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See Inside April 2007

The Ghosts of Galaxies Past

Strangely moving stars may be the remnants of past galaxies devoured by our Milky Way

When you look up at the night sky, the stars that you see all reside in our own galaxy, the Milky Way. The nearest large galaxy to us, Andromeda, is more than two million light-years away, a distance 20 times the size of the main disk of our galaxy. With the unaided eye, you cannot make out its stars individually; they blend together into a faint fuzz. As far as our galaxy is concerned, those stars might as well inhabit a separate universe. Conversely, it is natural to think of the stars in our sky as native suns, born and bred within the confines of the Milky Way.

But then what do you make of Arcturus, the second brightest star in the northern sky? Arcturus moves in a subtly different way and has a slightly different chemical composition from that of most stars in the Milky Way; it shares its curious properties with a few other stellar mavericks scattered throughout the galaxy. The origin of these and other atypical stars has been a matter of heated debate since the 1960s. Did the gravity of our galaxy's spiral arms force them into oddball orbits, or are they immigrants, formed in regions beyond the Milky Way from material that was never part of it?

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