, into the morning of December 14, 2018, tune into the night sky for a dazzling display of fireballs. Thanks to the International Space Station, this sky show – the Geminids meteor shower—will ...

Hubble finds far-away planet vanishing at record speed

December 13, 2018

The speed and distance at which planets orbit their respective blazing stars can determine each planet's fate—whether the planet remains a longstanding part of its solar system or evaporates into the universe's dark graveyard ...

3 comments

Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

Benni
1.7 / 5 (6) Jun 06, 2018
"The vast majority of a galaxy's mass (mostly dark matter) is located in its halo, a vast, surrounding region containing few, if any, stars and whose shape is largely unknown"

RNP, did you see this? Yeah, "surrounding", ENVELOPING.......same definitions, definitions you don't like when it comes to discussing DM because you want it dispersed evenly throughout the entire interior of a galaxy. Doesn't matter, no one's yet found any on the moon.
Surveillance_Egg_Unit
5 / 5 (3) Jun 07, 2018
"In a widely accepted cosmological model, dark-matter filaments span the entire universe, drawing luminous ("regular") matter with them. Where they intersect, gas and dust accumulate and coalesce into galaxies. Over billions of years, small galaxies merge to form into larger ones, and ..."

Filaments? Intersect? Somehow this description smacks somewhat of the image of a dusty spider's web, or the neurons within a brain that are connected each to the other neurons by the synapses. Just an intriguing thought.
RNP
3.7 / 5 (9) Jun 07, 2018
@Benni
Oh, for pity's sake! Are you completely incapable of learning anything? I explained in the previous thread ( https://phys.org/...ric.html ) how you are misinterpreting these descriptions of the DM halo. I even gave a link to a paper by highly reputable scientists demonstrating my point. You, of course, just dismissed the paper as "phoney".

I will try one more time. If you will not accept real scientific papers, then just look at the Wikipedia page: https://en.wikipe...ter_halo

You will see that the DM density profile is at a maximum at r=0. I.e. in the centre of the galaxy. DM is most definitely NOT only located outside the galaxy.

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.