Astronomy Cast Ep. 498: Dwarf Galaxy Update

The Milky Way has gobbled up dozens of dwarf galaxies and added them to its structure. Today we’re going to look at the ongoing hunt for the wreckage of past mergers. And what we’ve discovered about dwarf galaxies in general.

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Dwarf Dark Matter Galaxy Hides In Einstein Ring

The large blue light is a lensing galaxy in the foreground, called SDP81, and the red arcs are the distorted image of a more distant galaxy. By analyzing small distortions in the red, distant galaxy, astronomers have determined that a dwarf dark galaxy, represented by the white dot in the lower left, is companion to SDP81. The image is a composite from ALMA and the Hubble. Image: Y. Hezaveh, Stanford Univ./ALMA (NRAO/ESO/NAOJ)/NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope

Everybody knows that galaxies are enormous collections of stars. A single galaxy can contain hundreds of billions of them. But there is a type of galaxy that has no stars. That’s right: zero stars.

These galaxies are called Dark Galaxies, or Dark Matter Galaxies. And rather than consisting of stars, they consist mostly of Dark Matter. Theory predicts that there should be many of these Dwarf Dark Galaxies in the halo around ‘regular’ galaxies, but finding them has been difficult.

Now, in a new paper to be published in the Astrophysical Journal, Yashar Hezaveh at Stanford University in California, and his team of colleagues, announce the discovery of one such object. The team used enhanced capabilities of the Atacamas Large Millimeter Array to examine an Einstein ring, so named because Einstein’s Theory of General Relativity predicted the phenomenon long before one was observed.

An Einstein Ring is when the massive gravity of a close object distorts the light from a much more distant object. They operate much like the lens in a telescope, or even a pair of eye-glasses. The mass of the glass in the lens directs incoming light in such a way that distant objects are enlarged.

Einstein Rings and gravitational lensing allow astronomers to study extremely distant objects, by looking at them through a lens of gravity. But they also allow astronomers to learn more about the galaxy that is acting as the lens, which is what happened in this case.

If a glass lens had tiny water spots on it, those spots would add a tiny amount of distortion to the image. That’s what happened in this case, except rather than microscopic water drops on a lens, the distortions were caused by tiny Dwarf Galaxies consisting of Dark Matter. “We can find these invisible objects in the same way that you can see rain droplets on a window. You know they are there because they distort the image of the background objects,” explained Hezaveh. The difference is that water distorts light by refraction, whereas matter distorts light by gravity.

As the ALMA facility increased its resolution, astronomers studied different astronomical objects to test its capabilities. One of these objects was SDP81, the gravitational lens in the above image. As they examined the more distant galaxy being lensed by SDP81, they discovered smaller distortions in the ring of the distant galaxy. Hezaveh and his team conclude that these distortions signal the presence of a Dwarf Dark Galaxy.

But why does this all matter? Because there is a problem in the Universe, or at least in our understanding of it; a problem of missing mass.

Our understanding of the formation of the structure of the Universe is pretty solid, at least in the larger scale. Predictions based on this model agree with observations of the Cosmic Microwave Background (CMB) and galaxy clustering. But our understanding breaks down somewhat when it comes to the smaller scale structure of the Universe.

One example of our lack of understanding in this area is what’s known as the Missing Satellite Problem. Theory predicts that there should be a large population of what are called sub-halo objects in the halo of dark matter surrounding galaxies. These objects can range from things as large as the Magellanic Clouds down to much smaller objects. In observations of the Local Group, there is a pronounced deficit of these objects, to the tune of a factor of 10, when compared to theoretical predictions.

Because we haven’t found them, one of two things needs to happen: either we get better at finding them, or we modify our theory. But it seems a little too soon to modify our theories of the structure of the Universe because we haven’t found something that, by its very nature, is hard to find. That’s why this announcement is so important.

