Europe's Gaia spacecraft has spotted a 'bridge of stars' between two dwarf galaxies. The bridge—a halo of faint light arching between two of the Milky Way's nearest neighbors—is 43,000 light-years long.
About 200 million years ago, as the two dwarf passed close to each other, the gravity of the Large Magellanic Cloud (LMC) may have started pulling stars and hydrogen gas from the smaller galaxy. Meanwhile, the Milky Way's gravity could be stripping stars away from the LMC. These purloined stars form the fuzzy bridge between galaxies, which is difficult to see with the naked eye.
"Stellar streams around the Clouds were predicted but never observe[d]," paper co-author Vasily Belokurov said in a statement. "[W]e were surprised to see a narrow bridge-like structure connecting the two clouds."
The stream of stolen stars leads to clues about galaxy formation. They reveal that the LMC must be significantly bigger than scientists thought, with perhaps a tenth of the mass of the Milky Way. And the stellar pathway also reveals where the two galaxies have been before. Galactic orbits are often very difficult to detect, but the star bridge is like a brilliant trail of breadcrumbs.
Together, the information from this study and the rest of the Gaia survey shows that "the current model of galaxy formation is holding up well to the increased scrutiny," said co-author Denis Erkal.