Milky Way ‘not a typical galaxy’, new study finds

The research has thrown a wrench into what we know about how galaxies form


A sibling of the Milky Way. Image credit: Sloan Digital Sky Survey

The most-studied galaxy in the universe – the Milky Way – might not be as “typical” as previously thought, according to a new study.

The Milky Way, which is home to Earth and its Solar System, is host to several dozen smaller galaxy satellites. These smaller galaxies orbit around the Milky Way and are useful in understanding our galaxy itself.

Early results from the Satellites Around Galactic Analogs (SAGA) Survey indicate that the Milky Way’s satellites are much more tranquil than other systems of comparable luminosity and environment. Many satellites of those “sibling” galaxies are actively pumping out new stars, but the Milky Way’s satellites are mostly inert, the researchers found.

This is significant, according to the researchers, because many models for what we know about the universe rely on galaxies behaving in a fashion similar to the Milky Way.

“We use the Milky Way and its surroundings to study absolutely everything,” says Yale astrophysicist Marla Geha, lead astronomer of the research. “Hundreds of studies come out every year about dark matter, cosmology, star formation, and galaxy formation, using the Milky Way as a guide. But it’s possible that the Milky Way is an outlier.”

An artist’s impression of the Milky Way galaxy. Image credit: NASA

The SAGA Survey began five years ago with a goal of studying the satellite galaxies around 100 Milky Way siblings. Thus far it has studied eight other Milky Way sibling systems, which the researchers say is too small of a sample to come to any definitive conclusions. SAGA expects to have studied 25 Milky Way siblings in the next two years.

Yet the survey already has people talking. At a recent conference where Geha presented some of SAGA’s initial findings, another researcher told her, “You’ve just thrown a monkey wrench into what we know about how small galaxies form.”

“Our work puts the Milky Way into a broader context,” says SAGA researcher Risa Wechsler, an astrophysicist at the Kavli Institute at Stanford University. “The SAGA Survey will provide a critical new understanding of galaxy formation and of the nature of dark matter.”

Wechsler, Geha, and their team said they will continue to improve the efficiency of finding satellites around Milky Way siblings. “I really want to know the answer to whether the Milky Way is unique, or totally normal,” Geha says. “By studying our siblings, we learn more about ourselves.”

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