Sleeping Beauties: A Galactic Fairye Tale

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It’s a well known fact that galaxies come in two types – either actively forming stars or not. In simplistic terms, that means they are either awake or asleep. But now scientists are looking back twelve billion light years across time to find the same holds just as true then as it does now. As a matter of fact, galaxies may have been behaving this way for around 85% of the history of the Universe.

“The fact that we see such young galaxies in the distant universe that have already shut off is remarkable,” said Kate Whitaker, a Yale University graduate student and lead author of the paper, which is published in the June 20 online edition of the Astrophysical Journal.

So, without poking the sleeping dragon, just how did the astronomers make their determinations? Try with the use of a 4-meter Kitt Peak telescope in Arizona and a special set of filters developed by Whitaker and her team. Just like all astronomy filters, this new breed is selective to certain bandpasses, or wavelengths, of light. These new filter sets were then used on 40,000 galaxies over a 75 night period and the data collected and examined. The end product was the deepest and most comprehensive of its kind so far. Active, awake galaxies appear more blue, while the sleepy-heads appear red. Believe it or not, when it comes to the cosmic bedroom there’s more activity than previously thought.

“We don’t see many galaxies in the in-between state,” said Pieter van Dokkum, a Yale astronomer and another author of the paper. “This discovery shows how quickly galaxies go from one state to the other, from actively forming stars to shutting off.”

Whether the dozing galaxies have completely shut down remains an open question, Whitaker said. However, the new study suggests the active galaxies are forming stars at rates about 50 times greater than their somnambulistic counterparts. “Next, we hope to determine whether galaxies go back and forth between waking and sleeping or whether they fall asleep and never wake up again,” van Dokkum said. “We’re also interested in how long it takes galaxies to fall asleep, and whether we can catch one in the act of dozing off.”

Pass the Red Bull… and sing the blues! “Are you sleeping? Can you hear me? Do you know if I am by your side? Does it matter? If you hear me? When the mornin’ comes I’ll be there by your side… There was a time, we had a time. There was a time we had time…”

Original Story Source: Yale Daily Bulletin.

Tammy Plotner

Tammy was 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. (Tammy passed away in early 2015... she will be missed)

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