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Halifax astronomer makes galactic discovery

HALIFAX – A Halifax astronomer has discovered two stars on the other side of the galaxy that could tell us more about our universe.

The findings were recently published in Astrophysical Journal Letters but Daniel Majaess, an astronomy instructor at Mount Saint Vincent University and Saint Mary’s University, and Chilean astronomers Dr. Dekany and Dr. Minniti discovered them several months ago.

The two Cepheids, circled in yellow, discovered by astronomer Daniel Majaess.
The two Cepheids, circled in yellow, discovered by astronomer Daniel Majaess. European Southern Observatory

The twin stars, called Cepheids, exist directly on the other side of the Milky Way, and are the first known stars found there. Majaess said the discovery could help map the structure of the other side of the galaxy.

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“These stars have a unique property [where] you can determine their distance very accurately. If there is a bunch of them in a certain area, you can delineate that area very precisely,” he said.

Majaess calls the findings a technological feat since the view of the Cepheids is blocked by dust from the Milky Way. The discovery was made possible thanks to a telescope in the Chilean mountains that used infrared light to penetrate the debris.

An image of the Cepheids through a normal telescope.
An image of the Cepheids through a normal telescope. European Southern Observatory
An image of the Cepheids through an infrared telescope.
An image of the Cepheids through an infrared telescope. European Southern Observatory

The astronomer said the stars are approximately 37,000 light years away from Earth but adds they are still important to our understanding of the universe.

“This type of star is very special in that it’s used to determine the distances to extragalactic targets. They’re used to determine the distance to different structures in our own galaxy and they’re used to determine the expansion rate of the universe, the age of the universe,” he said.

Majaess adds the stars also have the potential to make people ask bigger questions.

“[It] gives them the opportunity to think about very profound questions such as ‘Where are we?’, ‘What is our context within the cosmos?’, ‘Why are we here?’ and ‘Is there life beyond our own solar system?'” he said.

David Turner, a professor of astronomy and physics at Saint Mary’s University, said the finding of the two Cepheids is unique.

“[The fact] There are two so close together in the sky suggests they were born in the same place, created in the same place from the material of our galaxy and should not have strayed too far from the rest of the stars and their parent grouping or cluster,” he said.

Fellow astronomy professor Marcin Sawicki said Majaess’s findings have an immediate impact on our general knowledge of the universe.

“We get a sense of scale. We get a sense of how small the Earth is, how small we are,” he said.

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“I think we should just cherish the fact it gives us some deeper understanding about where we are in the universe, how our home, the galaxy, is constructed and our place in everything.”