At the University of Michigan, a professor in the Department of Astronomy is taking the phrase “reach for the stars” to a whole new level.

In a new discovery, Astronomy Prof. Sally Oey and her team observed runaway stars using Gaia, a new satellite launched by the European Space Agency.

“What we were originally trying to do was look for runaway stars and those are massive stars,” Oey said. “So they’re moving really fast and … this satellite is able to see very tiny motions of stars in the sky with extreme accuracy.”

LSA junior Johnny Dorigo Jones has been working with Oey monitoring runaway stars for a year. He said his primary role was to synthesize the data and construct pictorial representations of the findings.

“My main role with this paper was working with all the data from Gaia and creating the image showing all of the arrows that you might have seen in one of the press releases,” Dorigo Jones said.

Oey said the new satellite is able to detect the motions of stars in a smaller companion galaxy of the Milky Way around 150,000 light years away. The new technology, she explained, will shed a new light on the studies of the Milky Way and other galaxies.

“I think this new telescope, in particular, is something that has really revolutionized our view of our own galaxy and in nearby galaxies because we can really see the stars as objects that are in motion now,” Oey said.

During her research, Oey said her team noticed how one section of a satellite galaxy was moving in the same direction and wanted to consult outside help to investigate the astronomical finding.

“We were like ‘Woah, what is that?’” Oey said. “When all of those stars in one section of the galaxy are moving together in one direction, so that’s when we got in touch with this professor at the University of Arizona, Gurtina Besla.”

Besla is an associate professor in the Department of Astronomy and Steward Observatory at the University of Arizona, focusing on theoretical astrophysics and galaxy formation. In conjunction with Oey, Besla modeled the interaction between the two satellite galaxies. 

“She’s modeled the interaction of these two galaxies and she had predicted back in 2012 that the two Magellanic clouds galaxies should have collided with each other,” Oey said.

Oey said if these two galaxies had a direct collision, then the smaller Magellanic cloud stars would be gravitationally drawn to the large Magellanic cloud — this is what the research team observed.

“So these observations are actually confirming her theory, her prediction, that these two galaxies have had a direct collision,” Oey said. “We were originally interested in looking for the runaway stars but this was just something that we happened to see and it was a very very cool result.”

LSA freshman Max Resnick said though he doesn’t know much about astronomy, he finds the research fascinating and ground-breaking.

“Though it might not directly affect us that two galaxies collided hundreds of millions of lightyears away, it’s still really cool to think about something that grand and happening in our universe,” Resnick said.

Jones said he was excited by the confirmation of some of Professor Besla’s predictions by kinematic evidence from the Gaia telescope.

“It’s always cool when the simulations and actual observations can line up,” Dorigo Jones said. “It’s really cool that we were able to use this data from the new very accurate telescope Gaia to confirm some of these predictions.”  

According to Resnick, new discoveries can be beneficial to many, not just astronomers.

“I would say there are some things in any science which can be applied to other sciences that might be more directly impactful to our lives,” Resnick said.

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