Tidal tails: A glimpse into the evolution of open star clusters

Pleiades, one of the brightest and closest open star clusters
Pleiades, one of the brightest and closest open star clusters © Robert Gendler © Robert Gendler

Astronomers from the University of Heidelberg have identified two tidal tails with approximately five hundred stars extending up to 650 light-years. The discovery gives us an insight into open star clusters and how they evolve.

What are open star clusters?

From Pleiades to Hyades
According to NASA, “This cosmic vista stretches almost 20 degrees across the gentle constellation Taurus. It begins at the Pleiades and ends at the Hyades, two of the best known star clusters in planet Earth’s sky. At left, the lovely Pleiades star cluster is about 400 light-years away. In a familiar celestial scene, the cluster stars shine through dusty clouds that scatter blue starlight. At right, the V-shaped Hyades cluster looks more spread out compared to the compact Pleiades and lies much closer, 150 light-years distant.”
  • Open star clusters are collections of approximately 100 to a few thousand stars;
  • They emerge from a collapsing gas cloud and move through space; and
  • They begin to disperse after a few hundred million years.

How do tidal tails form?

One of factors which works against the gravitationally bound stars is the galaxy‘s tidal force. It pulls stars out of the cluster, and then tidal tails form during the movement of the star cluster through the Milky Way.

A glimpse into the trajectories of open star clusters

The Hyades is one of the best-studied open star clusters. Scientists from the Centre for Astronomy of Heidelberg University (ZAH) have detected the tidal tails for the first time in the Hyades, with researchers from the Max Planck Institute for Astronomy in Heidelberg.

Dr Siegfried Röser of the Königstuhl State Observatory of the ZAH, explained: “Our discovery shows that it is possible to trace the trajectories of individual stars of the Milky Way back to their point of origin in a star cluster.”

Dr Röser said he believes that this is the beginning of many significant discoveries in galactic astronomy.

Astronomers from the University of Heidelberg have identified two tidal tails with approximately five hundred stars extending up to 650 light-years. The discovery gives us an insight into open star clusters and how they evolve.

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