The observation and identification of one of these Dwarf Dark Galaxies should open the door to more. Once more are found, we can start to build a model of their population and distribution. So if in the future more of these Dwarf Dark Galaxies are found, it will gradually confirm our over-arching understanding of the formation and structure of the Universe. And it’ll mean we’re on the right track when it comes to understanding Dark Matter’s role in the Universe. If we can’t find them, and the one bound to the halo of SDP81 turns out to be an anomaly, then it’s back to the drawing board, theoretically.

It took a lot of horsepower to detect the Dwarf Dark Galaxy bound to SDP81. Einstein Rings like SDP81 have to have enormous mass in order to exert a gravitational lensing effect, while Dwarf Dark Galaxies are tiny in comparison. It’s a classic ‘needle in a haystack’ problem, and Hezaveh and his team needed massive computing power to analyze the data from ALMA.

ALMA will consist of 66 individual antennae like these when it is complete. The facility is located in the Atacama Desert in Chile, at 5,000 meters above sea level. Credit: ALMA (ESO / NAOJ / NRAO)
ALMA will consist of 66 individual antennae like these when it is complete. The facility is located in the Atacama Desert in Chile, at 5,000 meters above sea level. Credit: ALMA (ESO / NAOJ / NRAO)

ALMA, and the methodology developed by Hezaveh and team will hopefully shed more light on Dwarf Dark Galaxies in the future. The team thinks that ALMA has great potential to discover more of these halo objects, which should in turn improve our understanding of the structure of the Universe. As they say in the conclusion of their paper, “… ALMA observations have the potential to significantly advance our understanding of the abundance of dark matter substructure.”

The Milky Way Galaxy’s Dark Halo Of Star Formation

Dark matter is invisible. Based on the effect of gravitational lensing, a ring of dark matter has been inferred in this image of a galaxy cluster (CL0024+17) and has been represented in blue. Image: NASA/ESA.

Dark Matter is rightly called one of the greatest mysteries in the Universe. In fact, so mysterious is it, that we here in the opulent sky-scraper offices of Universe Today often joke that it should be called “Dark Mystery.” But that sounds like a cheesy History Channel show, and here at Universe Today we don’t like cheesy, so Dark Matter it remains.

Though we still don’t know what exactly Dark Matter is, we keep learning more about how it interacts with the rest of the Universe, and nibbling around at the edges of what it might be. But before we get into the latest news about Dark Matter, it’s worth stepping back a bit to remind ourselves of what is known about Dark Matter.

Evidence from cosmology shows that about 25% of the mass of the Universe is Dark Matter, also known as non-baryonic matter. Baryonic matter is ‘normal’ matter, which we are all familiar with. It’s made up of protons and neutrons, and it’s the matter that we interact with every day.

Cosmologists can’t see the 25% of matter that is Dark Matter, because it doesn’t interact with light. But they can see the effect it has on the large scale structure of the Universe, on the cosmic microwave background, and in the phenomenon of gravitational lensing. So they know it’s there.

Large galaxies like our own Milky Way are surrounded by what is called a halo of Dark Matter. These huge haloes are in turn surrounded by smaller sub-haloes of Dark Matter. These sub-haloes have enough gravitational force to form dwarf galaxies, like the Milky Way’s own Sagittarius and Canis Major dwarf galaxies. Then, these dwarf galaxies themselves have their own Dark Matter haloes, which at this scale are now much too small to contain gas or stars. Called dark satellites, these smaller haloes are of course invisible to telescopes, but theory states they should be there.

But proving that these dark satellites are even there requires some evidence of the effect they have on their host galaxies.

Now, thanks to Laura Sales, who is an assistant professor at the University of California, Riverside’s, Department of Physics and Astronomy, and her collaborators at the Kapteyn Astronomical Institute in the Netherlands, Tjitske Starkenberg and Amina Helmi, there is more evidence that these dark satellites are indeed there.

In their paper “Dark influences II: gas and star formation in minor mergers of dwarf galaxies with dark satellites,” from November 2015, they provide an analysis of theory-based computer simulations of the interaction between a dwarf galaxy and a dark satellite.

