Galactic Crime Scene

The Milky Way may be cannibalizing nearby galaxies.

Tuesday, December 01, 1998

Things are pretty quiet in our part of the Milky Way, but astronomers have long suspected that our home galaxy might be a galactic cannibal, brutalizing and consuming its nearest neighbors. Recently an international team of researchers found evidence that the Milky Way is indeed in the process of shredding the Large and Small Magellanic Clouds, two nearby small galaxies. The evidence comes in the form of a stream of gas extending from the Magellanic Clouds to the Milky Way. Astronomers had known of a stream extending the other way, behind the clouds, but couldn't rule out that this gas was being blown back like so much hair in a windstorm. Now Patricia Henning, a radio astronomer at the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque, says a survey of the southern skies has finally uncovered a leading arm of gas as well, which suggests gravitational tides are at work.

"It's analogous to why we have two tides on the Earth," Henning says. "The ocean is stretched out in two directions--on the side facing the moon and the side away from the moon."

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