The Milky Way may be spawning many more stars than astronomers had thought

Gamma rays reveal the galaxy’s star-making power

The Milky Way is churning out far more stars than previously thought, according to a new estimate of its star formation rate.

Gamma rays from aluminum-26, a radioactive isotope that arises primarily from massive stars, reveal that the Milky Way converts four to eight solar masses of interstellar gas and dust into new stars each year, researchers report in work submitted to on January 24. That range is two to four times the conventional estimate and corresponds to an annual birthrate in our galaxy of about 10 to 20 stars, because most stars are less massive than the sun.

At this rate, every million years — a blink of the eye in astronomical terms — our galaxy spawns 10 million to 20 million new stars. That’s enough to fill roughly 10,000 star clusters like the beautiful Pleiades cluster in the constellation Taurus. In contrast, many galaxies, including most of the ones that orbit the Milky Way, make no new stars at all.

“The star formation rate is very important to understand for galaxy evolution,” says Thomas Siegert, an astrophysicist at the University of Würzburg in Germany. The more stars a galaxy makes, the faster it enriches itself with oxygen, iron and the other elements that stars create. Those elements then alter star-making gas clouds and can change the relative number of large and small stars that the gas clouds form.

Siegert and his colleagues studied the observed intensity and spatial distribution of emission from aluminum-26 in our galaxy. A massive star creates this isotope during both life and death. During its life, the star blows the aluminum into space via a strong wind. If the star explodes when it dies, the resulting supernova forges more. The isotope, with a half-life of 700,000 years, decays and gives off gamma rays.

Like X-rays, and unlike visible light, gamma rays penetrate the dust that cloaks the youngest stars. “We’re looking through the entire galaxy,” Siegert says. “We’re not X-raying it; here we’re gamma-raying it.”

The more stars our galaxy spawns, the more gamma rays emerge. The best match with the observations, the researchers find, is a star formation rate of four to eight solar masses a year. That is much higher than the standard estimate for the Milky Way of about two solar masses a year.

The revised rate is very realistic, says Pavel Kroupa, an astronomer at the University of Bonn in Germany who was not involved in the work. “I’m very impressed by the detailed modeling of how they account for the star formation process,” he says. “It’s a very beautiful work. I can see some ways of improving it, but this is really a major step in the absolutely correct direction.”

Siegert cautions that it is difficult to tell how far the gamma rays have traveled before reaching us. In particular, if some of the observed emission arises nearby — within just a few hundred light-years of us — then the galaxy has less aluminum-26 than the researchers have calculated, which means the star formation rate is on the lower side of the new estimate. Still, he says it’s unlikely to be as low as the standard two solar masses per year.

In any event, the Milky Way is the most vigorous star creator in a collection of more than 100 nearby galaxies called the Local Group. The largest Local Group galaxy, Andromeda, converts only a fraction of a solar mass of gas and dust into new stars a year. Among Local Group galaxies, the Milky Way ranks second in size, but its high star formation rate means that we definitely try a lot harder.

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