Their paper shows that when a dark satellite is at its closest point to a dwarf galaxy, the satellite’s gravitational influence compresses the gas in the dwarf. This causes a sustained period of star formation, called a starburst, that can last for billions of years.

NGC 5253 is one of the nearest of the known Blue Compact Dwarf (BCD) galaxies, and is located at a distance of about 12 million light-years from Earth in the southern constellation of Centaurus. It is experiencing a starburst of hot, young stars, which could be caused by dark satellites. Image: NASA/ESA/Hubble.
NGC 5253 is one of the nearest of the known Blue Compact Dwarf (BCD) galaxies, and is located at a distance of about 12 million light-years from Earth in the southern constellation of Centaurus. It is experiencing a starburst of hot, young stars, which could be caused by dark satellites. Image: NASA/ESA/Hubble.

Their modelling suggests that dwarf galaxies should be exhibiting a higher rate of star formation than would otherwise be expected. And observation of dwarf galaxies reveals that that is indeed the case. Their modelling also suggests that when a dark satellite and a dwarf galaxy interact, the shape of the dwarf galaxy should change. And again, this is born out by the observation of isolated spheroidal dwarf galaxies, whose origin has so far been a mystery.

The exact nature of Dark Matter is still a mystery, and will probably remain a mystery for quite some time. But studies like this keep shining more light on Dark Matter, and I encourage readers who want more detail to read it.

Weekly Space Hangout – March 27, 2015: Dark Matter Galaxy “X” with Dr. Sukanya Chakrabarti

Host: Fraser Cain (@fcain)
Special Guest: Dr. Sukanya Chakrabarti, Lead Investigator for team that may have discovered Dark Matter Galaxy “X”.

Morgan Rehnberg ( / @MorganRehnberg )
Dave Dickinson (@astroguyz /
Brian Koberlein (@briankoberlein)
Continue reading “Weekly Space Hangout – March 27, 2015: Dark Matter Galaxy “X” with Dr. Sukanya Chakrabarti”

Dwarf Galaxies That Dance? Andromeda Observations Reveal A Larger Cosmic Mystery

Astrophoto: Andromeda Galaxy by Fabio Bortoli

What is up with these dwarf galaxies? A survey of thousands of galaxies using the Sloan Digital Sky Survey reveals something interesting, which was first revealed by looking at the massive Andromeda Galaxy nearby Earth: dwarf galaxies orbiting larger ones are often in disc-shaped orbits and not distributed randomly, as astronomers expected.

The finding follows on from research in 2013 that showed that 50% of Andromeda’s dwarf galaxies are in a single plane about a million light-years in diameter, but only 300,000 light-years thick. Now with the larger discovery, scientists suspect that perhaps there is a yet-to-be found process that is controlling gas flow in the cosmos.

“We were surprised to find that a large proportion of pairs of satellite galaxies have oppositely directed velocities if they are situated on opposite sides of their giant galaxy hosts,” stated lead author Neil Ibata of Lycée International in France.

“Everywhere we looked, we saw this strangely coherent coordinated motion of dwarf galaxies,” added Geraint Lewis, a University of Sydney physicist. “From this we can extrapolate that these circular planes of dancing dwarfs are universal, seen in about 50 percent of galaxies. This is a big problem that contradicts our standard cosmological models. It challenges our understanding of how the universe works, including the nature of dark matter.”

The astronomers also speculated this could show something unexpected in the laws of physics, such as motion and gravity, but added it would take far more investigation to figure that out.

The findings were published in the journal Nature.

Source: University of Sydney

Powerful Starbursts in Dwarf Galaxies Helped Shape the Early Universe, a New Study Suggests

Massive galaxies in the early Universe formed stars at a much faster clip than they do today — creating the equivalent of a thousand new suns per year. This rate reached its peak 3 billion years after the Big Bang, and by 6 billion years, galaxies had created most of their stars.

