Astronomers are digging into the history of the Milky Way galaxy by looking for stars with similar characteristics. Known as galactic archaeology, this technique will help them piece together the history of star formation, as well as the Milky Way's mergers with many smaller galaxies. This view shows the Milky Way glowing above the Nevada desert. [Steve Jurvetson/Wikipedia]
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Archaeology is like a big jigsaw puzzle with no picture to follow as a guide. Archaeologists try to piece together many relics from the past to understand how a culture was born and how its people lived.
Today, astronomers are trying to become archaeologists as well — galactic archaeologists. They’re piecing together the history of our Milky Way galaxy by looking for groups of related stars — the possible remnants of big star clusters, or the smaller galaxies that the Milky Way has taken over.
The key to deciphering the galaxy’s history is the chemistry of its stars. Most stars are born in large clusters, which form from giant clouds of gas and dust. The stars in each cluster share the same chemical makeup. Over time, the clusters break apart and the stars disperse. But the stars retain the chemical “memory” of their birthplace.
One new survey is reading the chemical “barcodes” of millions of individual stars. Slight variations in the amounts of different elements should show which stars are related to each other. By mapping how the related stars are distributed through the galaxy, astronomers hope to trace them back to their stellar birthplaces.
These and other projects should identify many early star clusters and the remnants of small galaxies. And that will help reveal how the Milky Way has evolved over the eons — all pieced together by galactic archaeologists from the relics of our home galaxy’s distant past.
Script by Damond Benningfield, Copyright 2014