Astronomers have found that stars of a recently discovered type, dubbed ultracool subdwarfs, take some pretty wild rides as they orbit around the Milky Way, following paths that are very different from those of typical stars. One of them may actually be a visitor that originated in another galaxy.
Adam Burgasser and John Bochanski of MIT presented the findings on June 9 at the American Astronomical Society’s semi-annual meeting in Pasadena, Calif. The result clarifies the origins of these peculiar, faint stars, and may provide new details on the types of stars the Milky Way has acquired from other galaxies.
Ultracool subdwarfs were first recognized as a unique class of stars in 2003, and are distinguished by their low temperatures (“ultracool”) and low concentrations of elements other than hydrogen and helium (“subdwarf”). They sit at the bottom end of the size range for stars, and some are so small that they are closer to the planet-like objects called brown dwarfs. Only a few dozen ultracool subdwarfs are known today, as they are both very faint — up to 10,000 times fainter than the Sun — and extremely rare.
Burgasser, associate professor of physics at MIT and lead author of the study, was intrigued by the fast motions of ultracool subdwarfs, which zip past the Sun at astonishing speeds. “Most nearby stars travel more or less in tandem with the Sun tracing circular orbits around the center of the Milky Way once every 250 million years,” he explains. The ultracool subdwarfs, on the other hand, appear to pass us by at very high speeds, up to 500 km/s, or over a million miles per hour.