This illustration shows the disk of our Milky Way galaxy, surrounded by a faint, extended halo of old stars. Astronomers using the Hubble Space Telescope to observe the nearby Andromeda galaxy serendipitously identified a dozen foreground stars in the Milky Way halo. They measured the first sideways motions (represented by the arrows) for such distant halo stars. The motions indicate the possible presence of a shell in the halo, which may have formed from the accretion of a dwarf galaxy. This observation supports the view that the Milky Way has undergone continuing growth and evolution over its lifetime by consuming smaller galaxies. Credit: NASA, ESA, and A. Feild (STScI) Enlarge

(Phys.org)—Peering deep into the vast stellar halo that envelops our Milky Way galaxy, astronomers using NASA's Hubble Space Telescope have uncovered tantalizing evidence for the possible existence of a shell of stars that are a relic of cannibalism by our Milky Way.

Hubble was used to precisely measure, for the first time ever, the sideways motions of a small sample of stars located far from the galaxy's center. Their unusual lateral motion is circumstantial evidence that the stars may be the remnants of a shredded galaxy that was gravitationally ripped apart by the Milky Way billions of years ago. These stars support the idea that the Milky Way grew, in part, through the accretion of smaller galaxies.

"Hubble's unique capabilities are allowing astronomers to uncover clues to the galaxy's remote past. The more distant regions of the galaxy have evolved more slowly than the inner sections. Objects in the outer regions still bear the signatures of events that happened long ago," said Roeland van der Marel of the Space Telescope Science Institute (STScI) in Baltimore, Md.

They also offer a new opportunity for measuring the "hidden" mass of our galaxy, which is in the form of dark matter (an invisible form of matter that does not emit or reflect radiation). In a universe full of 100 billion galaxies, our Milky Way "home" offers the closest and therefore best site for detailed study of the history and architecture of a galaxy.

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