Wrapping Around The Mystery Of Spiral Galaxy Arms

by Tammy Plotner on April 3, 2013

Credit: Thiago Ize & Chris Johnson (Scientific Computing and Imaging Institute)

Credit: Thiago Ize & Chris Johnson (Scientific Computing and Imaging Institute)

How disk galaxies form their spiral arms have been puzzling astrophysicists for almost as long as they have been observing them. With time, they have come to two conclusions… either this structure is caused by differences in gravity sculpting the gas, dust and stars into this familiar shape, or its just a random occurrence which comes and goes with time.

Now researchers are beginning to wrap their conclusions around findings based on new supercomputer simulations – simulations which involve the motion of up to 100 million “stellar particles” that mimic gravitational and astrophysical forces which shape them into natural spiral structure. The research team from the University of Wisconsin-Madison and the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics are excited about these conclusions and report the simulations may hold the essential clues of how spiral arms are formed.

“We show for the first time that stellar spiral arms are not transient features, as claimed for several decades,” says UW-Madison astrophysicist Elena D’Onghia, who led the new research along with Harvard colleagues Mark Vogelsberger and Lars Hernquist.

“The spiral arms are self-perpetuating, persistent, and surprisingly long lived,” adds Vogelsberger.

When it comes to spiral structure, it’s probably the most widely occurring of universal shapes. Our own Milky Way galaxy is considered to be a spiral galaxy and around 70% of the galaxies near to us are also spiral structured. When we think in a broader sense, just how many things take on this common formation? Whisking up dust with a broom causes particles to swirl into a spiral shape… draining water invokes a swirling pattern… weather formations go spiral. It’s a universal happening and it happens for a reason. Apparently that reason is gravity and something to perturb it. In the case of a galaxy, it’s a giant molecular cloud – the star-forming regions. Introduced into the simulation, the clouds, says D’Onghia, a UW-Madison professor of astronomy, act as “perturbers” and are enough to not only initiate the formation of spiral arms but to sustain them indefinitely.

“We find they are forming spiral arms,” explains D’Onghia. “Past theory held the arms would go away with the perturbations removed, but we see that (once formed) the arms self-perpetuate, even when the perturbations are removed. It proves that once the arms are generated through these clouds, they can exist on their own through (the influence of) gravity, even in the extreme when the perturbations are no longer there.”

So, what of companion galaxies? Can spiral structure be caused by proximity? The new research also takes that into account and models for “stand alone” galaxies as well. However, that’s not all the study included. According to Vogelsberger and Hernquist, the new computer-generated simulations are focusing on clarifying observational data. They are taking a closer look at the high-density molecular clouds and the “gravitationally induced holes in space” which act as ” the mechanisms that drive the formation of the characteristic arms of spiral galaxies.”

Until then, we know spiral structure isn’t just a chance happening and – to wrap things up – it’s probably the most common form of galaxy in our Universe.

Original Story Source: Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics.

About 

Tammy is a professional astronomy author, President Emeritus of Warren Rupp Observatory and retired Astronomical League Executive Secretary. She’s received a vast number of astronomy achievement and observing awards, including the Great Lakes Astronomy Achievement Award, RG Wright Service Award and the first woman astronomer to achieve Comet Hunter's Gold Status.

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