Better Late Than Never: Dwarf Galaxies Finally Come Together

Have you heard of ‘living fossils’? The coelacanth, the ginko tree, the platypus, and several others are species alive today which seem to be the same as those found as fossils, in rocks up to hundreds of millions of years old.

Now combined results from the Hubble Space Telescope, Spitzer, Galaxy Evolution Explorer (GALEX), and Swift show that there are ‘living galaxy fossils’ in our own backyard!

Hubble: red, yellow-green, and blue; Spitzer: orange; GALEX: purple

Hickson Compact Group 31 is one of 100 compact galaxy groups catalogued by Canadian astronomer Paul Hickson; the recent study of them – led by Sarah Gallagher of The University of Western Ontario in London, Ontario – shows that the four dwarf galaxies in it are in the process of coming together (or ‘merging’ as astronomers say).

Such encounters between dwarf galaxies are normally seen billions of light-years away and therefore occurred billions of years ago. But these galaxies are relatively nearby, only 166 million light-years away.

New images of this foursome by NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope offer a window into the universe’s formative years when the buildup of large galaxies from smaller building blocks was common.

Astronomers have known for decades that these dwarf galaxies are gravitationally tugging on each other. Their classical spiral shapes have been stretched like taffy, pulling out long streamers of gas and dust. The brightest object in the Hubble image is actually two colliding galaxies. The entire system is aglow with a firestorm of star birth, triggered when hydrogen gas is compressed by the close encounters between the galaxies and collapses to form stars.

The Hubble observations have added important clues to the story of this interacting group, allowing astronomers to determine when the encounter began and to predict a future merger.

“We found the oldest stars in a few ancient globular star clusters that date back to about 10 billion years ago. Therefore, we know the system has been around for a while,” says Gallagher; “most other dwarf galaxies like these interacted billions of years ago, but these galaxies are just coming together for the first time. This encounter has been going on for at most a few hundred million years, the blink of an eye in cosmic history. It is an extremely rare local example of what we think was a quite common event in the distant universe.”

In other words, a living fossil.

Everywhere the astronomers looked in this group they found batches of infant star clusters and regions brimming with star birth. The entire system is rich in hydrogen gas, the stuff of which stars are made. Gallagher and her team used Hubble’s Advanced Camera for Surveys to resolve the youngest and brightest of those clusters, which allowed them to calculate the clusters’ ages, trace the star-formation history, and determine that the galaxies are undergoing the final stages of galaxy assembly.

The analysis was bolstered by infrared data from NASA’s Spitzer Space Telescope and ultraviolet observations from the Galaxy Evolution Explorer (GALEX) and NASA’s Swift satellite. Those data helped the astronomers measure the total amount of star formation in the system. “Hubble has the sharpness to resolve individual star clusters, which allowed us to age-date the clusters,” Gallagher adds.

Hubble reveals that the brightest clusters, hefty groups each holding at least 100,000 stars, are less than 10 million years old. The stars are feeding off of plenty of gas. A measurement of the gas content shows that very little has been used up – further proof that the “galactic fireworks” seen in the images are a recent event. The group has about five times as much hydrogen gas as our Milky Way Galaxy.

“This is a clear example of a group of galaxies on their way toward a merger because there is so much gas that is going to mix everything up,” Gallagher says. “The galaxies are relatively small, comparable in size to the Large Magellanic Cloud, a satellite galaxy of our Milky Way. Their velocities, measured from previous studies, show that they are moving very slowly relative to each other, just 134,000 miles an hour (60 kilometers a second). So it’s hard to imagine how this system wouldn’t wind up as a single elliptical galaxy in another billion years.”

Adds team member Pat Durrell of Youngstown State University: “The four small galaxies are extremely close together, within 75,000 light-years of each other – we could fit them all within our Milky Way.”

