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You’ve probably heard of the butterfly effect.
It’s the idea that tiny actions can set off big, seemingly-unrelated events — like,
how a butterfly flapping its wings in your hometown could lead to a tornado far away.
And while butterflies aren’t responsible for all the extreme weather in the world,
the general idea of small inputs affecting big systems is true.
So now... imagine that the butterfly is a whole galaxy. And instead of flapping its
wings, it’s crashing through the Milky Way.
Doesn’t really sound the same, does it?
But according to research published last week in the journal Nature Astronomy, that act
billions of years ago might be the reason you are around to watch this video today.
Or, at least, it might be the reason the Sun exists. Which was an important step!
The study looked at how collisions with a dwarf galaxy named Sagittarius have shaped
the Milky Way throughout history.
Sagittarius orbits so close to the Milky Way that scientists believe the two have actually
collided three times over the last six billion years.
But for this study, astronomers didn’t look at the dwarf galaxy itself. Instead, they
tracked its effect on the stars around us.
And to do that, there was no better tool than the European Space Agency’s Gaia satellite,
which launched in 2013.
In astronomy, most missions are designed to study what something is, but Gaia performs
astrometry, which measures where an object is and how it’s moving.
Specifically, it measures the precise positions, distances, and velocities of more than a billion
nearby stars.
That’s incredibly powerful because, if you know how something is moving, you can basically
turn back the clock to see where it must have come from.
In this new study, researchers noticed three clear periods of past star formation in the
Milky Way, each corresponding to one of the collisions with Sagittarius.
The oldest encounter happened about 5.7 billion years ago, and it seems to have triggered
a period of star formation around the time the Sun would have been forming.
Since this was all billions of years ago, proving a direct connection to the Sun is
probably impossible. But this does give astronomers a plausible scenario to explain what could
have happened.
As Sagittarius sloshed through, its gravity would have stirred up the Milky Way’s huge
clouds of gas and dust. And parts of those clouds would have suddenly become dense enough
to collapse into the start of a new star.
What’s more, since Sagittarius is so much smaller than the Milky Way, the gravity from
our galaxy would have stolen some of its gas and dust with every collision.
That means that the Sun—and maybe even the Earth—could be made, at least in part, of
material from another galaxy.
In other space news, we also found out last week that astronomers have observed a rare
and mysterious event called a Fast Blue Optical Transient, or FBOT.
That’s just a fancy way of saying that a funny-looking blue spot suddenly appeared
in the night sky. It wasn’t bright enough to see with your naked eye, but astronomers
and their observatories noticed pretty quickly.
We’ve detected a handful of these things before, but in a paper published in the Astrophysical
Journal Letters on May 26, the researchers announced that they were able to study an
FBOT using radio waves and X-rays for just the third time.
So, uh, what are these things? That’s the next big question.
We first realized these events were in a category of their own in 2014, but observing them is
a challenge: They reach maximum brightness in only a few days, which makes it hard to
coordinate an observing campaign among multiple telescopes.
They also seem to happen in small, unremarkable galaxies we aren’t really focusing on.
In fact, astronomers didn’t even know about the galaxy this one was in until the burst
One thing we do know, though, is that FBOTs are powerful.
This new event, for example, accelerated material weighing up to ten percent the Sun’s mass
to more than 55% the speed of light.
So that’ like accelerating a collection of particles heavier than a hundred Jupiters
to around 160 million meters per second.
It takes a truly violent event to get so much stuff moving so quickly.
And in the new paper, the researchers conclude that the most likely cause of FBOTs is a rare
kind of supernova that comes from the explosion of an extra-heavy star.
That might explain why we keep seeing these things in tiny galaxies: Dwarf galaxies typically
have a higher fraction of hydrogen and helium than their larger counterparts.
If the galaxy has more hydrogen, so do its stars, and that actually reduces the amount
of mass they lose over their lifetime.
So, the end result is a bigger star and a more powerful explosion when it finally dies.
As always, it would help to see more FBOTs and gather more evidence, but there’s hope
here, too: While only a few dozen have been confirmed, astronomers suspect that old data
probably contains evidence of many more bursts like this.
Both these discoveries illustrate the big advantage that specialized tools can offer.
This latest FBOT was first observed by an automated telescope designed to search for
And Gaia’s astrometric measurements are like nothing else currently being produced.
So, while the super famous Hubble Space Telescope can take some amazing pictures, it can’t
do all the work by itself. And fortunately, it doesn’t have to.
Thanks for watching this episode of SciShow Space News! This week’s news is sponsored
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