It may be our stelliferous home, but there’s a lot about the Milky Way, and its surroundings, that we don’t know. A new supercomputer simulation by Caltech has provided researchers with a few new clues – and, remarkably, it appears that it’s solved a long-standing mystery.
One of the most mysterious facets of our galaxy is the nearby, low-mass dwarf galaxies, those that contain mere hundreds of millions of stars. For comparison, the Milky Way contains up to 400 billion stellar furnaces.
Simulations replicating the distribution of mass and the mass-attracting, mysterious dark matter in our universe can account for the number of galaxies we see, but models consistently show that there should be far, far more dwarf galaxies around. This so-called “dwarf galaxy problem” has baffled astronomers for ages, but this new simulation has finally managed to reconcile it by creating a Milky Way with the correct number of nearby dwarf galaxies.
After running a network of computers in parallel for 700,000 total hours, the team realized that the explosive deaths of the most massive stars – supernovae – was the missing piece of the puzzle. Writing in Astrophysical Journal Letters, the researchers describe how the stellar wind generated from these cataclysmic blasts, reaching speeds of thousands of kilometers per second, have been stripping small galaxies of gas and even individual stars.
The simulated Milky Way and its nearby dwarf galaxies. z denotes the time from the present terms of redshift, with 0 representing the present day. caltech via YouTube
These deathly winds are so powerful that they can in some instances annihilate dwarf galaxies, fragmenting them and scattering their debris into the deep, dark cosmos. These self-destructing stars, not content at taking themselves out, have also been destroying dwarf galaxies for billions of years.
“We had thought before that perhaps our understanding of dark matter was incorrect in these simulations, but these new results show we don't have to tinker with dark matter,” lead author Andrew Wetzel, a postdoctoral fellow at Caltech, said in a statement. “When we more precisely model supernovae, we get the right answer.”
Earlier research suggested that there should be thousands of these dwarf galaxies lingering around, but astronomers can only spot around 30 of them. Thanks to the most detailed simulation of our galaxy to date, now we know why. It seems that brilliant supernovae have been cleaning up the distant reaches of space for billions of years with their spectacular demises.