A Nearby Stellar Stream Gets Carded

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stellar stream

Artist’s impression of a stellar stream arcing high in the Milky Way’s halo. The Pisces-Eridanus stream has been discovered much closer to Earth than those illustrated here. [NASA]

Pisces–Eridanus may try to pass itself off as a billion years old, but scientists are calling its bluff. The Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS) has now carded this nearby stream of stars, revealing that it’s actually a relative baby!

Looking for Age

Stellar streams are faint associations of stars that were born together and move together, but they’ve been stretched into long tails across the sky. Some stellar streams likely originated as dense, compact clusters of stars that were pulled into streams by tidal interactions; others may have formed in a decentralized fashion and been spread further apart with time.

To understand the evolution of stars in streams and clusters, we use benchmarks: sample star clusters of different ages that we’ve explored in high detail. Unfortunately, most star clusters and associations that we can observe closely are young. Known older clusters all lie at larger distances — the 1-Gyr-old benchmark cluster NGC 6811, for example, is 3,600 light-years away — which limits what we can learn from them.

distance vs. age

Plot of distance vs. age for a selection of benchmark open star clusters. Pisces–Eridanus was originally identified as being 1 Gyr old (Meingast et al. 2019 red marker on the plot), which would make it the oldest cluster within 300 pc (~1,000 light-years). [Curtis et al. 2019]

Can I See Your ID?

It’s for this reason that the recent discovery of the Pisces–Eridanus stream — a faint stellar stream that spans 120° in the sky, is located just 260–740 light-years away, and was originally aged at 1 billion years — was met with a warm welcome. This unexpectedly close stream could prove to be a critical new 1-Gyr-old benchmark that would help us better understand stellar evolution.

Acting as bouncers for the 1 Gyr+ club, however, is a team of astronomers led by Jason Curtis (NSF Astronomy and Astrophysics Postdoctoral Fellow at Columbia University). They’ve set out to check that Pisces–Eridanus is as old as it initially led us to believe — and it turns out we’ve been deceived.

Revealing Rotation

Curtis and collaborators used TESS light curves of more than 100 members of the Pisces-Eridanus stream to identify how rapidly the stars are spinning. In a process called gyrochronology, the authors used the stars’ measured rotation rates to determine the age of the stream by comparing the distribution of rotation periods to the distributions for benchmark clusters with known ages.

rotation period distributions

Rotation period distributions for Pisces–Eridanus (red) and three benchmark clusters: 120 Myr Pleiades (blue), 670 Myr Praesepe (cyan), and 1 Gyr NGC 6811 (orange). Pisces–Eridanus stars clearly overlap with the Pleiades stars, indicating the two clusters have the same age. [Adapted from Curtis et al. 2019]

They found that Pisces-Eridanus’s distribution precisely overlapped the distribution for the stars of the Pleiades, indicating that these two groups are the same age: a mere 120 million years old!

Curtis and collaborators then used Gaia data combined with past radial-velocity measurements to hunt for new members of the Pisces-Eridanus stream. They identified 34 new high-mass candidate members — and the colors and brightnesses of these stars also support a young age of around 120 million years.

A Target for Planet-Hunting

Does the Pisces-Eridanus stream’s newly revealed youth mean that it’s no good to us after all? Not at all, according to Curtis and collaborators. One particular value of this stream is as an exploration ground in the hunt for exoplanets; planet discoveries here will allow us to learn about planet formation in a unique, diffuse environment.

What else have we learned? This study marks the first gyrochronology study conducted using TESS data — demonstrating the valuable role TESS has to play in the future as we continue to work to understand stellar and planetary birth and evolution.

Citation

“TESS Reveals that the Nearby Pisces–Eridanus Stellar Stream is only 120 Myr Old,” Jason L. Curtis et al 2019 AJ 158 77. doi:10.3847/1538-3881/ab2899