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Antlia 2 (upper left), hidden on the Milky Way's far side, is as big as the Large Magellanic Cloud (lower right) but much dimmer. (A bright, artificial blob representing Antlia 2 was added to show its location.)

G. Torrealba, Academia Sinica, Taiwan; V. Belokurov, Cambridge, U.K. and CCA, New York, U.S., based on an image by ESO/S. Brunie

Large, strangely dim galaxy found lurking on far side of Milky Way

Circling our galaxy is a stealthy giant. Astronomers have discovered a dwarf galaxy, called Antlia 2, that is one-third the size of the Milky Way itself. As big as the Large Magellanic Cloud, the galaxy’s largest companion, Antlia 2 eluded detection until now because it is 10,000 times fainter. Such a strange beast challenges models of galaxy formation and dark matter, the unseen stuff that helps pull galaxies together.

“It’s a very odd object and kind of exciting because we don’t know yet how to interpret all of its properties,” says Andrey Kravtsov of The University of Chicago in Illinois, who was not involved in the work.

The galaxy was discovered with data from the European Space Agency’s Gaia satellite, a space telescope measuring the motions and properties of more than 1 billion stars in and around the Milky Way. Gabriel Torrealba, an astronomy postdoc at the Academia Sinica in Taipei, decided to sift the data for RR Lyrae stars. These old stars, often found in dwarf galaxies, shine with a throbbing blue light that pulses at a rate signaling their inherent brightness, allowing researchers to pin down their distance.

“RR Lyrae are so rare at these distances that even if you see two, you question why they are together,” says Vasily Belokurov, an astronomer at the University of Cambridge in the United Kingdom and a collaborator on the discovery. When the team found three, some 420,000 light-years away, it was “an overwhelming signal” of a large cluster of stars in that location, Belokurov says. But because the RR Lyrae stars lie on the far side of the disk of the Milky Way and its obstructing veil of stars and gas, finding their companions was not easy.

Gaia data helped the team see past the foreground stars. Objects in the Milky Way’s disk are close enough for Gaia to measure their parallax: a shift in their apparent position as Earth moves around the sun. More distant stars appear fixed in one spot. After removing the parallax-bearing stars, the researchers homed in on more than 100 red giant stars moving together in the constellation Antlia, they report in a paper posted to the preprint server arXiv this week. The giants mark out a sprawling companion galaxy 100 times less massive than anything of similar size, with far fewer stars.

To explain such a diffuse galaxy, Belokurov suggests that early in Antlia 2’s history, many young stars exploded as violent supernovae. This would have blown gas and dust out of the galaxy, weakening its gravity so that it puffed up. An abundance of the heavy elements that are strewn from the guts of exploding stars adds credibility to this idea, says Shea Garrison-Kimmel, an astrophysicist at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena. Antlia 2 could also have lost matter as stars were tugged away by gravitational tidal forces as it orbited around the larger Milky Way.

Even so, its disproportionate size is hard to explain. Galaxies are thought to have formed when the gravity of enormous clumps of dark matter drew in enough ordinary matter to fuel the birth of stars. The team speculates that Antlia 2 might have been born from a fluffier, faster-moving type of dark matter than current models hypothesize.

To Garrison-Kimmel, one example isn’t enough to say the dark matter in Antlia 2 is different from that in the Milky Way and its other satellites. “There’s nothing in this one galaxy that screams to me that we need to rethink dark matter,” he says. “But if there are a lot of these, then we might need to take a step back and ask what’s going on.”

That could happen now that astronomers know how to find these big, elusive companions. “I think this object is a harbinger,” Kravtsov says. “A taste of things to come.”