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The Hercules Satellite – A Galactic Transitional Fossil

by Jon Voisey on September 12, 2010

Smaller satellite galaxies caught by a spiral galaxy are distorted into elongated
structures consisting of stars, which are known as tidal streams, as shown in this artist's
impression. Credit: Jon Lomberg
On Friday, I wrote about the population of the thick disk and how surveys are revealing
that this portion of our galaxy is largely made of stars stolen from cannibalized dwarf
galaxies. This fits in well with many other pieces of evidence to build up the general
picture of galactic formation that suggests galaxies form through the combination of
many small additions as opposed to a single, gigantic collapse. While many streams of
what is, presumably, tidally shredded galaxies span the outskirts of the Milky Way, and
other objects exist that are still fully formed galaxies, few objects have yet been
identified as a satellite that is undergoing the process of tidal disruption.
A new study, to be published in the October issue of the Astrophysical Journal suggests
that the Hercules satellite galaxy may be one of the first of this intermediary forms
In the past decade, numerous minor stellar systems have been discovered in the halo of
our Milky Way galaxy. The properties of these systems have suggested to astronomers
that they are faint galaxies in their own right. Although many have elongated and
elliptical shapes (averaging an ellipticity of 0.47; 0.15 higher than that of brighter
dwarf galaxies that orbit further out), simulations have suggested that even these
stretched dwarfs are still able to remain largely cohesive. In general, the galaxy will
remain intact until it is stretched to an ellipticity of 0.7. At this point, a minor galaxy
will lose ~90% of its member stars and dissolve into a stellar stream.
In 2008, Munoz et al. reported the first Milky Way satellite that was clearly over this
limit. The Ursa Major I satellite was shown to have an ellipticity of 0.8. Munoz
suggested that this, as well as the Hercules and Ursa Major II dwarfs were undergoing
tidal break up.
The new paper, by Nicolas Martin and Shoko Jin, further analyzes this proposition for
the Hercules satellite by going further and examining the orbital characteristics to
ensure that their passage would continue to distort the galaxy sufficiently. The system
already contains an ellipticity of 0.68, which puts it just under the theoretical limit.
The team looked to see just how closely the satellite would pass to our own galactic
center. The closer it passed, the more disruption it would feel. By projecting the orbit,
they estimated the galaxy would come within ~6 kiloparsecs of the galactic center
which is about 40% of the radius of the galaxy overall. While this may not seem
especially close Martin and Jin report that they cannot conclude that it will be
insufficient. They state that disruption would be dependent on “the properties of the
stellar system at that time of its journey in the Milky Way potential and, as such, out of
reach to the current observer.”
However, there were some telling signs that the dwarf may already be shedding stars.
Along the major axis of the galaxy, deep imaging has revealed a smaller number of
stars that does not appear to be bound to the galaxy itself. Photometry of these stars has
shown that their distribution on a color-magnitude diagram is strikingly similar to that
of the Hercules galaxy itself.
At this point, we cannot fully determine if the Hercules galaxy is doomed to become
another stellar stream around the Milky Way, but if it is not truly in the process of
breaking up, it seems to be on the very edge.