New observations from the Hubble Space Telescope show that even dwarf galaxies — the small, low mass clusters of several billion stars — produced stars at a rapid rate, playing a bigger role than expected in the early history of the Universe.

Today, we tend to see dwarf galaxies clinging to larger galaxies, or sometimes engulfed within, rather than existing as blazing collections of stars alone. But astronomers have suspected that dwarfs in the early Universe could turn over stars quickly. The trouble is, most images aren’t sharp enough to reveal the faint, faraway galaxies we need to observe.

“We already suspected that dwarf starbursting galaxies would contribute to the early wave of star formation, but this is the first time we’ve been able to measure the effect they actually had,” said lead author Hakim Atek of the École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne (EPFL) in a press release. “They appear to have had a surprisingly significant role to play during the epoch where the Universe formed most of its stars.”

Previous studies of starburst galaxies in the early Universe were biased toward massive galaxies, leaving out the huge number of dwarf galaxies that existed in this era. But the highly sensitive capabilities of Hubble’s Wide Field Camera 3 have now allowed astronomers to peer at low-mass dwarf galaxies in the distant Universe.

This image represents the data that comes from using the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescop's highly-sensitive Wide Field Camera 3 in its grism spectroscopy mode. A grism is a combination of a grating and a prism, and it splits up the light from a galaxy into its constituent colours, producing a spectrum. In this image the continuum of each galaxy is shown as a "rainbow". Astronomers can look at a galaxy’s spectrum and identify light emitted by the hydrogen gas in the galaxy. If there are stars being formed in the galaxy then the intense radiation from the newborn stars heats up the hydrogen gas and makes it glow. All of the light from the hydrogen gas is emitted in a small number of very narrow and bright emission lines. For dwarf galaxies in the early Universe the emission lines are much easier to detect than the faint, almost invisible, continuum.  Image Credit: NASA and ESA
This image represents the data that comes from using the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope’s highly-sensitive Wide Field Camera 3 in its grism spectroscopy mode. Image Credit: NASA / ESA

Atek and colleagues looked at 1000 galaxies from roughly three billion years to 10 billion years after the Big Bang. They dug through their data, in search of the H-alpha line: a deep-red visible spectral line, which occurs when a hydrogen electron falls from its third to second lowest energy level.

In star forming regions, the surrounding gas is continually ionized by radiation from the newly formed stars. Once the gas is ionized, the nucleus and removed electron can recombine to form a new hydrogen atom with the electron typically in a higher energy state. This electron will then cascade back to the ground state, a process that produces H-alpha emission about half the time.

So the H-alpha line is an effective probe of star formation and the brightness of the H-alpha line (which is much easier to detect than the faint, almost invisible, continuum) is an effective probe of the star formation rate. From this single line, Attek and colleagues found that the rate at which stars are turning on in early dwarfs is surprisingly high.

“These galaxies are forming stars so quickly that they could actually double their entire mass of stars in only 150 million years — this sort of gain in stellar mass would take most normal galaxies 1-3 billion years,” said co-author Jean-Paul Kneib, also of EPFL.

The team doesn’t yet know why these small galaxies are producing such a vast number of stars. In general, bursts of star formation are thought to follow somewhat chaotic events like galactic mergers or the shock of a supernova. But by continuing to study these dwarf galaxies, astronomers hope to shed light on galactic evolution and help paint a consistent picture of events in the early Universe.

The paper has been published today in the Astrophysical Journal and may be viewed here. The latest Hubblecast (below) also covers this exciting result.

We Are Stardust… We Are Cold Then


When we think of stars, we might think of their building blocks as white hot… But that’s not particularly the case.The very “stuff” that creates a sun is cold dust and in this combined image produced by the Herschel Space Observatory, a European Space Agency-led mission with important NASA contributions; and NASA’s Spitzer Space Telescope, we’re taking an even more incredible look into the environment which forms stars. This new image peers into the dusty arena of both the Large and Small Magellanic Clouds – just two of our galactic neighbors.

