Are Little Blue Dots in the Hubble Frontier Fields Precursors to Globular Clusters?

In 2012, the Hubble Space Telescope Frontier Fields program (aka. Hubble Deep Fields Initiative 2012) officially kicked off. The purpose of this project was to study the faintest and most distant galaxies in the Universe using the gravitational lensing technique, thus advancing our knowledge of early galaxy formation. By 2017, the Frontier Field program wrapped up, and the hard work of analyzing all the data it collected began.

One of the more interesting finds within the Frontier Fields data has been the discovery of low mass galaxies with high star formation rates. After examining the “parallel fields” for Abell 2744 and MACS J0416.1-2403 – two galaxy clusters studied by the program – a pair of astronomers noted the presence of what they refer to as “Little Blue Dots” (LBDs), a finding which has implications for galaxy formation and globular clusters.

The study which details their findings recently appeared online under the title “Little Blue Dots in the Hubble Space Telescope Frontier Fields: Precursors to Globular Clusters?“. The study team consisted of Dr. Debra Meloy Elmegreen – a professor of astronomy at Vassar College – and Dr. Bruce G. Elmegreen, an astronomer with the IBM Research Division at the T.J. Watson Research Center in Yorktown Heights.

The galaxy clusters Abell 2744, MACS J0416.1-2403, MACS J0717.5+3745, MACS J1149.5+2223, Abell S1063, Abell 370. Credit: NASA, ESA, STScI, and the HFF team

To put it simply, the Frontier Fields program used the Hubble Space Telescope to observe six massive galaxy clusters at optical and near-infrared wavelengths – with its Advanced Camera for Surveys (ACS) and Wide Field Camera 3 (WFC3), respectively. These massive galaxies were used to magnify and stretch images of remote galaxies located behind them which were otherwise too faint for Hubble to see directly (aka. gravitational lensing).

While one of these Hubble cameras would look at a galaxy cluster, the other would simultaneously view an adjacent patch of sky. These adjacent patches are known as “parallel fields”, otherwise faint regions that provide some of the deepest looks into the early Universe. As Dr. Bruce Elmegreen told Universe Today via email:

“The purpose of the HFF program is to take deep images of 6 regions of the sky where there are clusters of galaxies, because these clusters magnify background galaxies through the gravitational lens effect. In this way, we can see further than just with direct imaging of the sky alone. Many galaxies have been studied using this magnification technique. The clusters of galaxies are important because they are big mass concentrations which make strong gravitational lenses.”

This six galaxy clusters used for the sake of the project included Abell 2744, MACS J0416.1-2403 and their parallel fields, the latter of which were the focal point in this study. These and the other clusters were used to find galaxies that existed just 600 to 900 million years after the Big Bang. These galaxies and their respective parallels had already been cataloged using computer algorithms that automatically found galaxies in the images and determined their properties.

Images of the MACS J0416.1–2403 and Abell 2744 galaxy clusters, taken as part of the Hubble Frontier Fields program. Credit: NASA/ESA/HST Frontier Fields team (STScI)

As the research duo go on to explain in their study, recent large-scale deep surveys have enabled studies of smaller galaxies at higher redshifts. These include “green peas” – luminous, compact and low mass galaxies with high specific star formation rates – and even lower-mass “blueberries”, small starburst galaxies that are a faint extension of the green peas that also show intense rates of star formation.

Using the aforementioned catalogues, and examining the parallel fields for Abell 2744 and MACS J0416.1-2403, the team went looking for other examples of low-mass galaxies with high star formation rates. The purpose of this was to measure the properties of these dwarf galaxies, and to see if any of their positions accorded with where globular clusters are known to have formed.

What they found was what they referred to as “Little Blue Dots” (LBSs), which are even lower-mass versions of “blueberries”. As Dr. Debra Elmegreen told Universe Today via email:

“When I was examining the images (there are about 3400 galaxies detected in each field), I noticed occasional galaxies that appeared as little blue dots, which was very intriguing because of Bruce’s previous theoretical work on dwarf galaxies. The published catalogs included redshifts and star formation rates and masses for each galaxy, and it turns out the little blue dots are low mass galaxies with very high star formation rates for their mass.”

Close-up view of a HFF parallel field, showing a LBD (upper right). Credit: Debra & Bruce Elmegreen

These galaxies didn’t show structure, so Debra and Bruce stacked the images of galaxies into 3 different ranges of redshift (which worked out to about 20 galaxies each) to create deeper images. “Still they showed no structure or faint extended outer disk,” said Debra, “so they are at the limit of resolution, with average sizes of 100-200 parsecs (about 300-600 light years) and masses of a few million times the mass of our sun.”

In the end, they determined that within these LBDs, star formation rates were very high. They also noted that these dwarf galaxies were very young, being less than 1% the age of the Universe at the time that they were observed. “So the tiny galaxies just formed,: said Bruce, “and their star formation rates are high enough to account for the globular clusters, maybe one in each LBD, when the star bursts in them wind down after a few tens of million years.”

Debra and Bruce Elmegreen are no strangers to high redshift galaxies. Back in 2012, Bruce published a paper that suggested that the globular clusters that orbit the Milky Way (and most other galaxies) formed in dwarf galaxies during the early Universe. These dwarf galaxies would have since been acquired by larger galaxies like our own, and the clusters are essentially their remnants.

