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A Galactic Companion is Reshaping the Milky Way

Hubble Image of the Large Magellanic Cloud. ESA/NASA/Hubble.

Researchers uncover a dwarf galaxy's significant influence on the Milky Way's evolution.

The Large Magellanic Cloud (LMC), a nearby dwarf galaxy, is not only our galaxy’s largest companion but also plays a significant role in shaping the Milky Way’s evolution, according to recent research.

Our Galactic Neighbor: The Large Magellanic Cloud

The LMC, visible to the naked eye in the Southern Hemisphere, has revealed much about its nature and influence on the Milky Way through new theoretical research and improved observational capabilities. Eugene Vasiliev of the University of Cambridge explained in an interview with Universe Today that the LMC’s mass and recent proximity to the Milky Way make it impossible to ignore its impact on our galaxy.

A Tale of Two Galaxies: The LMC and the Milky Way

Comprising 10-20% of the Milky Way’s mass, the LMC was once a spiral galaxy before its first orbit around the Milky Way distorted its structure. This interaction changed both galaxies, deflecting the orbits of nearby stars and causing larger, structural alterations to the Milky Way.

Chasing the Effects of the LMC on the Milky Way

Studying the shape of our home galaxy presents challenges, as we cannot take a snapshot of the entire Milky Way like we can for distant galaxies. Researchers must rely on models to predict the distant parts of the galaxy based on nearer observations. However, small errors in these models can distort our understanding of the Milky Way and mask the perturbations caused by the LMC.

Uncovering the LMC’s Impact through Gaia Data

Recent Gaia data shows a peculiar striped pattern in the position and velocity of stars in the Milky Way’s galactic halo. Astronomers like Vasiliev hope to find distortions in these stripes caused by the LMC’s passage. The low-density halo is particularly susceptible to changes induced by the LMC’s flyby.

A Galactic Future: Mergers and Collisions

In the coming billions of years, the LMC will merge with the Milky Way, bringing more mass and metallicity to our galaxy’s halo. This will precede an even larger merger with the Andromeda Galaxy, emphasizing that no galaxy exists in isolation; our neighbors continually shape our galaxy’s past, present, and future.

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