Why did the galaxies wait so long to interact? Perhaps, says Gallagher, because the system resides in a lower-density region of the universe, the equivalent of a rural village. Getting together took billions of years longer than it did for galaxies in denser areas.

Source: HubbleSite News Release. Gallagher et al.’s results appear in the February issue of The Astronomical Journal (the preprint is arXiv:1002.3323)

Missing Early Stars Found, With No Place Left to Hide


Astronomer sleuths have solved a cosmic mystery by finding primitive stars that have been stealthily concealed. Using ESO’s Very Large Telescope a group of astronomers have uncovered an important astrophysical puzzle concerning the oldest stars in our galactic neighborhood — which is crucial for our understanding of the earliest stars in the Universe. . “We have, in effect, found a flaw in the forensic methods used until now,” said Else Starkenburg, lead author of a paper reporting the new findings. “Our improved approach allows us to uncover the primitive stars hidden among all the other, more common stars.”

Primitive stars are thought to have formed from material forged shortly after the Big Bang, 13.7 billion years ago. They typically have less than one thousandth the amount of chemical elements heavier than hydrogen and helium found in the Sun and are called “extremely metal-poor stars.” They belong to one of the first generations of stars in the nearby Universe. Such stars are extremely rare and mainly observed in the Milky Way.

The Sculptor dwarf galaxy is one of our Milky Way’s neighbouring dwarf galaxies. Credit: ESO/Digitized Sky Survey 2

Cosmologists think that larger galaxies like the Milky Way formed from the merger of smaller galaxies. Our Milky Way’s population of extremely metal-poor or “primitive” stars should already have been present in the dwarf galaxies from which it formed, and similar populations should be present in other dwarf galaxies. “So far, evidence for them has been scarce,” said co-author Giuseppina Battaglia. “Large surveys conducted in the last few years kept showing that the most ancient populations of stars in the Milky Way and dwarf galaxies did not match, which was not at all expected from cosmological models.”

Element abundances are measured from spectra, which provide the chemical fingerprints of stars. The Dwarf galaxies Abundances and Radial-velocities Team used the FLAMES instrument on ESO’s Very Large Telescope to measure the spectra of over 2000 individual giant stars in four of our galactic neighbors, the Fornax, Sculptor, Sextans and Carina dwarf galaxies. Since the dwarf galaxies are typically 300,000 light years away — which is about three times the size of our Milky Way — only strong features in the spectrum could be measured, like a vague, smeared fingerprint. The team found that none of their large collection of spectral fingerprints actually seemed to belong to the class of stars they were after, the rare, extremely metal-poor stars found in the Milky Way.

The team of astronomers around Starkenburg has now shed new light on the problem through careful comparison of spectra to computer-based models. They found that only subtle differences distinguish the chemical fingerprint of a normal metal-poor star from that of an extremely metal-poor star, explaining why previous methods did not succeed in making the identification.

The astronomers also confirmed the almost pristine status of several extremely metal-poor stars thanks to much more detailed spectra obtained with the UVES instrument on ESO’s Very Large Telescope. “Compared to the vague fingerprints we had before, this would be as if we looked at the fingerprint through a microscope,” explains team member Vanessa Hill. “Unfortunately, just a small number of stars can be observed this way because it is very time consuming.”

“Among the new extremely metal-poor stars discovered in these dwarf galaxies, three have a relative amount of heavy chemical elements between only 1/3000 and 1/10 000 of what is observed in our Sun, including the current record holder of the most primitive star found outside the Milky Way,” said team member Martin Tafelmeyer.

“Not only has our work revealed some of the very interesting, first stars in these galaxies, but it also provides a new, powerful technique to uncover more such stars,” concluded Starkenburg. “From now on there is no place left to hide!”

Source: ESO

Death in the Sky: M31 Shreds its Satellites

An international team of astronomers has identified two new tidal streams in M31, the Andromeda galaxy. They are more-or-less intact remnants of dwarf galaxies that M31 has otherwise ripped to shreds.

