Are The Milky Way’s First Stars Responsible For Destroying Its Satellite Galaxies?

About a decade ago, standard cosmological models encountered a slight problem when applied to the Milky Way… missing satellite galaxies. While the calculations predicted as many as 500, only 10 are documented and modern figures state as many as 20. So what happened to the other 480 that should be out there? Either they don’t exist – or we can’t see them for some reason. Thanks to research done by the LIDAU project and two researchers from Observatoire Astronomique de Strasbourg, we might just have an answer.

About 150 million years after the Big Bang, the Universe’s first stars began to appear out of the cold, electrically neutral hydrogen and helium gas which filled it. As their intense light cut through the hydrogen atoms, it returned them to their plasma state in a process called reionisation. Things really began to heat up from there… gas began escaping the gravity of low-mass galaxies and as a consequence, they lost their star-forming abilities. By computing the observable consequences of this process, Pierre Ocvirk and Dominique Aubert demonstrated that the Milky Way’s first stars had the power of reionisation and it “is indeed an essential process in the standard model of galaxy formation.” This photo-evaporation state neatly explains the sparsity and age of Milky Way companions and offers up the reason satellite galaxies are rare in this neighborhood.

“On the other hand, their sensitivity to UV radiation means satellite galaxies are good probes of the reionisation epoch. Moreover, they are relatively nearby, from 30000 to 900000 light-years, which allows us to study them in great details, especially with the forthcoming generation of telescopes.” says Ocvirk. “In particular, the study of their stellar content with respect to their position could give us precious insight into the structure of the local UV radiation field during the reionisation.”

Current theory states this photo-evaporation was simply caused by nearby galaxies, resulting in a uniform event – but the new model built by the two French researchers proves this assumption wrong. Their high resolution numerical simulation accounts for the dynamics of the dark matter haloes from beginning to end, as well as their resultant gas impacted star formation and UV radiation.

“It is the first time that a model accounts for the effect of the radiation emitted by the first stars formed at the center of the Milky way, on its satellite galaxies. Indeed, contrary to previous models, the radiation field produced in this configuration is not uniform, but decreases in intensity as one moves away from the source.” explains Ocvirk. “On one hand, the satellite galaxies close to the galactic center see their gas evaporate very quickly. They form so few stars that they can be undetectable with current telescopes. On the other hand, the more remote satellite galaxies experience on average a weaker irradiation. Therefore they manage to keep their gas longer, and form more stars. As a consequence they are easier to detect and appear more numerous.”

Where did initial assumptions fall short? In previous models reionisation was thought to occur over an evenly distributed UV background, but the MIlky Way’s first stars had already done its damage by consuming its satellites. As the study suggests, our own galaxy is responsible for the lack of smaller companions.

Says Ocvirk; “This new scenario has deep consequences on the formation of galaxies and the interpretation of the large astronomical surveys to come. Indeed, satellite galaxies are affected by our galaxy’s tidal field, and can be slowly digested into our galaxy’s stellar halo. They can also be stretched into filaments and form stellar streams.”

It’s a very interesting new concept and will be one of the main science goals of the Gaia space mission, scheduled for launch in 2013. Until then, the Observatoire Astronomique de Strasbourg team will continue in their efforts to further understand radiative processes during reionisation.

Original Story Source: Observatoire Astronomique de Strasbourg Press Release. For Further Reading: A signature of the internal reionisation of the Milky Way and LIDAU collaboration (Light In the Dark Ages of the Universe).

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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