Monday, 13 April 2015

The Milky Way's Globular Star Clusters --"Relics from the Early Universe"


About 160 globular clusters have been spotted encircling our galaxy, the Milky Way, mostly toward its central bulge. These clusters are among the oldest objects in the Universe. And since the stars within a globular cluster formed from the same cloud of interstellar matter at roughly the same time — typically over 10 billion years ago — they are all low-mass stars, as lightweights burn their hydrogen fuel supply much more slowly than stellar behemoths. Globular clusters formed during the earliest stages in the formation of their host galaxies and therefore studying these objects can give significant insights into how galaxies, and their component stars, evolve.

The image above shows the center of the globular cluster Messier 22, also known as M22, as observed by the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope. Globular clusters are spherical collections of densely packed stars, relics of the early years of the Universe, with ages of typically 12 to 13 billion years. This is very old considering that the Universe is only 13.8 billion years old.

Messier 22 is one of about 150 globular clusters in the Milky Way and at just 10,000 light-years away it is also one of the closest to Earth. It was discovered in 1665 by Abraham Ihle, making it one of the first globulars ever to be discovered. This is not so surprising as it is one of the brightest globular clusters visible from the northern hemisphere, located in the constellation of Sagittarius, close to the Galactic Bulge — the dense mass of stars at the center of the Milky Way.

The cluster has a diameter of about 70 light-years and, when looking from Earth, appears to take up a patch of sky the size of the full Moon. Despite its relative proximity to us, the light from the stars in the cluster is not as bright as it should be as it is dimmed by dust and gas located between us and the cluster.

As they are leftovers from the early Universe, globular clusters are popular study objects for astronomers. M22 in particular has fascinating additional features: six planet-sized objects that are not orbiting a star have been detected in the cluster, it seems to host two black holes, and the cluster is one of only three ever found to host a planetary nebula — a short-lived gaseous shells ejected by massive stars at the ends of their lives.

This striking view of the globular star cluster Messier 55 below in the constellation of Sagittarius (The Archer) was obtained in infrared light with the VISTA survey telescope at ESO's Paranal Observatory in Chile. This vast ball of ancient stars is located at a distance of about 17,000 light-years from Earth.


The image of Messier 55 above from ESO's VISTA infrared survey telescope shows tens of thousands of stars crowded together like a swarm of bees. Besides being packed into a relatively small space, these stars are also among the oldest in the Universe. Astronomers study Messier 55 and other ancient objects like it, called globular clusters, to learn how galaxies evolve and stars age.

Globular clusters are held together in a tight spherical shape by gravity. In Messier 55, the stars certainly do keep close company: approximately one hundred thousand stars are packed within a sphere with a diameter of only about 25 times the distance between the Sun and the nearest star system, Alpha Centauri.

Observations of globular clusters' stars reveal that they originated around the same time — more than 10 billion years ago — and from the same cloud of gas. As this formative period was just a few billion years after the Big Bang, nearly all of the gas on hand was the simplest, lightest and most common in the cosmos: hydrogen, along with some helium and much smaller amounts of heavier chemical elements such as oxygen and nitrogen.

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