Through the infra-red eyes of the Herschel-Spitzer observation, the Large Magellanic Cloud would almost appear to look like a gigantic fireball. Here light-years long bands of dust permeate the galaxy with blazing fields of star formation seen in the center, center-left and top right (the brightest center-left region is called 30 Doradus, or the Tarantula Nebula. The Small Magellanic Cloud is much more disturbed looking. Here we see a huge filament of dust to the left – known as the galaxy’s “wing” – and, to the right, a deep bar of star formation.

This new image shows the Small Magellanic Cloud galaxy in infrared light from the Herschel Space Observatory a European Space Agency-led mission with important NASA contributions, and NASA's Spitzer Space Telescope. Image credit: ESA/NASA/JPL-Caltech/STScI

What makes these images very unique is that they are indicators of temperature within the Magellanic Clouds. The cool, red areas are where star formation has ceased or is at its earliest stages. Warm areas are indicative of new stars blooming to life and heating the dust around them. “Coolest areas and objects appear in red, corresponding to infrared light taken up by Herschel’s Spectral and Photometric Imaging Receiver at 250 microns, or millionths of a meter. Herschel’s Photodetector Array Camera and Spectrometer fills out the mid-temperature bands, shown in green, at 100 and 160 microns.” says the research team. “The warmest spots appear in blue, courtesy of 24- and 70-micron data from Spitzer.”

Both the LMC and SMC are the two largest satellite galaxies of the Milky Way and are cataloged as dwarf galaxies. While they are large in their own right, this pair contains fewer essential star-forming elements such as hydrogen and helium – slowing the rate of star growth. Although star formation is generally considered to have reached its apex some 10 billion years ago, some galaxies were left with less basic materials than others.

“Studying these galaxies offers us the best opportunity to study star formation outside of the Milky Way,” said Margaret Meixner, an astronomer at the Space Telescope Science Institute, Baltimore, Md., and principal investigator for the mapping project. “Star formation affects the evolution of galaxies, so we hope understanding the story of these stars will answer questions about galactic life cycles.”

Original Story Source: NASA/Herschel News.

Sagittarius Dwarf Galaxy – A Beast With Four Tails?


Galactic interactions can have big effects on the shapes of the disks of galaxies. So what happens when a small galaxy intermingles with the outer part of our own larger Milky Way Galaxy? It’s not pretty, as rivers of stars are being sheared off from a neighboring dwarf galaxy, Sagittarius, according to research by a team of astronomers led by Sergey Koposov and Vasily Belokurov (University of Cambridge).

Analyzing data from the latest Sloan Digital Sky Survey (SDSS-III), the team found two streams of stars in the Southern Galactic hemisphere that were torn off Sagittarius dwarf galaxy. This new discovery also connects newly found streams with two previously discovered streams in the Northern Galactic hemisphere.

Describing the phenomenon, Koposov said, “We have long known that when small dwarf galaxies fall into bigger galaxies, elongated streams, or tails, of stars are pulled out of the dwarf by the enormous tidal field.”

Wyn Evans, one of the other team members commented, “Sagittarius is like a beast with four tails.”

At one time, the Sagittarius dwarf galaxy was one of the brightest of our Galaxy’s satellites. Now its remains are on the other side of our Galaxy, and in the process of being broken apart by immense tidal forces. Estimates show that the Sagittarius dwarf galaxy lost half its stars and gas over the past billion years.

Before the SDSS-III data analysis, it was known that Sagittarius had two tails – one in front of and one behind the remnant. This discovery was made by using previous SDSS imaging, specifically a 2006 study which found the Sagittarius tidal tail in the Northern Galactic sky appears to be split in two.

Commenting on the previous discovery, Belokurov added, “That was an amazing discovery, but the remaining piece of the puzzle, the structure in the South, was missing until now.”

