Sorry – a bit of southern sky bias in this one. But it does seem that our favourite down under naked eye objects are even more unique than we might have thought. The two dwarf galaxies, the Large and Small Magellanic Clouds, orbit the Milky Way and have bright star forming regions. It would seem that most satellite galaxies, in orbit around other big galaxies, don’t. And, taking this finding a step further, our galaxy may be one of a declining minority of galaxies still dining on gas-filled dwarf galaxies to maintain a bright and youthful appearance.
We used to think that the Sun was an ordinary, unremarkable star – but these days we should acknowledge that it’s out of statistical mid-range, since the most common stars in the visible universe are red dwarfs. Also, most stars are in binary or larger groups – unlike our apparently solitary one.
The Sun is also fortunately positioned in the Milky Way’s habitable zone – not too close-in to be constantly blasted with gamma rays, but close-in enough for there to be plenty of new star formation to seed the interstellar medium with heavy elements. And the Milky Way itself is starting to look a bit out of the ordinary. It’s quite large as spiral galaxies go, bright with active star formation – and it’s got bright satellites.
The Lambda Cold Dark Matter (CDM) model of large scale structure and galaxy formation has it that galaxy formation is a bottom-up process, with the big galaxies we see today having formed from the accretion of smaller structures – including dwarf galaxies – which themselves may have first formed upon some kind of dark matter scaffolding.
Through this building-up process, spinning spiral galaxies with bright star forming regions should become common place – only dimming if they run out of new gas and dust to feast on, only losing their structure if they collide with another big galaxy – first becoming a ‘train wreck’ irregular galaxy and then probably evolving into an elliptical galaxy.
The Lambda CDM model suggests that other bright spiral galaxies should also be surrounded by lots of gas-filled satellite galaxies, being slowly draw in to feed their host. Otherwise how is it that these spiral galaxies get so big and bright? But, at least for the moment, that’s not what we are finding – and the Milky Way doesn’t seem to be a ‘typical’ example of what’s out there.
The relative lack of satellites observed around other galaxies could mean the era of rapidly accreting and growing galaxies is coming to a close – a point emphasised by the knowledge that we observe distant galaxies at various stages of their past lives anyway. So the Milky Way may already be a relic of a bygone era – one of the last of the galaxies still growing from the accretion of smaller dwarf galaxies.
On the other hand – maybe we just have some very unusual satellites. To a distant observer, the Large MC would have nearly a tenth of the luminosity of the Milky Way and the Small MC nearly a fortieth – we don’t find anything like this around most other galaxies. The Clouds may even represent a binary pair which is also fairly unprecedented in any current sky survey data.
They are thought to have passed close together around 2.5 billion years ago – and it’s possible that this event may have set off an extended period of new star formation. So maybe other galaxies do have lots of satellites – it’s just that they are dim and difficult to observe as they are not engaged in new star formation.
Either way, using our galaxy as a basis for modelling how other galaxies work might not be a good idea – apparently it’s not so ordinary.
Further reading: James, P. A. And Ivory C.F. On the scarcity of Magellanic Cloud-like satellites.