FOR RELEASE: January 06, 2010

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The halo of dark matter surrounding our Milky Way Galaxy is shaped something like a gigantic, flattened cosmic beachball, astronomers announced today. The report is being presented to the meeting of the American Astronomical Society in Washington, DC, by Dr. David R. Law (Hubble Fellow at UCLA) and co-authors Drs. Steven Majewski (University of Virginia) and Kathryn Johnston (Columbia University). This result is important because it is the first time that the three-dimensional shape of an individual dark-matter halo has been conclusively measured.

Dark-matter haloes account for over 70% of the mass in galaxies such as the Milky Way, but this dark matter is invisible; all we see when we look up in the sky is the small amount of stars and gas sitting in the centers of these haloes. So how do astronomers 'see' invisible dark matter? It might not be possible to detect it through normal means, but dark matter obeys the laws of gravity and tugs on small dwarf galaxies as they orbit around the Milky Way. By observing the orbits that these dwarf galaxies follow, astronomers can deduce where the dark matter must be using Newton's law of gravity.

While it would take roughly a billion years to watch a typical dwarf galaxy orbit just once around our home galaxy, dwarf galaxies get shredded by tidal forces as they orbit the much more massive Milky Way and leave stars like breadcrumbs along their path. These stellar breadcrumbs can be traced in huge astronomical surveys such as the Two-Micron All Sky Survey and the Sloan Digital Sky Survey and can therefore be used to infer the orbits of their parent dwarf galaxies.

Using observations of such tidal debris from a dwarf known as the Sagittarius Dwarf Galaxy, astronomers have been able to reconstruct the orbit of Sagittarius and derive models for the Milky Way and its dark-matter halo. These models had met an impasse, however: Different parts of the orbit suggested wildly different solutions. "Until recently," says Law, "we simply didn't understand why the Sagittarius stream of stars behaves as it does."

In September 2009, Law and colleagues Majewski and Johnston suggested a solution in a Letter published in the Astrophysical Journal: By allowing the dark matter halo to be triaxial -- that is, to have different axis lengths in all three dimensions -- it is possible to fit the entire orbit of Sagittarius simultaneously. As demonstrated in their presentation to the 215th meeting of the American Astronomical Society (and a follow-up paper recently submitted to the Astrophysical Journal), the proposed solution suggests that the invisible dark-matter halo of the Milky Way can be visualized as some kind of cosmic 'beachball' that has been squashed sideways. "At last we have a way of explaining what previously seemed like conflicting information about the Sagittarius system," says study coauthor Majewski.

"This work is very impressive," says UC Santa Cruz professor of Astronomy Dr. Puragra Guhathakurta (who was not involved with the study), "the Sagittarius tidal stream is like a tracer bullet lighting up the orbit of the fast disrupting Sagittarius dwarf. This technique should be applicable to tidal streams in other galaxies as well, such as our neighboring Andromeda galaxy."

The fact that the 'beachball' was squashed from the side came as a surprise: It suggests that the dark matter halo and the disk of stars in the Milky Way are oriented roughly perpendicular to each other. "We expected some amount of flattening based on the predictions of the best dark-matter theories," said Law, "but the extent, and particularly the orientation, of the flattening was quite unexpected. We're pretty excited about this, because it begs the question of how our galaxy formed in its present orientation."

"Of course," says Law, "Sagittarius is only one of many dwarf galaxies surrounding the Milky Way, and it will be important to see if these results hold up as precise orbits are measured for more of these galaxies. In the meantime, such a squashed dark-matter halo is one of the best explanations for the observed data."

Support for this work was provided by NASA through Hubble Fellowship grant #HF-01221.01 awarded by the Space Telescope Science Institute, which is operated by the Association of Universities for Research in Astronomy, Inc., for NASA, under contract NAS 5-26555.

This illustration shows a 'beachball' representation of the dark matter halo surrounding the Milky Way Galaxy (flattened blue spiral; the colors of the beachball are chosen arbitrarily). The location of the Sun in this image is indicated by the yellow dot; white 'XYZ' coordinate axes are drawn for reference. The associated movie shows a flyaround view of this system.
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This image shows the model of the tidally shredded Sagittarius dwarf galaxy wrapping around a 3-D representation of the Milky Way disk (flattened blue spiral). The yellow dot represents the position of the Sun. The associated movie shows a flyaround view of this system.
Also available: