Supermassive Black Holes Shut Down Star Formation

The Cigar Galaxy (M82), which is a starburst galaxy with high star production. Credit: NASA, ESA and the Hubble Heritage Team (STScI/AURA)

One of the key aspects of galactic evolution is star production. On a basic level, stars form within a galaxy’s gas and dust all the time, and where they form can help determine a galaxy’s shape and size. But there seems to be a sweet point when star production in a galaxy is particularly strong. Galaxies often have a period of rapid star production which then drops off. Astronomers are still trying to understand what causes this drop-off.

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The Milky Way’s Most Recent Meal was a Galaxy it Gobbled up 8-10 Billion Years ago

Gaia-Enceladus in a simulation of a galactic merger with the Milky Way matching Gaia data. Credit: ESA (artist’s impression and composition); Koppelman, Villalobos and Helmi (simulation)

A central aspect of galactic evolution is that they must eat or be eaten. Dark energy strives to push galaxies apart, but gravity tries to pull them together. As a result, galaxies tend to form into local groups. As these superclusters of galaxies become more isolated due to cosmic expansion, they gravitationally turn on each other, and in time the largest galaxies of the group will consume the smaller ones. The Milky Way is one of the larger galaxies in our local group, and so it has consumed smaller galaxies in the past. But piecing together the history of these galactic meals is a real challenge.

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The Milky Way Hasn’t Been Evenly Mixed

Artist impression: Clouds and streams of cosmic pristine gas (magenta) accrete onto the Milky Way, but this gas does not efficiently mix in the Galactic disk, as highlighted for the Solar neighborhood (zoom-in). © Dr Mark A. Garlick

Gas from the intergalactic medium constantly rains down on galaxies, fueling continued star formation. New research has shown that this gas is not evenly mixed, and stars are not equal across the galaxy. This result means that solar systems are not the same within the Milky Way.

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Supermassive Black Hole Winds Were Already Blowing Less Than a Billion Years After the Big Bang

Artist’s impression of a galactic wind driven by a supermassive black hole located in the center of a galaxy. Credit: ALMA (ESO/NAOJ/NRAO)

At the heart of most galaxies is a supermassive black hole. These beasts of gravity can play a crucial role in the formation and evolution of their galaxy. But astronomers still don’t fully understand when the influence of black holes becomes significant. Did large black holes form early in the universe, causing galaxies to form around them? Or did black holes grow after its primordial galaxy had begun to form? You might call this the chicken or egg problem. But a recent study suggests that galaxies and their supermassive black holes can have a mutual interaction that allows them to co-evolve.

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Nearby Ancient Dwarf Galaxies Have a Surprising Amount of Dark Matter

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)

Around the Milky Way, there are literally dozens of dwarf galaxies that continue to be slowly absorbed into our own. These galaxies are a major source of interest for astronomers because they can teach us a great deal about cosmic evolution, like how smaller galaxies merged over time to create larger structures. Since they are thought to be relics of the very first galaxies in the Universe, they are also akin to “galactic fossils.”

Recently, a team of astrophysicists from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) observed one of the most ancient of these galaxies (Tucana II) and noticed something unexpected. At the edge of the galaxy, they observed stars in a configuration that suggest that Tucana II has an extended Dark Matter halo. These findings imply that the most ancient galaxies in the Universe had more Dark Matter than previously thought.

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Some of the Milky Way’s oldest stars aren’t where they’re expected to be

Representation of the orbit of the star 232121.57-160505.4. Credit: Cordoni, et al

One of the ways we categorize stars is by their metallicity. That is the fraction of heavier elements a star has compared to hydrogen and helium. It’s a useful metric because the metallicity of a star is a good measure of its age.

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7% of the Stars in the Milky Way’s Center Came From a Single Globular Cluster That Got Too Close and Was Broken Up

Central region of the Milky Way in infrared light. With this image, NASA's Spitzer Space Telescope has photographed the inner 890 x 640 light years of the Milky Way. The nuclear star cluster is located in a small area near the central massive black hole. The extended structures in the image are mostly clouds of gas and dust from the spiral arms of the Milky Way, which lie in the line of sight between Earth and the Galactic Centre. Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/S. Stolovy (Spitzer Science Center/Caltech)

The heart of the Milky Way can be a mysterious place. A gigantic black hole resides there, and it’s surrounded by a retinue of stars that astronomers call a Nuclear Star Cluster (NSC). The NSC is one of the densest populations of stars in the Universe. There are about 20 million stars in the innermost 26 light years of the galaxy.

New research shows that about 7% of the stars in the NSC came from a single source: a globular cluster of stars that fell into the Milky Way between 3 and 5 billion years ago.

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What Shuts Down a Galaxy’s Star Formation?

Artist impression of 14 galaxies detected by ALMA as they appear in the very early, very distant universe. These galaxies are in the process of merging and will eventually form the core of a massive galaxy cluster. Credit: NRAO/AUI/NSF; S. Dagnello

In the 1920s, Edwin Hubble studied hundreds of galaxies. He found that they tended to fall into a few broad types. Some contained elegant spirals of bright stars, while others were spherical or elliptical with little or no internal structure. In 1926 he developed a classification scheme for galaxies, now known as Hubble’s Tuning Fork.

Hubble’s tuning fork diagram for galaxies. Credit: Edwin Hubble

When you look at Hubble’s scheme, it suggests an evolution of galaxies, beginning as an elliptical galaxy, then flattening and shifting into a spiral galaxy. While many saw this as a reasonable model, Hubble cautioned against jumping to conclusions. We now know ellipticals do not evolve into spirals, and the evolution of galaxies is complex. But Hubble’s scheme marks the beginning of the attempt to understand how galaxies grow, live, and die.

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Searching for the End of the Universe’s “Dark Age”

A ‘radio colour’ view of the sky above the Murchison Widefield Array radio telescope, part of the International Centre for Radio Astronomy Research (ICRAC). Credit: Radio image by Natasha Hurley-Walker (ICRAR/Curtin) and the GLEAM Team. MWA tile and landscape Credit: ICRAR/Dr John Goldsmith/Celestial Visions

According to the most widely accepted cosmological theories, the first stars in the Universe formed a few hundred million years after the Big Bang. Unfortunately, astronomers have been unable to “see” them since their emergence coincided during the cosmological period known as the “Dark Ages.” During this period, which ended about 13 billion years ago, clouds of gas filled the Universe that obscured visible and infrared light.

However, astronomers have learned that light from this era can be detected as faint radio signals. It’s for this reason that radio telescopes like the Murchison Widefield Array (MWA) were built. Using data obtained by this array last year, an international team of researchers is scouring the most precise radio data to date from the early Universe in an attempt to see exactly when the cosmic “Dark Ages” ended.

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