One team – using the Suprime-Cam camera on Subaru – discovered two new dwarf galaxy shards by mapping the sky density of red giants in M31’s outskirts; the other – using the DEIMOS spectrograph on Keck II – separated the M31 red giant wheat from the Milky Way chaff.

In a project led by collaborators Mikito Tanaka and Masashi Chiba of Tohoku University, Japan, the astronomers used the Subaru 8-meter telescope and Suprime-Cam camera to map the density of red giants in large portions of M31, including the hitherto uncharted north side. This led to the discovery of two tidal streams to the northwest (streams E and F) at projected distances of 60 and 100 kiloparsecs (200,000 and 300,000 light-years) from M31’s nucleus. The study also confirmed a few previously known streams, including the little-studied diffuse stream to the southwest (stream SW), which lies at a projected distance of 60 to 100 kiloparsecs (200,000 to 300,000 light years) from M31’s nucleus.

The Spectroscopic and Photometric Landscape of Andromeda’s Stellar Halo (SPLASH) collaboration, a large survey of red giants in M31 lead by Puragra Guhathakurta, professor of astronomy and astrophysics at the University of California, Santa Cruz, has followed up with a spectroscopic survey of several hundred red giants in Streams E, F, and SW, using the Keck II 10-meter telescope and DEIMOS spectrograph at the W. M. Keck Observatory in Hawaii. Analysis of the spectra from this survey yields estimates of the line-of-sight velocity of the stars, which in turn allows M31 red giants to be distinguished from foreground stars (in the Milky Way). The spectral data confirmed the presence of coherent groups of M31 red giants moving with a common velocity.

Distribution of line-of-sight velocities in the Stream SW field (Raja Guhathakurta)

Stars spread over the vast reaches of a halo in a big galaxy like the Milky Way or M31 are characterized by old age, few elements other than helium and hydrogen (i.e. low metallicities; astronomers call all elements other than hydrogen and helium “metals”), and high velocities. The exceptional nature of these halo stars, when compared to stars in a galaxy’s disk, reflects the early dynamics and element formation of the galaxy when its appearance differed significantly from what we see today. Consequently, the halo provides important insights into the processes involved in the formation and evolution of a massive galaxy. In the best Big Bang model we have today – ΛCDM (Lambda Cold Dark Matter) – the outer halos are built up through the merger and dissolution of smaller, dwarf, satellite galaxies. “This process of galactic cannibalism is an integral part of the growth of galaxies,” said Guhathakurta.

The smooth, well-mixed population of halo stars in these large galaxies represents the aggregate of the dwarf galaxy victims of this cannibalism process, while the dwarf galaxies that are still intact as they orbit their large parent galaxy are the survivors of this process.

“The merging and dissolution of a dwarf galaxy typically lasts for a couple billion years, so one occasionally catches a large galaxy in the act of cannibalizing one of its dwarf galaxy satellites,” Guhathakurta said. “The characteristic signature of such an event is a tidal stream: an enhancement in the density of stars, localized in space and moving as a coherent group through the parent galaxy.”

Tidal streams are important because they represent a link between the victims and survivors of galactic cannibalism – an intermediate stage between the population of intact dwarf galaxies and the well-mixed stars dissolved in the halo.

The Andromeda galaxy is a unique test bed for studying the formation and evolution of a large galaxy, said Guhathakurta, “Our external vantage point gives us a global perspective of the galaxy, and yet the galaxy is close enough for us to obtain detailed measurements of individual red giant stars within it.”

One of the next steps will be to measure the detailed elemental compositions (“chemical properties”, in astronomer-speak) of red giants in these newly discovered tidal streams in M31. Comparing the chemical properties of tidal streams, intact dwarf satellites, and the smooth halo will be of particular significance, Guhathakurta said. Mikito Tanaka put it this way: “Further observational surveys of an entire halo region in Andromeda will provide very useful information on galaxy formation, including how many and how massive individual dwarf galaxies as building blocks are and how star formation and chemical evolution proceeded in each dwarf galaxy.”

