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A preliminary analysis of elderly stars in the Milky Way appears to strike a blow against the prevailing theory of galaxy formation. The study suggests that several large and seemingly disparate chunks of the Milky Way galaxy formed at the same time from the collapse of a single blob of gas and dust.
That's in direct contrast to the leading galaxy-formation scenario, which holds that the Milky Way and other galaxies began small and grew bit by bit for the most part, gravitationally acquiring intergalactic gas and dust and merging with galaxies in their immediate neighborhood.
The new evidence, which astronomers emphasize is only tentative, comes from a new, ongoing study of a familiar globular cluster -- a dense, elderly grouping of more than a million Milky Way stars collectively known as 47 Tucanae. Earlier this year, Harvey Richer of the University of British Columbia in Canada and his colleagues began examining 47 Tucanae with two Hubble Space Telescope cameras -- the newly installed Wide Field Camera 3 and the Advanced Camera for Surveys, which stopped working early in 2007 but was revived by astronauts during the servicing mission last year.
The cluster lies near but not inside the Milky Way's bulge, a massive concentration of stars that surrounds the galaxy's core. But because the cluster shares several properties with the bulge, such as chemical composition and orbital motion, astronomers consider the age of 47 Tucanae a good proxy for that of the bulge.