Monday, 1 February 2016

Improving our census of star clusters in the Large Magellanic Cloud

A new paper published last week by Romita et al. presents results of a search for new star clusters in the nearest galaxy to the Milky Way, the Large Magellanic Cloud (LMC).

The LMC is a dwarf satellite galaxy currently orbiting our galaxy that has a number of key differences to the Milky Way. For a start the LMC is much smaller than the Milky Way, but critically it is also less chemically evolved, meaning that it has fewer 'metals', which is the name astronomers give to anything other than hydrogen or helium. By studying the distribution of star clusters in this galaxy we can try to understand whether star formation and the evolution of star clusters has proceeded any differently in this environment compared to in our own Galaxy.

The authors have targeted a 1.65 square degree area of the LMC that includes the massive star forming region 30 Doradus, the largest region of star formation in the LMC, and larger than anything in our own galaxy. It's a rich field of star formation as the images below show, and a good place to be hunting for new star clusters.

Images of the area of the LMC studied in this paper. On the left is a colour image compiled from the infrared observations used in the study, while on the right a black and white image is marked with the positions of the newly-discovered star clusters (red dots) relative to the positions of known molecular clouds (black ellipses). (Credit: Romita et al. 2016)
Using infrared images of the LMC the authors identify 65 embedded star clusters, 45 of which are new discoveries. Using their observations the authors are able to estimate the sizes, masses and luminosities of these clusters, all key properties of star clusters.

The authors compare the distribution of these star cluster properties with their distribution in our own Galaxy, and find that the LMC clusters are generally larger, more massive, and more luminous. Since these three quantities are often well-correlated with each other, it's not a surprise that all three properties are bigger in the LMC, but this does clearly show that LMC star clusters are typically more massive than those in our galaxy.

The authors also find the density of clusters in the LMC is 3 times higher than in the Milky Way, and that the mass of clusters in this area of the LMC is 40 times higher than an equivalent area in out galaxy. Both these results suggest that the LMC is producing star clusters at a much higher rate than in our own Galaxy.

These two results are actually linked. If a galaxy is forming more stars and producing more star clusters then it is likely that it will, on average, produce larger and more massive clusters than a galaxy that it is forming fewer star clusters. It is clear that the LMC is very actively forming stars and clusters at the moment.

However the authors note that this shouldn't surprise us because the LMC contains many more molecular clouds than the Milky Way, and since stars form in molecular clouds then more molecular clouds should mean more star clusters! They find that both galaxies display the same relationship (known as the star formation rate scaling law) between the amount of dense gas and the amount of stars (and star clusters) that are forming.

This means that while the environments of the two galaxies may be different, the star formation process that takes place within them isn't. We can therefore take what we've learnt about star formation in the Milky Way and apply it to other galaxies. This is an important step forward for understanding star formation across the Universe!

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