Finding Lost Star Siblings: Star Clusters Are Only the Tip of the Iceberg

A panoramic view of the nearby Alpha Persei star cluster and its corona. The member stars in the corona are invisible. These are only revealed thanks to the combination of precise measurements with the ESA Gaia satellite and innovative machine learning tools.
Credit: © Stefan Meingast, made with Gaia Sky

“Clusters form big families of stars that can stay together for large parts of their lifetime. Today, we know of roughly a few thousand star clusters in the Milky Way, but we only recognize them because of their prominent appearance as rich and tight groups of stars. Given enough time, stars tend to leave their cradle and find themselves surrounded by countless strangers, thereby becoming indistinguishable from their neighbors and hard to identify,” says Stefan Meingast, lead author of the paper published in Astronomy & Astrophysics. “Our Sun is thought to have formed in a star cluster but has left its siblings behind a long time ago” he adds.

Thanks to the ESA Gaia spacecraft’s precise measurements, astronomers at the University of Vienna have now discovered that what we call a star cluster is only the tip of the iceberg of a much larger and often distinctly elongated distribution of stars.

“Our measurements reveal the vast numbers of sibling stars surrounding the well-known cores of the star clusters for the first time. It appears that star clusters are enclosed in rich halos, or coronae, more than 10 times as large as the original cluster, reaching far beyond our previous guesses. The tight groups of stars we see in the night sky are just a part of a much larger entity” says Alena Rottensteiner, co-author and master student at the University of Vienna. “There is plenty of work ahead revising what we thought were basic properties of star clusters, and trying to understand the origin of the newfound coronae.”

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