In 1926, famed astronomer Edwin Hubble developed his morphological classification scheme for galaxies. This method divided galaxies into three basic groups – Elliptical, Spiral and Lenticular – based on their shapes. Since then, astronomers have devoted considerable time and effort in an attempt to determine how galaxies have evolved over the course of billions of years to become these shapes.
One of th most widely-accepted theories is that galaxies changed by merging, where smaller clouds of stars – bound by mutual gravity – came together, altering the size and shape of a galaxy over time. However, a new study by an international team of researchers has revealed that galaxies could actually assumed their modern shapes through the formation of new stars within their centers.
This involved using ground-based telescopes to study 25 galaxies that were at a distance of about 11 billion light-years from Earth. At this distance, the team was seeing what these galaxies looked like 11 billion years ago, or roughly 3 billion years after the Big Bang. This early epoch coincides with a period of peak galaxy formation in the Universe, when the foundations of most galaxies were being formed. As Dr. Tadaki indicated in a NAOJ press release:
“Massive elliptical galaxies are believed to be formed from collisions of disk galaxies. But, it is uncertain whether all the elliptical galaxies have experienced galaxy collision. There may be an alternative path.”
Whereas the HST captured light from stars to discern the shape of the galaxies (as they existed 11 billion years ago), the ALMA array observed submillimeter waves emitted by the cold clouds of dust and gas – where new stars are being formed. By combining the two, they were able to complete a detailed picture of how these galaxies looked 11 billion years ago when their shapes were still evolving.
What they found was rather telling. The HST images indicated that early galaxies were dominated by a disk component, as opposed to the central bulge feature we’ve come to associate with spiral and lenticular galaxies. Meanwhile, the ALMA images showed that there were massive reservoirs of gas and dust near the centers of these galaxies, which coincided with a very high rate of star formation.
To rule out alternate possibility that this intense star formation was being caused by mergers, the team also used data from the European Southern Observatory’s Very Large Telescope (VLT) – located at the Paranal Observatory in Chile – to confirm that there were no indications of massive galaxy collisions taking place at the time. As Dr. Tadaki explained:
“Here, we obtained firm evidence that dense galactic cores can be formed without galaxy collisions. They can also be formed by intense star formation in the heart of the galaxy.”
These findings could lead astronomers to rethink their current theories about galactic evolution and howthey came to adopt features like a central bulge and spiral arms. It could also lead to a rethink of our models regarding cosmic evolution, not to mention the history of own galaxy. Who knows? It might even cause astronomers to rethink what might happen in a few billion years, when the Milky Way is set to collide with the Andromeda Galaxy.
As always, the further we probe into the Universe, the more it reveals. With every revelation that does not fit our expectations, our hypotheses are forced to undergo revision.
For the first time, astronomers are able to accurately simulate galaxies from shortly after the big bang to today by including a realistic treatment of the effects stars have on their host galaxies.
For the past few decades astronomers have simulated galaxies by mixing the basic physical ingredients — gravity, gas chemistry and the evolution of the universe — into their models.
For years their simulations have shown that gas cools off quickly and falls to the center of the galaxy. Eventually all of the gas forms stars. But observations show only “10 percent of the gas in the universe actually does so,” CalTech astronomer Dr. Philip Hopkins explained. “And in very small or very large galaxies, the number can go down to well below a percent.”
Models of galaxies create far too many stars and as a result end up weighing more than real galaxies in the observable universe. But in theory the solution is simple: the missing physics is a process known as stellar feedback.
For that, astronomers have to look at how stars help shape the evolution of the galaxies in which they reside. And what they have found is that stars affect their environments drastically.
When stars are very young they are extremely hot and blast off a high amount of radiation into space. This radiation heats up and pushes on the nearby interstellar gas. Later on stellar winds – particles streaming from the surface of stars — also push on the gas, further disrupting nearby star formation. Finally, explosions as supernovae can push the gas to nearly sonic speeds.
While astronomers have understood the missing physics for quite a while, they have not been able to successfully incorporate it a priori into their models. Despite their efforts their simulated galaxies have always weighed more than observed galaxies actually weigh.
Understanding the missing physics is a completely different question than being able to incorporate the missing physics directly into their models.
Instead, astronomers made big assumptions based on what galaxies should look like. At some point in their simulations, they had to go in by hand and tune certain parameters. They would get rid of so much gas until the results roughly matched the galaxies we observe.
“Basically, they (astronomers) said ‘we need there to be winds to explain the observations, so we’re going to insert those winds by hand into our models, and adjust the parameters until it looks like what’s observed,’ ” Hopkins told Universe Today.
At the time tuning their models in this way was the best astronomers could do and their models did help improve our understanding of galaxy evolution. But Hopkins and a team of astronomers from across North America have found a way to incorporate the missing physics — stellar feedback — directly into their models.
The research team is creating simulations that draw from stellar feedback explicitly. The FIRE (Feedback in Realistic Environments) project is a multi-year, multi-institution effort.
While it was no easy task, they incorporated the necessary and dare I say messy physics into their models, allowing for unprecedented accuracy. They tracked the affects radiation and stellar winds have on their environments and included a realistic supernovae rate.
“The result is that we see these stars pushing on the gas, and supernovae explosions sweeping up and ‘blowing out’ large amounts of material from galaxies,” Hopkins explained. “When you follow all of this, the story holds together, and indeed we can explain the observed masses of galaxies just from the input of stars.”
The results have been rewarding — providing some pretty cool videos of galaxies forming across the observable universe — and surprising.
It has become clear that the different types of stellar feedback don’t work alone. While the energy given off by stellar winds can push away interstellar gas, it cannot launch the gas out of the galaxy entirely. The necessary propulsion occurs, instead, when a supernova explosion happens nearby.
But this isn’t to say that supernova explosions play a larger role than stellar winds. If the authors left out any stellar feedback mechanism (the radiation from hot young stars, stellar winds, or supernova explosions) the results were equally poor — with too many stars and masses much too large.
“We’ve just begun to explore these new surprises, but we hope that these new tools will enable us to study a whole host of open questions in the field.”
The paper has been submitted for publication in the Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society and is available for download here.
Hopkins discusses the “Cosmological zoom-in simulation using new stellar feedback” at at workshop at the University of California, Santa Cruz earlier this year:
Night time blast off of 4 stage NASA Black Brant XII suborbital rocket at 11:05 p.m. EDT on June 5, 2013 from the NASA Wallops Flight Facility carrying the CIBER astronomy payload to study when the first stars and galaxies formed in the universe. The Black Brant soars above huge water tower at adjacent Antares rocket launch pad at NASA Wallops. Credit: Ken Kremer- kenkremer.com Updated with more photos[/caption]
WALLOPS ISLAND, VA – The spectacular night time launch of a powerful Black Brant XII suborbital rocket from NASA’s launch range at the Wallops Flight Facility on Virginia’s Eastern Shore at 11:05 p.m. June 5 turned darkness into day as the rocket swiftly streaked skyward with the Cosmic Infrared Background ExpeRiment (CIBER) on a NASA mission to shine a bright beacon for science on star and galaxy formation in the early Universe.
A very loud explosive boom shook the local launch area at ignition that was also heard by local residents and tourists at distances over 10 miles away, gleeful spectators told me.
“The data looks good so far,” Jamie Bock, CIBER principal investigator from the California Institute of Technology, told Universe Today in an exclusive post-launch interview inside Mission Control at NASA Wallops. “I’m very happy.”
The four stage Black Brant XII is the most powerful sounding rocket in America’s arsenal for scientific research.
“I’m absolutely thrilled with this launch and this is very important for Wallops,” William Wrobel, Director of NASA Wallops Flight Facility, told me in an exclusive interview moments after liftoff.
Wallops is rapidly ramping up launch activities this year with two types of powerful new medium class rockets – Antares and Minotaur V- that can loft heavy payloads to the International Space Station (ISS) and to interplanetary space from the newly built pad 0A and the upgraded, adjacent launch pad 0B.
“We have launched over 16,000 sounding rockets.”
“Soon we will be launching our first spacecraft to the moon, NASA’s LADEE orbiter. And we just launched the Antares test flight on April 21.”
I was delighted to witness the magnificent launch from less than half a mile away with a big group of cheering Wallops employees and Wallops Center Director Wrobel. See my launch photos and time lapse shot herein.
Everyone could hear piercing explosions as each stage of the Black Brant rocket ignited as it soared to the heavens to an altitude of some 358 miles above the Atlantic Ocean.
Seconds after liftoff we could see what looked like a rain of sparkling fireworks showing downward towards the launch pad. It was a fabulous shower of aluminum slag and spent ammonium perchlorate rocket fuel.
The awesome launch took place on a perfectly clear night drenched with brightly shining stars as the Atlantic Ocean waves relentlessly pounded the shore just a few hundred feet away.
The rocket zoomed past the prominent constellation Scorpius above the Atlantic Ocean.
In fact we were so close that we could hear the spent first stage as it was plummeting from the sky and smashed into the ocean, perhaps 10 miles away.
After completing its spectral collection to determine when did the first stars and galaxies form and how brightly did they shine burning their nuclear fuel, the CIBER payload splashed down in the Atlantic Ocean and was not recovered.
NASA said the launch was seen from as far away as central New Jersey, southwestern Pennsylvania and northeastern North Carolina.
One of my astronomy friends Joe Stieber, did see the launch from about 135 miles away in central New Jersey and captured beautiful time lapse shots (see below).
Everything with the rocket and payload went exactly as planned.
“This was our fourth and last flight of the CIBER payload,” Bock told me. “We are still analyzing data from the last 2 flights.”
“CIBER first flew in 2009 atop smaller sounding rockets launched from White Sands Missile Range, N.M. and was recovered.”
