London: An international team of researchers has found that a stellar system classified as a globular cluster for the 40-odd years since its detection actually has properties uncommon for a globular cluster that make it the ideal candidate for a living fossil from the early days of the Milky Way.
The cluster, known as Terzan 5 -- 19,000 light-years from Earth -- harbours stars of hugely different ages -- an age-gap of roughly seven billion years -- and bridges the gap in understanding between our galaxy's past and its present, the study said.
"Such galactic fossils allow astronomers to reconstruct an important piece of the history of our Milky Way," explained lead author of the study Francesco Ferraro from University of Bologna in Italy.
While the properties of Terzan 5 are uncommon for a globular cluster, they are very similar to the stellar population which can be found in the galactic bulge, the tightly packed central region of the Milky Way.
These similarities could make Terzan 5 a fossilised relic of galaxy formation, representing one of the earliest building blocks of the Milky Way.
"Terzan 5 could represent an intriguing link between the local and the distant Universe, a surviving witness of the Galactic bulge assembly process," Ferraro said.
The team scoured data from the Advanced Camera for Surveys and the Wide Field Camera 3 on board Hubble, as well as from a suite of other ground-based telescopes.
They found compelling evidence that there are two distinct kinds of stars in Terzan 5 which not only differ in the elements they contain, but have an age-gap of roughly seven billion years.
The ages of the two populations indicate that the star formation process in Terzan 5 was not continuous, but was dominated by two distinct bursts of star formation.
"This requires the Terzan 5 ancestor to have large amounts of gas for a second generation of stars and to be quite massive. At least 100 million times the mass of the Sun," co-author of the study Davide Massari from National Institute for Astrophysics (INAF) , Italy.
Its unusual properties make Terzan 5 the ideal candidate for a living fossil from the early days of the Milky Way, said the study published in the Astrophysical Journal.
Somehow Terzan 5 has managed to survive being disrupted for billions of years, and has been preserved as a remnant of the distant past of the Milky Way.
The researchers believe that this discovery paves the way for a better and more complete understanding of galaxy assembly.