A gallery of Magellanic Clouds star clusters, as seen in images from the SMASH survey. Star clusters span a wide range in size and brightness which vary depending on the age and mass of the cluster. (Credit: L.C. Johnson / Northwestern University)
Caught in a cosmic dance, our nearest neighbor galaxies, the Magellanic Clouds, are cartwheeling and circling each other as they fall toward our galaxy, the Milky Way. The gravitational interaction between the Clouds sparks cosmic fireworks—bursts of star formation as new clusters of stars flame on. How many and what kind of star clusters have been born this way over the history of the Clouds? A new project, the Local Group Cluster Search, invites citizen scientists to help find out!
Our Nearest Galactic Neighbors
Close enough to see with the naked eye when viewed from the southern hemisphere, the Magellanic Clouds have interacted in multiple close encounters over the past 2 billion years. During the encounters, gravitational forces push and pull on gas in the Clouds, sparking the formation of many new star clusters—“families” of hundreds to millions of stars—each formed from a single cloud of gas and dust.
These clusters are useful to astronomers because they can be age-dated with great precision and used to reconstruct a historical record of star formation. By counting the number of clusters as a function of age, astronomers can back out the birthrate of clusters and chart the interaction history of the Clouds.
A new citizen science project, the Local Group Cluster Search, aims to do just that by coupling new, high quality images of the Magellanic Clouds with a proven technique to find star clusters.