Science

The merger with Gaia-Enceladus forged our galaxy – Sciences et Avenir

Between 8 and 10 billion years ago, one of the biggest events in the formation of the Milky Way occurred: it collided with a dwarf galaxy, called “Gaïa-Enceladus”. Such episodes are not uncommon in the history of galaxies and help shape them: they inexorably tend to approach each other, attracted by gravitation.

The largest ones eat the smallest ones, a law that also applies in the Cosmos, where the most massive galaxies suck in the smallest ones. This is how Gaia-Enceladus was absorbed, which contained at most the equivalent of 1% of the stars that make up the Milky Way. Details about this galactic merger were provided by a team from the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics (CfA) in a study published in December 2021 in The Astrophysical Journal.

Galaxy collisions are not uncommon.

The history of galaxies is far from linear. The oldest are found in the early Universe and would have formed only a few hundred million years after the Big Bang. A number of years that seems high, but it is insignificant compared to the total age of the Cosmos, that is, 13.8 billion years! At that time, the Universe was much smaller and denser than it is now, and galaxy mergers were common. With their expansion these became rare, the stars becoming more widely spaced.

The Milky Way is no exception and has suffered several collisions throughout its history, including the one specifically studied by researchers with Gaia-Enceladus. To reconstruct the scenes of these cataclysmic encounters, scientists point to the remnants of these galaxies, in other words, to the stars that once formed them. Because galaxies are made up mostly of disorganized gas and dust, the probability of a collision between two stars is very low. These, on the contrary, are preserved and it is they that will allow scientists, much later, to reconstruct the history of these galactic mergers.

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