At the present time, detailed studies of the chemical properties of tidal streams, intact dwarf satellites, and smooth stellar halos are possible only in the Milky Way and M31 galaxies and their immediate surroundings. Existing telescopes and instruments are simply not powerful enough for astronomers to carry out such studies in more distant galaxies. This situation will improve greatly with the advent of the planned Thirty Meter Telescope later in this decade, Guhathakurta said.

Tanaka’s team published their survey results in a recent Astrophysics Journal (ApJ) paper (the preprint is arXiv:0908.0245), and Guhathakurta’s team presented their results on the newly discovered tidal streams earlier this month at the 215th meeting of the American Astronomical Society in Washington, D.C.; they hope to have an ApJ paper on these results published later this year. You can read an earlier SPLASH paper, “The SPLASH Survey: A Spectroscopic Portrait of Andromeda’s Giant Southern Stream”, published in ApJ (the preprint is arxiv:0909.4540).

Sources: University of California, Santa Cruz, National Astronomical Observatory of Japan.

Latest from Hubble: Star Formation Fizzling Out in Nearby Galaxy

Most galaxies are throughout the universe are happenin’ places, with all sorts of raucous star formation going on. But for a nearby, small spiral galaxy, the star-making party is almost over. In this latest Hubble release, astronomers were surprised to find that star-formation activities in the outer regions of NGC 2976 are fizzling out, and any celebrating is confined to a few die-hard partygoers huddled in the galaxy’s inner region.

The reason? Well, the star birth began when another party-crashing galaxy interacted with NGC 2976. But that happened long ago, and now star formation in the galaxy is fizzling out in the outer parts as some of the gas was stripped away and the rest collapsed toward the center. With no gas left to fuel the party, more and more regions of the galaxy are going to sleep.

“Astronomers thought that grazing encounters between galaxies can cause the funneling of gas into a galaxy’s core, but these Hubble observations provide the clearest view of this phenomenon,” explains astronomer Benjamin Williams of the University of Washington in Seattle, who directed the Hubble study, which is part of the ACS Nearby Galaxy Survey Treasury (ANGST) program. “We are catching this galaxy at a very interesting time. Another 500 million years and the party will be over.”

NGC 2976 does not look like a typical spiral galaxy. It has a star-forming disk, but no obvious spiral pattern. Its gas is centrally concentrated, but it does not have a central bulge of stars. The galaxy resides on the fringe of the M81 group of galaxies, located about 12 million light-years away in the constellation Ursa Major.

“The galaxy looks weird because an interaction with the M81 group about a billion years ago stripped some gas from the outer parts of the galaxy, forcing the rest of the gas to rush toward the galaxy’s center, where it is has little organized spiral structure,” Williams says.

The galaxy’s relatively close distance to Earth allowed Hubble’s Advanced Camera for Surveys (ACS) to resolve hundreds of thousands of individual stars. What look like grains of sand in the image are actually individual stars. Studying the individual stars allowed astronomers to determine their color and brightness, which provided information about when they formed.

The image was taken over a period in late 2006 and early 2007.

“This type of observation is unique to Hubble,” Williams says. “If we had not been able to pick out individual stars, we would have known that the galaxy is weird, but we would not have dug up evidence for a significant gas rearrangement in the galaxy, which caused the stellar birth zone to shrink toward the galaxy’s center.”

Simulations predict that the same “gas-funneling” mechanism may trigger starbursts in the central regions of other dwarf galaxies that interact with larger neighbors. The trick to studying the effects of this process in detail, Williams says, is being able to resolve many individual stars in galaxies to create an accurate picture of their evolution.

Williams’ results will appear in the January 20, 2010 issue of The Astrophysical Journal.

Source: HubbleSite