Dark matter may slow the rotation of the Milky Way’s central bar of stars

A cosmic analog of tree rings hints at how the bar’s spin slowed over time

illustration of the milky way galaxy

The Milky Way (illustrated) contains a central bar of stars (yellow) that rotates along with the galaxy. Researchers reported evidence that the bar is being slowed by the presence of dark matter.

R. Hurt/JPL-Caltech/NASA, ESO

Dark matter can be a real drag. The pull of that unidentified, invisible matter in the Milky Way may be slowing down the rotating bar of stars at the galaxy’s heart.

Based on a technique that re-creates the history of the slowdown in a manner akin to analyzing a tree’s rings, the bar’s speed has decreased by at least 24 percent since it formed billions of years ago, researchers report in the August Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society.

That slowdown is “another indirect but important piece of evidence that dark matter is a thing, not just a conjecture, because this can’t happen without it,” says astrophysicist Martin Weinberg of the University of Massachusetts Amherst, who was not involved with the study.

Many spiral galaxies, including the Milky Way, contain a central bar-shaped region densely packed with stars and surrounded by the galaxy’s pinwheeling arms. The bar also has some groupies: a crew of stars trapped by the bar’s gravitational influence. Those stars orbit a gravitationally stable point located alongside the bar and farther from the galaxy’s center, known as a Lagrange point (SN: 2/26/21). 

If the bar’s rotation slows, it will grow in length, and the bar’s tagalongs will also move outward. As that happens, that cohort of hangers-on will gather additional stars. According to computer simulations of the process, those additional stars should arrange themselves in layers on the outside of the group, says astrophysicist Ralph Schönrich of University College London. The layers of stars imprint a record of the group’s growth. “It’s actually like a tree that you can cut up in your own galaxy,” he says.

Schönrich and astrophysicist Rimpei Chiba of the University of Oxford studied how the composition of stars in the group changed from its outer edge to its deeper layers. Data from the European Space Agency’s Gaia spacecraft revealed that stars in the outer layers of the bar tended to be less enriched in elements heavier than helium than were stars in the inner layers. That’s evidence for the group of stars moving outward, as a result of the bar slowing, the researchers say. That’s because stars in the center of the galaxy — which would have glommed on to the group in the more distant past — tend to be more enriched in heavier elements than those farther out.

The bar’s slowdown hints that a gravitational force is acting on it, namely, the pull of dark matter in the galaxy. Normal matter alone wouldn’t be enough to reduce the bar’s speed. “If there is no dark matter, the bar will not slow down,” Chiba says.

But the results have drawn some skepticism. “Unfortunately, this is not yet convincing to me,” says astrophysicist Isaac Shlosman of the University of Kentucky in Lexington. For example, he doubts that the tree ring layering would really occur. It is “hard to believe that this is the case in a realistic system” as opposed to in a simplified computer simulation, he says.

Weinberg, on the other hand, says that although the study relies on a variety of assumptions, he suspects it’s correct. “It’s got the right smell.”

Physics writer Emily Conover has a Ph.D. in physics from the University of Chicago. She is a two-time winner of the D.C. Science Writers’ Association Newsbrief award.

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