Astronomers from the University of Bonn in Germany have discovered a vast structure of satellite galaxies and clusters of stars surrounding our Galaxy, stretching out across a million light years. The work challenges the existence of dark matter, part of the standard model for the evolution of the universe.
Conventional models for the origin and evolution of the universe (cosmology) are based on the presence of ‘dark matter’, invisible material thought to make up about 23% of the content of the cosmos that has never been detected directly. In this model, the Milky Way is predicted to have far more satellite galaxies than are actually seen.
In their effort to understand exactly what surrounds our Galaxy, the scientists used a range of sources from twentieth century photographic plates to images from the robotic telescope of the Sloan Deep Sky Survey. Using all these data they assembled a picture that includes bright ‘classical’ satellite galaxies, more recently detected fainter satellites and the younger globular clusters.
“Once we had completed our analysis, a new picture of our cosmic neighborhood emerged”, says team leader Marcel Pawlowski. The astronomers found that all the different objects are distributed in a plane at right angles to the galactic disk. The newly-discovered structure is huge, extending from as close as 33,000 light years to as far away as one million light years from the center of the Galaxy.
“We were baffled by how well the distributions of the different types of objects agreed with each other," added Pavel Kroupa, professor for astronomy at the University of Bonn. "As the different companions move around the Milky Way, they lose material, stars and sometimes gas, which forms long streams along their paths. The new results show that this lost material is aligned with the plane of galaxies and clusters too. “This illustrates that the objects are not only situated within this plane right now, but that they move within it”, says Pawlowski. “The structure is stable.”