Beginning around 2005, astronomers began discovering the presence of very large galaxies at a distance of around 10 billion lightyears. But while these galaxies were large, they didn’t appear to have a similarly large number of formed stars. Given that astronomers expect galaxies to grow through mergers and mergers tend to trigger star formation, the presence of such large, undeveloped galaxies seemed odd. How could galaxies grow so much, yet have so few stars?
One of the leading propositions is that the galaxies have undergone frequent mergers, but each one was very small and didn’t encourage large scale star formation. In other words, instead of mergers between galaxies of similar size, large galaxies developed quickly and early in the universe, and then tended to accumulate through the integration of minor, dwarf galaxies. While this solution is straightforward, testing it is difficult since the galaxies in question are at vast distances and detecting the minor galaxies as they are devoured would require exceptional observations.
Seeking to test this hypothesis, a team of astronomers led by Andrew Newman from the California Institute of Technology combined observations from Hubble and the United Kingdom Infra-Red Telescope (UKIRT), to search for these diminutive companions. The team examined over 400 galaxies that didn’t display signs of active star formation (called “quiet” galaxies) in search of possible companion galaxies from distances of 10 billion light years to a relatively close 2 billion lightyears in order to determine how this minor merger rate has evolved over time.
From their study, they determined that around 15% of quiet galaxies had a nearby counterpart that had at least 10% the mass of the larger galaxy. This took into account the possibility that some galaxies may have been more distant but along the line of sight by ensuring that both galaxies had similar redshifts. Over time, the partner galaxies became rarer suggesting that they were becoming rarer as more were consumed by the larger brethren. Using this as a rate at which mergers must occur, the team was able to answer the question of whether or not these minor mergers could account for the galaxy growth discovered six years earlier.
For galaxies closer than a distance of roughly 8 billion light years, the rate of minor mergers was able to completely explain the overall growth of galaxies. However, for the growth rate of galaxies at times earlier than this, such minor mergers could only account for around half of the apparent growth.
The team proposes several reasons this may be the case. Firstly, many of the basic assumptions could be flawed. Teams may have overestimated the sizes of the massive galaxies, or underestimated the rate of star formation. These key properties were often derived from photometric surveys which are not as reliable as spectroscopic observations. In the future, if better observations can be made, these values may be revised and the problem may resolve itself. The other option is that there are simply additional processes at work that astronomers have yet to understand. Either way, the question of how growing galaxies avoid advertising their growth is unanswered.