A UK-led team of astronomers has discovered a completely new type of star
cluster around a neighbouring galaxy.

The new-found clusters contain hundreds of thousands of stars, a similar
number to the so-called “globular” star clusters which have long been
familiar to astronomers.

What distinguishes them from the globular clusters is that they are much
larger – several hundred light years across – and hundreds of times less
dense. The distances between the stars are, therefore, much greater within
the newly discovered “extended clusters.”

The discovery was made during the course of an unprecedentedly broad and
detailed survey of the Milky Way’s nearby sister, the Andromeda Galaxy
(often referred to by the catalogue number, M31). The survey has so far
covered more than 50 square degrees of sky, compared with only a few
degrees covered by all previous CCD surveys.

Part of this study involved a search for globular clusters around M31,
during which the new “extended clusters” were found. The new clusters are
distributed in a spherical “halo” region extending about 200,000 light
years from the giant M31 spiral galaxy.

“How these objects formed, and why there are no similar clusters in the
Milky Way is still a mystery,” said Avon Huxor, a PhD student at the
University of Hertfordshire who is presenting a poster describing the new
results at the RAS National Astronomy Meeting in Birmingham this week.

“What is clear is that these clusters, like the globulars, are ancient.
They are billions of years old – possibly amongst the first objects to
form in the Universe.”

“It may be they were originally created not in M31, but as part of other
small, so-called dwarf galaxies, which have subsequently between pulled
apart and merged with the giant M31 galaxy,” commented team member Mike
Irwin (University of Cambridge).

“That would be particularly exciting since they might then be more
properly considered as the very smallest galaxies rather than star
clusters, and help explain the apparent scarcity of such objects compared
to theoretical predictions,” added Nial Tanvir, another University of
Hertfordshire astronomer, who led this part of the work.

The data for the survey were acquired with the 2.5 m Isaac Newton
Telescope in La Palma, Canary Islands, and the 3.6 m Canada-France-Hawaii
Telescope in Hawaii. The observations were made using sensitive electronic
CCD cameras; previous surveys of these regions had used photographic
technology, which had failed to detect the faint clusters.

The team also included astronomers from France, Canada and Australia. A
first paper announcing the discovery has been submitted to the Monthly
Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society. Observations of the clusters
with the Hubble Space Telescope are scheduled for later this year.


On Tuesday 5 April, Dr. Tanvir and Dr. Huxor can be contacted via the NAM
press office (see above).

Normal contact details:

Dr. Nial Tanvir
University of Hertfordshire
Tel: +44 (0)1707-286299 office; (0)1763-241841 home.
Mobile: +44 (0)7980-136499
E-mail: nrt@star.herts.ac.uk

Dr. Avon Huxor
University of Hertfordshire
Tel: office: +44 (0)1707-286436
E-mail: ahuxor@star.herts.ac.uk

Dr. Mike Irwin
University of Cambridge
Tel: +44 (0)1223-337524
E-mail: mike@ast.cam.ac.uk


Globular clusters are spherical star systems composed of hundreds of
thousands or millions of closely packed stars. Our Milky Way is thought to
contain around 200 of these clusters in a huge halo that surrounds the
galactic centre. Many of the stars in these globular clusters are very
ancient, having existed for most of the history of the Universe. A number
of globular clusters have also been found around the Andromeda galaxy
(M31), the nearest large spiral galaxy. Andromeda lies about 2.5 million
light years away, and is just visible with the naked eye.

The 2005 RAS National Astronomy Meeting is hosted by the University of
Birmingham, and sponsored by the Royal Astronomical and the UK Particle
Physics and Astronomy Research Council (PPARC).


University of Hertfordshire web page:


1. The new clusters are distributed in a spherical region extending out
to about 200,000 light years around the giant M31 spiral galaxy. M31
itself is about 2.5 million light years from the Milky Way, and contains
about 200 billion stars.

2. A close-up picture of one of the new clusters, together with a more
typical globular cluster for comparison.