How Galaxies Lose Their Gas

Galaxy mergers, such as the Mice Galaxies will be part of Galaxy Zoo's newest project. Credit: Hubble Space Telescope

As galaxies evolve, many lose their gas. But how they do this is a point of contention. One possibility is that it is used to form stars when the galaxies undergo intense periods of star formation known as starburst. Another is that when large galaxies collide, the stars pass through one another but the gas gets left behind. It’s also possible that the gas is pulled out in close passes to other galaxies through tidal forces. Yet another possibility involves a wind blowing the gas out as galaxies plunge through the thin intergalactic medium in clusters through a process known as ram pressure.

A new paper lends fresh evidence to one of these hypotheses. In this paper, astronomers from the University of Arizona were interested in galaxies that displayed long gas tails, much like a comet. Earlier studies had found such galaxies, but it was unclear whether or not this gas tail was pulled out from tidal forces, or pushed out from ram pressure.

To help determine the cause of this the team used new observations from Spitzer to look for subtle differences in the causes of a tail following the galaxy ESO 137-001. In cases where tails are known to be pulled out tidally (such as in the M81/M82 system), there “is no physical reason why the gas would be preferentially stripped over stars.” Stars from the galaxy are pulled out as well and often large amounts of new star formation are induced. Meanwhile, ram pressure tails should be largely free of stars although some new star formation may be expected if there is turbulence in the tail which causes regions of higher density (think like the wake of a boat).

Examining the tail spectroscopically, the team was unable to detect the presence of large numbers of stars suggesting tidal processes were not responsible. Furthermore, the disk of the galaxy seemed relatively undisturbed by gravitational interactions. To support this, the team calculated the relative strengths of the forces acting on the galaxy. They found that, between the tidal forces acting on the galaxy from its parent cluster, and its own centripetal forces, the internal forces where greater, which reaffirmed that tidal forces were an unlikely cause for the tail.

But to confirm that ram pressure was truly responsible, the astronomers looked at other parameters. First they estimated the gravitational force for the galaxy. In order to strip the gas, the force generated by the ram pressure would have to exceed the gravitational one. The energy imparted on the gas would then be measurable as a temperature in the gas tail which could be compared to the expected values. When this was observed, they found that the temperature was consistent with what would be necessary for ram stripping.

From this, they also set limits on how long gas could last in such a galaxy. They determined that in such circumstances, the gas would be entirely stripped from a galaxy in ~500 million to 1 billion years. However, because the density of the gas through which the galaxy would slowly become denser as it passed through the more central regions of the cluster, they suggest the timescale would be much simpler. While this timescale say seem long, it is still shorter than the time it takes such galaxies to make a full orbit in their cluster. As such, it is possible that even in one pass, a galaxy may lose its gas.

If the gas loss occurs on such short timescales, this would further predict that tails like the one observed for ESO 137-001 should be rare. The authors note that an “X-ray survey of 25 nearby hot clusters only discovered 2 galaxies with X-ray tails.”

Although this new study in no way rules out other methods of removing a galaxy’s gas, this is one of the first galaxies for which the ram stripping method is conclusively demonstrated.


A Warm Molecular Hydrogen Tail Due to Ram Pressure Stripping of a Cluster Galaxy

Slow-Motion Supernova


Supernovae are generally considered as fast and furious events. For the Type II, core collapse supernovae, the core implodes almost instantaneously although it takes some time for the shockwave to escape the star. As it does, the star brightens in what’s known as the “rise time” of the supernova. For most Type II supernovae, this takes about a week.

So what are astronomers to make of supernova 2008iy that had an unprecedented rise time of at least 400 days?

From the time it was discovered, SN 2008iy was an oddball. When its spectra was analyzed, it was placed in the rare IIn subclass. This subclass is reserved for supernovae that feature narrow emission lines. Most supernovae have broad emission lines, if they even have emission lines at all.

