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Star Cluster on Collision Course with Milky Way’s Heart

Highlights

  • Cluster VVV CL002 is nearing Milky Way's core.

  • Its orbit and metallicity suggest ancient origins.

  • Imminent destruction in the galactic center awaits.

Globular clusters, ancient spherical star conglomerates, are prevalent throughout the Milky Way, especially in its halo. A recent discovery reveals that one such cluster is on a precarious path towards the galaxy’s central region.

Discovery of a Globular Cluster’s Perilous Journey

Astronomers are intrigued by globular clusters near the galactic center as their existence there poses questions about their survival in such a volatile environment. The VISTA Variables in the Vía Láctea (VVV) survey, conducted by the European Southern Observatory, has identified the cluster VVV CL002 as the closest to the Milky Way’s core, embarking on an inevitable plunge into this region.

Understanding the Fate of VVV CL002

Tidal forces at the galaxy’s heart threaten the integrity of globular clusters like VVV CL002, which may eventually disintegrate within this realm. This cluster, positioned merely 0.4 kiloparsecs from the center and counter-rotating, may unravel the histories and mechanics of star clusters and the galactic core.

VVV CL002 exhibits an eccentric orbit, which scientists believe is unsustainable over its lifespan of more than 10 billion years if it were initially near the galactic center. The findings suggest that it formed farther out and only recently began its inward journey.

Research extends beyond cluster trajectory: the metallicity of its stars—primarily older stars with low levels of elements heavier than hydrogen and helium—indicates VVV CL002’s ancient origins. These metallicity levels align with those of other ancient stars formed in the galactic bulge, reinforcing the notion that VVV CL002 is an old globular cluster, not a remnant of a younger or disrupted structure.

VVV CL002’s fate seems sealed as it spirals inwards. Its study presents a unique opportunity to learn about the behavior and endurance of globular clusters in extreme conditions close to a supermassive black hole, such as Sagittarius A* at the galaxy’s heart.

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