Analyzing density maps of over 13 million stars in the SDSS-III data, Koposov and his team found that the Sagittarius stream in the South is also split into two. One stream is thicker and brighter, while the other is thinner and fainter. According to the paper, the fainter stream is simpler and more metal-poor, while the brighter stream is more complex and metal-rich.

The deduction makes sense since each successive generation of stars will create and distribute (via supernovae) more metals into the next generation of star formation.

An artist's impression of the four tails of the Sagittarius Dwarf Galaxy (the orange clump on the left of the image) orbiting the Milky Way. The bright yellow circle to the right of the galaxy's center is our Sun (not to scale). Image credit: Amanda Smith (University of Cambridge)

While the exact cause of the tidal tail split is unknown, astronomers believe that the Sagittarius dwarf may have been part of a binary galactic system, much like the Large and Small Magellanic Clouds, visible in our Southern hemisphere. Despite the nature of the tidal tail split being presently unknown, astronomers have known that over time, many smaller galaxies have been torn apart or absorbed by our Milky Way Galaxy, as well as other galaxies in the Universe.

The movie (below) shows multiple streams produced by the disruption of the Sagittarius dwarf galaxy in the Milky Way halo. Our Sun is depicted by the orange sphere. The Sagittarius dwarf galaxy is in the middle of the stream. The area shown in the movie is roughly 200,000 parsecs (about 600,000 light-years.) Movie credit: S. Koposov and the SDSS-III collaboration.

If you’d like to learn more, you can read the full scientific paper at:

Source: SDSS press release, arXiv paper #1111.7042

Quadruply Lensed Dwarf Galaxy 12.8 Billion Light Years Away

Galaxy Cluster MACS J0329.6-0211 lenses several background galaxies including a distant dwarf galaxy. CREDIT: A. Zitrin, et al.


Gravitational lensing is a powerful tool for astronomers that allows them to explore distant galaxies in far more detail than would otherwise be allowed. Without this technique, galaxies at the edge of the visible universe are little more than tiny blobs of light, but when magnified dozens of times by foreground clusters, astronomers are able to explore the internal structural properties more directly.

Recently, astronomers at the University of Heidelberg discovered a gravitational lensed galaxy that ranked among the most distant ever seen. Although there’s a few that beat this one out in distance, this one is remarkable for being a rare quadruple lens.

The images for this remarkable discovery were taken using the Hubble Space Telescope in August and October of this year, using a total of 16 different colored filters as well as additional data from the Spitzer infrared telescope. The foreground cluster, MACS J0329.6-0211, is some 4.6 billion light years distant. In the above image, the background galaxy has been split into four images, labelled by the red ovals and marked as 1.1 – 1.4. They are enlarged in the upper right.

Assuming that the mass of the foreground cluster is concentrated around the galaxies that were visible, the team attempted to reverse the effects the cluster would have on the distant galaxy, which would reverse the distortions. The restored image, also corrected for redshift, is shown in the lower box in the upper right corner.

After correcting for these distortions, the team estimated that the total mass of the distant galaxy is only a few billion times the mass of the Sun. In comparison, the Large Magellanic Cloud, a dwarf satellite to our own galaxy, is roughly ten billion solar masses. The overall size of the galaxy was determined to be small as well. These conclusions fit well with expectations of galaxies in the early universe which predict that the large galaxies in today’s universe were built from the combination of many smaller galaxies like this one in the distant past.

The galaxy also conforms to expectations regarding the amount of heavy elements which is significantly lower than stars like the Sun. This lack of heavy elements means that there should be little in the way of dust grains. Such dust tends to be a strong block of shorter wavelengths of light such as ultraviolet and blue. Its absence helps give the galaxy its blue tint.

Star formation is also high in the galaxy. The rate at which they predict new stars are being born is somewhat higher than in other galaxies discovered around the same distance, but the presence of brighter clumps in the restored image suggest the galaxy may be undergoing some interactions, driving the formation of new stars.