To learn more about the history of this unusual case, astronomers at the University of California, Berkeley turned to archival images from the Palomar Quest survey. They searched images of the region to trace back the supernova as far as July of 2007, before which, the star was too faint to appear in images. Thus, the supernova brightening started at least that early and continued until late October of 2008 giving it a rise time at least four times as long as any previously discovered supernova.

The main clue to explain this mystery stemmed from the unusual emission lines. Generally, stars and supernovae are characterized by their absorption spectra which are caused when relatively cool gas stands between a hotter source and our detection. To generate emission lines, there must been a relatively dense medium being excited by the supernova. Furthermore, the fact that the lines were narrow implied that it was fairly motionless.

Together, this pointed to the progenitor undergoing a heightened period of mass loss prior to the detonation. The idea is such that the progenitor had shed large amounts of material. When the supernova occurred, this shell initially obscured the event. But as the ejecta from the supernova overtook the relatively stationary earlier shells, the brighter material slowly seeped out giving rise to the 400 day rise time.

While all stars undergo a period of mass loss in their post main sequence life, such a dense shell would be uncommon. To explain this, the authors turned to a type of star known as a Luminous Blue Variable. These stars are typically near the theoretical limit for the mass of a star (150 times the mass of the sun). Due to their extreme mass, they have strong stellar winds which periodically blow off large amounts of material that could create shells similar to those necessary for SN 2008iy. Unfortunately, this event was so distant that it could not be resolved to search for such a nebula. Even the host galaxy proved difficult to distinguish due to its faintness, although it is believed to be an irregular dwarf galaxy. Eta Carinae is one such luminous blue variable star. If perhaps one day soon it decides to turn into a supernova, it too will unfold in slow-motion.

Comets Posing as Asteroids (or is the the other way around?)


Asteroids are rocky bodies which belong between Mars and Jupiter. Comets are icy bodies that belong way out beyond Pluto. So what are comet-like objects doing in the asteroid belt?

On the night of August 7, 1996, astronomers Eric Elst and Guido Pizarro were observing what was previously thought to be an ordinary asteroid. To their surprise, the object revealed a faint but distinct tail similar to that of a comet. Initially, this was written off as a minor impact kicking up a debris cloud, but when the tail returned in 2002, when the supposed asteroid again returned to perihelion (the closest approach to the Sun), it once again displayed a tenuous tail. The “asteroid” was then given the designation of 133P/Elst-Pizarro. In 2005, two new asteroids were discovered to sport tails: P/2005 U1 and 118401. In 2008, yet another one of these odd objects was found (P/2008 R1). This new class of objects has been dubbed “Main Belt Comets (MBCs)”.

So where are these objects coming from?

A previous article here on Universe Today explored the possibility that these objects formed like other asteroids in the main belt. After all, each of the objects has an orbit consistent with other apparently normal asteroids. They have a similar distance at with they orbit the Sun, as well as similar eccentricities and inclinations of their orbit. So trying to explain these objects as having origins in the outer solar system that migrated just right into the asteroid belt seemed like little more than special pleading.

Furthermore, a 2008 study by Schorghofer at the University of Hawaii predicted that, if such an icy body were to form, it would be able to avoid sublimation for several billion years if only it were covered with a few meters of dust and dirt thus negating the problems of these objects suffering an early death. (Keep in mind that, much like a melting snowball, the water will evaporate but the dirt won’t, so the dirt will pile up quickly on the surface making this entirely plausible!) However, if the ice were covered by such an amount of dust, it would take a collision to remove the dust and trigger the cometary appearance.

In a recent paper, Nader Haghighipour also at the University of Hawaii explores the viability of collisions to trigger this activation as well as the stability of the orbits of these objects to assess the expectation that they were formed at the same time as other asteroids in the main belt.

For the orbital range in which three of the MBCs lie, it was predicted that “on average, one m[eter]-sized object collides … every 40,000 years.” They stress this is an upper limit since their simulation did not include other, nearby asteroids which would likely deplete the number of available impactors.

