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Theses Doctoral

Inferring the 3D gravitational field of the Milky Way with stellar streams

Price-Whelan, Adrian Michael

We develop two new methods to measure the structure of matter around the Milky Way using stellar tidal streams from disrupting dwarf galaxies and globular clusters. The dark matter halo of the Milky Way is expected to be triaxial and filled with substructure, but measurements of the shape and profile of dark matter around the Galaxy are highly uncertain and often contradictory. We demonstrate that kinematic data from near-future surveys for stellar streams or shells produced by tidal disruption of stellar systems around the Milky Way will provide precise measures of the gravitational potential to test these predictions. We develop a probabilistic method for inferring the Galactic potential with tidal streams based on the idea that the stream stars were once close in phase space and test this method on synthetic datasets generated from N-body simulations of satellite disruption with observational uncertainties chosen to mimic current and near-future surveys of various stars. We find that with just four well-measured stream stars, we can infer properties of a triaxial potential with precisions of order 5--7 percent. We then demonstrate that, if the Milky Way's dark matter halo is triaxial and is not fully integrable (as is expected), an appreciable fraction of orbits will be chaotic. We examine the influence of chaos on the phase-space morphology of cold tidal streams and show that streams even in weakly chaotic regions look very different from those in regular regions. We discuss the implications of this fact given that we see several long, thin streams in the Galactic halo; our results suggest that long, cold streams around our Galaxy must exist only on regular (or very nearly regular) orbits and potentially provide a map of the regular regions of the Milky Way potential. We then apply this understanding of stream formation along chaotic orbits to the interpretation of a newly-discovered, puzzling stellar stream near the Galactic bulge. We conclude that the morphology of this stream is consistent with forming along chaotic orbits due to the presence of the time-dependent Galactic bar. These results are encouraging for the eventual goal of using flexible, time-dependent potential models combined with larger data sets to unravel the detailed shape of the dark matter distribution around the Milky Way.

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More About This Work

Academic Units
Astronomy
Thesis Advisors
Johnston, Kathryn V.
Degree
Ph.D., Columbia University
Published Here
May 24, 2016