Halifax-based astronomer participating in ground-breaking international research

Using among the world’s most powerful telescopes (VISTA), an international team of astronomers recently discovered a new component of our Galaxy (the Milky Way), embedded within its typically obscured central region.

Daniel Majaess - photoThe team – which includes Daniel Majaess (at right), a Canadian astronomer and instructor at Mount Saint Vincent University and Saint Mary’s University – uncovered a previously unknown disc of young stars that spans the central region of the Milky Way. The finding implies that new stars are continuously forming near the Galaxy’s centre, contrary to an existing belief that the surrounding region contains only older objects.

“The central bulge of the Milky Way was thought to consist of vast numbers of old stars. But the data revealed something new — and very young by astronomical standards,” said Istvan Dekany. Dekany and Dante Minniti are based in Chile and led the team of astronomers.

The team made their discovery by mapping the locations of a class of stars called Cepheids that vary in brightness. Cepheids change in brightness while they expand and contract periodically, taking days to months to complete a cycle. That pulsation period is linked to a Cepheid’s age and intrinsic brightness, relationships which make them useful for charting distant regions of the Galaxy and beyond.

More discoveries expected
Ongoing research continues to enhance our knowledge of the Milky Way’s evolution, and the process of galaxy evolution as a whole. Minniti concluded that, “the final catalog of observations from the VISTA telescope is expected to contain a billion point sources. The data will hopefully provide a three-dimensional map of the central region of our Galaxy.”

Majaess remarked that, “Dekany’s idea to use the discovered Cepheids as temporal beacons in this instance was rather novel, and yielded impressive constraints indicating that stars have been continuously forming near the exotic region encompassing the Galactic Center. The entire team marveled at the discovery’s implications.”

Majaess added, “This scientific partnership with the Chilean astronomers emphasizes that Haligonians can engage in stellar research. The partnership is also born from investments local universities are making to provide astronomy education to their students and fund research.”

Teaching astronomy and physics at the Mount

Majaess and fellow Mount faculty of science colleagues Dr. Tina Harriott and Claudette Frizzell offer students an introduction to astronomy and physics, where celestial topics are discussed such as the search for life beyond our Solar System, and the structure of the Milky Way and other galaxies.

For more information on this discovery, you can read the European Southern Observatory’s media release here and the research paper here.