When they explored the orbital stability of these objects, the discovered at least two of them were dynamically unstable and would eventually be ejected from their orbits on a timescale of 20 million years. As such, it would be unreasonable to expect such objects to have lasted for the nearly 5 billion year history of the solar system. Thus, an in-situ formation was ruled out. However, due to a similarity in orbital characteristics to a family of asteroids known as the Themis family, suggesting they may have resulted from the same break up of a larger body that created this group. This begs the question of whether or not more of these asteroids are secretly hiding water ice reservoirs and are just waiting for an impact to expose them.

Distinctly separate from this orbital family was P/2008 R1 which exists in an especially unstable orbit near one of the resonances from Jupiter. This suggests that this MBC was likely scattered to its present location, but from where remains to be determined.

So while such Main Belt Comets may not have formed simply as they are now, they are likely to be in orbits not far removed from their original formation. Also, this work supported the earlier notion that minor impacts could reliably expected to expose ice allowing for the cometary tails. Whether or not more asteroids have tails tucked between their legs will be the target of future exploration.

Haghighipour’s Paper

Jupiter – Our Silent Guardian?


We live in a cosmic shooting gallery. In Phil Plait’s Death From the Skies, he lays out the dangers of a massive impact: destructive shockwaves, tsunamis, flash fires, atmospheric darkening…. The scenario isn’t pretty should a big one come our way. Fortunately, we may have a silent guardian: Jupiter.

Although many astronomers have assumed that Jupiter would likely sweep out dangerous interlopers (an important feat if we want life to gain a toehold), little work has been done to actually test the idea. To explore the hypothesis, a recent series of papers by J. Horner and B. W. Jones explores the effects of Jupiter’s gravitational pull on three different types of objects: main belt asteroids (which orbit between Mars and Jupiter), short period comets, and in their newest publication, submitted to the International Journal of Astrobiology, the Oort cloud comets (long period comets with the most distant part of their orbits far out in the solar system). In each paper, they simulated the primitive solar systems with the bodies in question with an Earth like planet, and gas giants of varying masses to determine the effect on the impact rate.

Somewhat surprisingly, for main belt asteroids, they determined, “that the notion that any ‘Jupiter’ would provide more shielding than no ‘Jupiter’ at all is incorrect.” Even without the simulation, the astronomers say that this should be expected and explain it by noting that, although Jupiter may shepherd some asteroids, it is also the main gravitational force perturbing their orbits and causing them to move into the inner solar system, where they may collide with Earth.

Contrary to the popular wisdom (which expected that the more massive the planet, the better it would shield us), there were notably fewer asteroids pushed into our line of sight for lower masses of the test Jupiter. Also surprisingly, they found that the most dangerous scenario was an instance in which the test Jupiter had 20% in which the planet “is massive enough to efficiently inject objects to Earth-crossing orbits.” However, they note that this 20% mass is dependent on how they chose to model the primordial asteroid belt and would likely change had they chosen a different model.

When the simulation was redone for for short period comets, they again found that, although Jupiter (and the other gas giants) may be effective at removing these dangerous objects, quite often they did so by sending them our way. As such, they again concluded that, as with asteroids, Jupiter’s gravitational jiggling was more dangerous than it was helpful.

Their most recent treatise explored Oort cloud objects. These objects are generally considered the largest potential threat since they normally reside so far out in the solar system’s gravitational well and thus, will have a greater distance to fall in and pick up momentum. From this situation, the researchers determined that the more massive the planet in Jupiter’s orbit, the better it does protect us from Oort cloud comets. The attribute this to the fact that these objects are initially so far from the Sun, that they are scarcely bound to the solar system. Even a little bit of extra momentum gained if they swing by Jupiter will likely be sufficient to eject them from the solar system all together, preventing them from settling into a closed orbit that would endanger the Earth every time it passed.

So whether or not Jupiter truly defends us or surreptitiously nudges danger our way depends on the type of object. For asteroids and short period comets, Jupiter’s gravitational agitation shoves more our direction, but for the ones that would potentially hurt is the most, the long period comets, Jupiter does provide some relief.