Andromeda Shredded and Consumed a Massive Galaxy About Two Billion Years Ago

Scientists have long understood that in the course of cosmic evolution, galaxies become larger by consuming smaller galaxies. The evidence of this can be seen by observing galactic halos, where the stars of cannibalized galaxies still remain. This is certainly true of the Andromeda Galaxy (aka. M31, Earth’s closest neighbor) which has a massive and nearly-invisible halo of stars that is larger than the galaxy itself.

For some time, scientists believed that this halo was the result of hundreds of smaller mergers. But thanks to a new study by a team of researchers at the University of Michigan, it now appears that Andromeda’s halo is the result of it cannibalizing a massive galaxy some two billion years ago. Studying the remains of this galaxy will help astronomers understand how disk galaxies (like the Milky Way) evolve and survive large mergers.

The study, titled “The Andromeda galaxy’s most important merger about 2 billion years ago as M32’s likely progenitor“, recently appeared in the scientific journal Nature. The study was conducted by Richard D’Souza, a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Michigan and the Vatican Observatory; and Eric F. Bell, the Arthur F. Thurnau Professor at the University of Michigan.

In this image, the Andromeda galaxy shreds the large galaxy M32p, which eventually resulted in M32 and a giant halo of stars. Credit: Richard D’Souza. Credit: AAS/IOP/Wei-Hao Wang

Using computer models, Richard D’Souza and Eric Bell were able to piece together how a once-massive galaxy (named M32p) disrupted and eventually came to merge with Andromeda. From their simulations, they determined that M32p was at least 20 times larger than any galaxy that has merged with the Milky Way over the course of its lifetime.

M32p would have therefore been the third-largest member of the Local Group of galaxies, after the Milky Way and Andromeda galaxies, and was therefore something of a “long-lost sibling”. However, their simulations also indicated that many smaller companion galaxies merged with Andromeda over time. But for the past, Andromeda’s halo is the result of a single massive merger. As D’Souza explained in a recent Michigan News press statement:

“It was a ‘eureka’ moment. We realized we could use this information of Andromeda’s outer stellar halo to infer the properties of the largest of these shredded galaxies. Astronomers have been studying the Local Group—the Milky Way, Andromeda and their companions—for so long. It was shocking to realize that the Milky Way had a large sibling, and we never knew about it.”

This study will not only help astronomers understand how galaxies like the Milky Way and Andromeda grew through mergers, it might also shed light on a long-standing mystery – which is how Andromeda’s satellite galaxy (M32) formed. According to their study, D’Souza and Bell believe that M32 is the surviving center of M32p, which is what remained after its spiral arms were stripped away.

Messier 31 (the Andromeda Galaxy), along with Messier 32 and Messier 110. Credit: Wikisky

“M32 is a weirdo,” said Bell. “While it looks like a compact example of an old, elliptical galaxy, it actually has lots of young stars. It’s one of the most compact galaxies in the universe. There isn’t another galaxy like it.” According to D’Souza and Bell, this study may also alter the traditional understanding of how galaxies evolve. In astronomy, conventional wisdom says that large interactions would destroy disk galaxies and form elliptical galaxies.

But if Andromeda did indeed survive an impact with a massive galaxy, it would indicate that this is not the case. The timing of the merger may also explain recent research findings which indicated that two billion years ago, the disk of the Andromeda galaxy thickened, leading to a burst in star formation. As Bell explained:

“The Andromeda Galaxy, with a spectacular burst of star formation, would have looked so different 2 billion years ago. When I was at graduate school, I was told that understanding how the Andromeda Galaxy and its satellite galaxy M32 formed would go a long way towards unraveling the mysteries of galaxy formation.”

In the end, this method could also be used to study other galaxies and determine which were the most massive mergers they underwent. This could allow scientists to better understand the complicated process that drives galaxy growth and how mergers affect galaxies. This knowledge will certainly come in handy when it comes to determining what will happen to our galaxy when it merges with Andromeda in a few billion years.

Further Reading: Michigan News

What is Galactic Cannibalism?

Galactic Cannibalism

Seattle, January, 2003. Two prestigious astronomers: Puragra GuhaThakurta of UCSC and David Reitzel of UCLA present some new findings to the American Astronomical Society that would seem to indicate that large spiral galaxies grow by gobbling up smaller satellite galaxies. Their evidence, a faint trail of stars in the nearby Andromeda galaxy that are thought to be a vast trail of debris left over from an ancient merger of Andromeda with another, smaller galaxy. This process, known as Galactic Cannibalism is a process whereby a large galaxy, through tidal gravitational interactions with a companion galaxy, merges with that companion, resulting in a larger galaxy.

The most common result of this process is an irregular galaxy of one form or another, although elliptical galaxies may also result. Several examples of this have been observed with the help of the Hubble telescope, which include the Whirlpool Galaxy, the Mice Galaxies, and the Antennae Galaxies, all of which appear to be in one phase or another of merging and cannibalising. However, this process is not to be confused with Galactic Collision which is a similar process where galaxies collide, but retain much of their original shape. In these cases, a smaller degree of momentum or a considerable discrepancy in the size of the two galaxies is responsible. In the former case, the galaxies cease moving after merging because they have no more momentum to spare; in the latter, the larger galaxies shape overtakes the smaller one and their appears to be little in the way of change.

All of this is consistent with the most current, hierarchical models of galaxy formation used by NASA, other space agencies and astronomers. In this model, galaxies are believed to grow by ingesting smaller, dwarf galaxies and the minihalos of dark matter that envelop them. In the process, some of these dwarf galaxies are shredded by the gravitational tidal forces when they travel too close to the center of the “host” galaxy’s enormous halo. This, in turn, leaves streams of stars behind, relics of the original event and one of the main pieces of evidence for this theory. It has also been suggested that galactic cannibalism is currently occurring between the Milky Way and the Large and Small Magellanic Clouds that exist beyond its borders. Streams of gravitationally-attracted hydrogen arcing from these dwarf galaxies to the Milky Way is taken as evidence for this theory.

As interesting as all of these finds are, they don’t exactly bode well for those of us who call the Milky Way galaxy, or any other galaxy for that matter, home! Given our proximity to the Andromeda Galaxy and its size – the largest galaxy of the Local Group, boasting over a trillion stars to our measly half a trillion – it is likely that our galaxy will someday collide with it. Given the sheer scale of the tidal gravitational forces involved, this process could prove disastrous for any and all life forms and planets that are currently occupy it!

We have written many articles about galactic cannibalism for Universe Today. Here’s an article about ancient galaxies feeding on gas, and here’s an article about an article, Galactic Ghosts Haunt Their Killers.

If you’d like more info on galaxies, check out Hubblesite’s News Releases on Galaxies, and here’s NASA’s Science Page on Galaxies.

We’ve also recorded an episode of Astronomy Cast about galaxies. Listen here, Episode 97: Galaxies.

Sources:
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Interacting_galaxy
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Andromeda_Galaxy
http://www1.ucsc.edu/currents/02-03/01-13/debris.html
http://blogs.physicstoday.org/update/2009/10/galactic-cannibalism.html
http://news.discovery.com/space/hubble-spiesz-aftermath-of-galactic-cannibalism.html