Astronomers have long used powerful telescopes to peer into the past. But now, NASA and ESA are using the Hubble Space Telescope to look thousands of years into the future.
Looking at the heart of Omega Centauri, a globular cluster in the Milky Way, they have calculated how the stars there will move over the next 10,000 years.
A precise measurement of star motions in giant clusters could show how they formed in the early universe, and whether an intermediate-mass black hole around 10,000 times as massive as our sun, might be hidden there.
Identified as a globular star cluster in 1867, Omega Centauri is the biggest and brightest of around 150 such clusters in the Milky Way, and one of the few that can be seen by the unaided eye.
Analysing archived images taken over a four-year period by Hubble’s Advanced Camera for Surveys, astronomers have made the most accurate measurements yet of the motions of more than 100,000 cluster inhabitants – the largest survey ever of the movement of stars in any cluster.
“It takes sophisticated computer programs to measure the tiny shifts in the positions of the stars that occur over a period of just four years,” says astronomer Jay Anderson of the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore, who conducted the study with fellow Institute astronomer Roeland van der Marel.