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Jets Boost — Not Hinder — Star Formation in Early Galaxies, New Study Suggests

An artist's conception of jets protruding from an AGN.

An artist’s conception of jets protruding from an AGN. Image Credit: ESO

Understanding the formation of stars and galaxies early in the Universe’s history continues to be somewhat of an enigma, and a new study may have turned our current understanding on its head. A recent survey used archival data from four different telescopes to analyze hundreds of galaxies. The results provided overwhelming evidence that radio jets protruding from a galactic center enhance star formation – a result that directly contradicts current models, where star formation is hindered or even stopped.

All early galaxies consist of intensely luminous cores powered by huge black holes.  These so-called active galactic nuclei, or AGN for short, are still the topic of intense study. One specific mechanism astronomers are studying is known as AGN feedback.

“Feedback is the astronomer’s slang term for the way in which an AGN – with its large amount of energy release – influences its host galaxy,” Dr. Zinn, lead researcher on this study, recently told Universe Today. He explained there is both positive feedback, in which the AGN will foster the main activity of the galaxy: star formation, and negative feedback, in which the AGN will hinder or even stop star formation.

Current simulations of galaxy growth invoke strong negative feedback.

“In most cosmological simulations, AGN feedback is used to truncate star formation in the host galaxy,” said Zinn. “This is necessary to prevent the simulated galaxies from becoming too bright/massive.”

Zinn et al. found strong evidence that this is not the case for a large number of early galaxies, claiming that the presence of an AGN actually enhances star formation. In such cases the total star formation rate of a galaxy may be boosted by a factor of 2 – 5.

Furthermore the team showed that positive feedback occurs in radio-luminous AGN. There is strong correlation between the far infrared (indicative of star formation) and the radio.

Now, a correlation between the radio and the far infrared is no stranger to galactic astronomy. Stars form in extremely dusty regions. This dust absorbs the starlight and re-emits it in the far infrared. The stars then die in huge supernova explosions, causing powerful shock-fronts, which accelerate electrons and lead to the emission of strong synchrotron radiation in the radio.

This correlation however is a stranger to AGN studies. The key lies in the radio jets, which penetrate far into the host galaxy itself.  A “jet which is launched from the AGN hits the interstellar gas of the host galaxy and thereby induces supersonic shocks and turbulence,” explains Zinn. “This shortens the clumping time of gas so that it can condense into stars much more quick and efficiently.”

This new finding conveys that the exact mechanisms in which AGN interact with their host galaxies is much more complicated than previously thought. Future observations will likely shed a new understanding of the evolution of galaxies.

The team used data primarily from the Chandra Deep Field South image
but also data from Hubble, Herschel and Spitzer.

The results will be published in the Astrophysical Journal (preprint available here).

About 

Shannon Hall is a freelance science journalist. She holds two B.A.'s from Whitman College in physics-astronomy and philosophy, and an M.S. in astronomy from the University of Wyoming. Currently, she is working toward a second M.S. from NYU's Science, Health and Environmental Reporting program. You can follow her on Twitter @ShannonWHall.

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  • Torbjörn Larsson July 12, 2013, 8:56 PM

    Aah, mysteries of a young field! [takes out popcorn]

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