Evolutionary Cycles of Andromeda Galaxy’s Several Hundred Billion Stars

071012_andromeda_vmed_3p.standard The Andromeda Galaxy, our nearest large galactic neighbour, contains several hundred billion stars. The images at bottom of page show all stages of the stellar life cycle. The infrared image from Herschel shows areas of cool dust that trace reservoirs of gas in which forming stars are embedded. The optical image shows adult stars. XMM-Newton’s X-ray image shows the violent endpoints of stellar evolution, in which individual stars explode or pairs of stars pull each other to pieces.

Two Europe Space Agency  observatories have combined forces to show the Andromeda Galaxy in a new light. Herschel sees rings of star formation in this, the most detailed image of the Andromeda Galaxy ever taken at infrared wavelengths, and XMM-Newton shows dying stars shining X-rays into space.


During Christmas 2010, ESA’s Herschel and XMM-Newton space observatories targeted the Andromeda Galaxy. Sensitive to far-infrared light, Herschel sees clouds of cool dust and gas where stars can form. Inside these clouds are many dusty cocoons containing forming stars, each star pulling itself together in a slow gravitational process that can last for hundreds of millions of years. Once a star reaches a high enough density, it will begin to shine at optical wavelengths. It will emerge from its birth cloud and become visible to ordinary telescopes.

Andromeda is interesting because it shows a large ring of dust about 75 000 light-years across encircling the center of the galaxy. Some astronomers speculate that this dust ring may have been formed in a recent collision with another galaxy. This new Herschel image reveals yet more intricate details, with at least five concentric rings of star-forming dust visible.

Superimposed on the infrared image is an X-ray view taken almost simultaneously by ESA’s XMM-Newton observatory. Whereas the infrared shows the beginnings of star formation, X-rays usually show the endpoints of stellar evolution.

XMM-Newton highlights hundreds of X-ray sources within Andromeda, many of them clustered around the centre, where the stars are naturally found to be more crowded together. Some of these are shockwaves and debris rolling through space from exploded stars, others are pairs of stars locked in a gravitational fight to the death.

In these deadly embraces, one star has already died and is pulling gas from its still-living companion. As the gas falls through space, it heats up and gives off X-rays. The living star will eventually be greatly depleted, having much of its mass torn from it by the stronger gravity of its denser partner. As the stellar corpse wraps itself in this stolen gas, it could explode.

Both the infrared and X-ray images show information that is impossible to collect from the ground because these wavelengths are absorbed by Earth’s atmosphere. The twinkling starlight seen from Earth is indeed a beautiful sight but in reality contains less than half the story. Visible light shows us the adult stars, whereas infrared gives us the youngsters and X-rays show those in their death throes.

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The Daily Galaxy via European Space Agency

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