From Gemini: “Gemini Tracks Distant Star Cluster with Adaptive Optics”


Gemini Observatory
Gemini Observatory

May 11, 2017

Researchers combine images from Gemini South’s wide-field adaptive optics system (GeMS/GSAOI) with data from the Hubble Space Telescope (HST) to determine the proper motion of a distant cluster of stars. The observations, the first to use ground-based adaptive optics to precisely measure the motion of a cluster at such a large distance, allowed astronomers to set a lower limit for the mass of our Milky Way while providing clues about the cluster’s origin.


NASA/ESA Hubble Telescope

Figure 1: Gemini Multi-Object Spectrograph (GMOS-South) of the Pyxis field (left image), with the center of the cluster marked with a red star. A zoom of the pseudo color image of Pyxis observed with the Gemini South Adaptive Optics Imager (GSAOI) used with the Gemini Multi-conjugate adaptive optics System (GeMS) is shown at right. The field of view of GMOS is 5 x 5 arcminutes, 85 x 85 arcseconds for GeMS.

A study of the proper motion (apparent motion in the sky due to an object’s motion around our galaxy) of several substructures across the Milky Way’s halo is underway at Gemini South. As part of this study the team used Adaptive Optics (AO) at Gemini South, along with data from HST, to focus on a distant cluster called Pyxis. The work allowed the team to set a lower limit for the Milky Way’s mass of 950 million solar masses. This value is consistent with most, but not all, previous determinations.

The wide-field Gemini Multi-conjugate adaptive optics System (GeMS) combined with the Gemini South Adaptive Optics Imager (GSAOI) provided the Gemini data. “We used GeMS/GSAOI to estimate the proper motion for halo objects because normal (seeing limited) ground-based telescopes need a time baseline of more than 15 years for this measurement,” says Tobias Fritz (University of Virginia) who leads the research team. “GeMS/GSAOI with its better spatial resolution can make that measurement in five years, the same types of baselines required from space-based proper motions (like HST),” continues Fritz. The team was able to measure absolute proper motions of Pyxis using GeMS/GSAOI, which provided a resolution of 0.08 arcsecond and combined that with archival HST images, with a resolution of ~ 0.1 arcsecond. Fritz adds, “The study of motions for halo objects, like Pyxis, can constrain the mass distribution of our Galaxy at large distances and thus the mass of the Milky Way.”

Pyxis, a densely packed collection of ancient stars, is one of the most distant examples of a globular clusters, dense clusters of stars which orbit our galaxy. The cluster is located some 130,000 light years away and is thought to be about 2 billion years younger than other globular clusters with the same ratio of heavier elements (metallicity). Together, these characteristics imply Pyxis did not form with other Milky Way clusters. Instead, it is likely that Pyxis was formed in a massive dwarf galaxy that was then accreted by the Milky Way. Thus, Pyxis has an extragalactic origin. However, the orbits of the known massive dwarf galaxies are inconsistent with the orbit of Pyxis, which is derived from the new proper motion measurements.

The paper, titled: The Proper Motion of Pyxis: The First Use of Adaptive Optics in Tandem with HST on a Faint Halo Object is published in The Astrophysical Journal. The work is part of a Large and Long program at Gemini that is also targeting other clusters, dwarf galaxies, and individual stars in stellar streams.

Figure 2: Absolute velocity of Pyxis. Each blue dot stands for a velocity derived from a single background galaxy. The red box shows the weighted average velocity derived from all galaxies. Only galaxies with small errors are shown for clarity.

See the full article here .

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Gemini/North telescope at Mauna Kea, Hawaii, USA
Gemini/North telescope at Mauna Kea, Hawaii, USA

Gemini South
Gemini South telescope, Cerro Tololo Inter-American Observatory (CTIO) campus near La Serena, Chile


Gemini’s mission is to advance our knowledge of the Universe by providing the international Gemini Community with forefront access to the entire sky.

The Gemini Observatory is an international collaboration with two identical 8-meter telescopes. The Frederick C. Gillett Gemini Telescope is located on Mauna Kea, Hawai’i (Gemini North) and the other telescope on Cerro Pachón in central Chile (Gemini South); together the twin telescopes provide full coverage over both hemispheres of the sky. The telescopes incorporate technologies that allow large, relatively thin mirrors, under active control, to collect and focus both visible and infrared radiation from space.

The Gemini Observatory provides the astronomical communities in six partner countries with state-of-the-art astronomical facilities that allocate observing time in proportion to each country’s contribution. In addition to financial support, each country also contributes significant scientific and technical resources. The national research agencies that form the Gemini partnership include: the US National Science Foundation (NSF), the Canadian National Research Council (NRC), the Chilean Comisión Nacional de Investigación Cientifica y Tecnológica (CONICYT), the Australian Research Council (ARC), the Argentinean Ministerio de Ciencia, Tecnología e Innovación Productiva, and the Brazilian Ministério da Ciência, Tecnologia e Inovação. The observatory is managed by the Association of Universities for Research in Astronomy, Inc. (AURA) under a cooperative agreement with the NSF. The NSF also serves as the executive agency for the international partnership.