Globular clusters are essentially massive star clusters that orbit around the Milky Way Halo. They are typically around 1 million Solar masses and are made up of stars that are very old – somewhere on the order of 10 to 13 billion years. Beyond the Milky Way, many appear in common orbits and in the Andromeda Galaxy, some even appear connected by a stream of stars.

The three groups of LBDs, where the dwarf galaxies were stacked based on their redshift. Credit: Debra & Bruce Elmegreen

As Bruce explained, his is a compelling argument for the theory that globular clusters formed from dwarf galaxies in the early Universe:

“This suggests that the metal-poor globular clusters are the dense remnants of little galaxies that got captured by bigger galaxies, like the Milky Way, and ripped apart by tidal forces. This idea for the origin of halo globular clusters goes back several decades… It would be only the metal-poor one that are like this, which are about half the total, because dwarf galaxies are metal poor compared to big galaxies, and they were also more metal poor in the early universe.”

This study has many implications for our understanding of how the Universe evolved, which was the chief aim of the Hubble Frontier Fields program. By examining objects in the early Universe, and determining their properties, scientists are able to determine how the structures that we are familiar with today – i.e. stars, galaxies, clusters, etc. – truly came from.

These same studies also allow scientists to make educated guesses about where the Universe is going and what will become of those same structures millions or even billions of years from now. In short, knowing where we’ve been lets us predict where we are headed!

Further Reading: arXiv

Hubble Spots the Ghostly Light From Dead Galaxies

In a patch of sky 3.5 billion light-years away there are hazy elliptical galaxies, colorful spirals, blue arcs and distorted shapes seen clumping together. It’s the result of a vast cosmic collision that took place over the course of 350 million years.

The mess is a treasure trove of information for astronomers, allowing them to piece together the history of a cosmic pile-up of multiple galaxy clusters.

But now astronomers are digging through the nearby darkness. They’re eyeing the remnant stars that were cast adrift in intergalactic space. These stars should emit a faint glow known as intracluster light that — until now — has mostly remained a subject of speculation.

Mireia Montes and Ignacio Trujillo, both from the University of La Laguna, Spain, have used the Hubble Space Telescope to observe the aforementioned cluster, Abel 2744, in exquisite detail. The cluster has already earned the nickname Pandora’s Cluster for its violent past.

The team looked at both visible and near-infrared color images of the cluster, and then split these color images by brightness. This allowed Montes and Trujillo to pinpoint the color of the cluster’s faintest glow and therefore glean the ghost stars’ age, chemical content, and total mass.

Compared to stars within the cluster’s galaxies, the ghost stars emit bluer light and are therefore rich in heavier elements like oxygen, carbon, and nitrogen. So the scattered stars must be second- or third-generation stars enriched by previous supernovae. But they’re still between three and nine billion years younger than the stars within the cluster’s galaxies.

The team estimates that the combined light of about 100 billion outcast stars contributes approximately six percent of the cluster’s brightness.

But how did the stars get thrown from their respective galaxies in the first place? This new forensic evidence suggests that violent collisions tore apart between four and six Milky Way-size galaxies, scattering their stars into intergalactic space.

“The Hubble data revealing the ghost light are important steps forward in understanding the evolution of galaxy clusters,” said Trujillo in a news release. “It is also amazingly beautiful in that we found the telltale glow by utilizing Hubble’s unique capabilities.”

Abell 2744 is only one target in Hubble’s Frontier Fields program, which will map five more galaxy clusters in superb detail.

The results have been published in the Astrophysical Journal and are available online.

A Four Cluster Pile-Up

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Abell 2744, shown above in a composite of images from the Hubble Space Telescope, the ESO’s Very Large Telescope and NASA’s Chandra X-ray  Observatory, is one of the most complex and dramatic collisions ever seen between galaxy clusters.

X-ray image of Abell 2744

Dubbed “Pandora’s Cluster”, this is a region 5.9 million light-years across located 3.5 billion light-years away. Many different kinds of structures are found here, shown in the image as different colors. Data from Chandra are colored red, showing gas with temperatures in the millions of degrees. Dark matter is shown in blue based on data from Hubble, the European Southern Observatory’s VLT array and Japan’s Subaru telescope. Finally the optical images showing the individual galaxies have been added.

Even though there are many bright galaxies visible in the image, most of the mass in Pandora’s Cluster comes from the vast areas of dark matter and extremely hot gas. Researchers made the normally invisible dark matter “visible” by identifying its gravitational effects on light from distant galaxies. By carefully measuring the distortions in the light a map of the dark matter’s mass could be created.

Galaxy clusters are the largest known gravitationally-bound structures in the Universe, and Abell 2744 is where at least four clusters have collided together. The vast collision seems to have separated the gas from the dark matter and the galaxies themselves, creating strange effects which have never been seen together before. By studying the history of events like this astronomers hope to learn more about how dark matter behaves and how the different structures that make up the Universe interact with each other.

Check out this HD video tour of Pandora’s Cluster from the team at Chandra:

Read more on the Chandra web site or in the NASA news release.

Image credit: X-ray: NASA/CXC/ITA/INAF/J.Merten et al, Lensing: NASA/STScI; NAOJ/Subaru; ESO/VLT, Optical: NASA/STScI/R.Dupke.

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Jason Major is a graphic designer, photo enthusiast and space blogger. Visit his website Lights in the Dark and follow him on Twitter @JPMajor or on Facebook for the most up-to-date astronomy awesomeness!