“On this flight we wanted to send the experiment higher than ever before to collect more measurements for a longer period of time to help determine the brightness of the early Universe.”
CIBER is instrumented with 2 cameras and 2 spectrometers.
“The payload had to be cooled to 84 Kelvin with liquid nitrogen before launch in order for us to make the measurements,” Bock told me.
“The launch was delayed a day from June 4 because of difficulty both in cooling the payload to the required temperature and in keeping the temperature fluctuations to less than 100 microkelvins,” Bock explained
The CIBER experiment involves scientists and funding from the US and NASA, Japan and South Korea.
Bock is already thinking about the next logical steps with a space based science satellite.
Space.com has now featured an album of my CIBER launch photos – here
And don’t forget to “Send Your Name to Mars” aboard NASA’s MAVEN orbiter- details here. Deadline: July 1, 2013
When did the first stars and galaxies form in the universe and how brightly did they burn?
Scientists are looking for tell-tale signs of galaxy formation with an experimental payload called CIBER.
NASA will briefly turn night into day near midnight along the mid-Atlantic coastline on June 4 – seeking answers to illuminate researchers theories about the beginnings of our Universe with the launch of the Cosmic Infrared Background ExpeRiment (CIBER) from NASA’s launch range at the Wallops Flight Facility along Virginia’s eastern shoreline. See viewing map below.
CIBER will blast off atop a powerful four stage Black Brant XII suborbital rocket at 11 PM EDT Tuesday night, June 4. The launch window extends until 11:59 PM EDT.
Currently the weather forecast is excellent.
The public is invited to observe the launch from an excellent viewing site at the NASA Visitor Center at Wallops which will open at 9:30 PM on launch day.
The night launch will be visible to spectators along a long swath of the US East coast from New Jersey to North Carolina; if the skies are clear as CIBER ascends to space to an altitude of over 350 miles and arcs over on a southeasterly trajectory.
Backup launch days are available from June 5 through 10.
“The objectives of the experiment are of fundamental importance for astrophysics: to probe the process of first galaxy formation. The measurement is extremely difficult technically,” said Jamie Bock, CIBER principal investigator from the California Institute of Technology
Over the past several decades more than 20,000 sounding rockets have blasted off from an array of launch pads at Wallops, which is NASA’s lead center for suborbital science.
The Black Brant XII sounding rocket is over 70 feet tall.
The launch pad sits adjacent to the newly constructed Pad 0A of the Virginia Spaceflight Authority from which the Orbital Sciences Antares rocket blasted off on its maiden flight on April 21, 2013.
“The first massive stars to form in the universe produced copious ultraviolet light that ionized gas from neutral hydrogen. CIBER observes in the near infrared, as the expansion of the universe stretched the original short ultraviolet wavelengths to long near-infrared wavelengths today.”
“CIBER investigates two telltale signatures of first star formation — the total brightness of the sky after subtracting all foregrounds, and a distinctive pattern of spatial variations,” according to Bock.
This will be the fourth launch of CIBER since 2009 but the first from Wallops. The three prior launches were all from the White Sands Missile Range, N.M. and in each case the payload was recovered and refurbished for reflight.
However the June 4 launch will also be the last hurrah for CIBER.
The scientists are using a more powerful Black Brant rocket to loft the payload far higher than ever before so that it can make measurements for more than twice as long as ever before.
The consequence of flying higher is that CIBER will splashdown in the Atlantic Ocean, about 400 miles off the Virgina shore and will not be recovered.
You can watch the launch live on NASA Ustream beginning at 10 p.m. on launch day at: http://www.ustream.com/channel/nasa-wallops
I will be onsite at Wallops for Universe Today.
And don’t forget to “Send Your Name to Mars” aboard NASA’s MAVEN orbiter- details here. Deadline: July 1, 2013
How disk galaxies form their spiral arms have been puzzling astrophysicists for almost as long as they have been observing them. With time, they have come to two conclusions… either this structure is caused by differences in gravity sculpting the gas, dust and stars into this familiar shape, or its just a random occurrence which comes and goes with time.
Now researchers are beginning to wrap their conclusions around findings based on new supercomputer simulations – simulations which involve the motion of up to 100 million “stellar particles” that mimic gravitational and astrophysical forces which shape them into natural spiral structure. The research team from the University of Wisconsin-Madison and the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics are excited about these conclusions and report the simulations may hold the essential clues of how spiral arms are formed.
“We show for the first time that stellar spiral arms are not transient features, as claimed for several decades,” says UW-Madison astrophysicist Elena D’Onghia, who led the new research along with Harvard colleagues Mark Vogelsberger and Lars Hernquist.
“The spiral arms are self-perpetuating, persistent, and surprisingly long lived,” adds Vogelsberger.
When it comes to spiral structure, it’s probably the most widely occurring of universal shapes. Our own Milky Way galaxy is considered to be a spiral galaxy and around 70% of the galaxies near to us are also spiral structured. When we think in a broader sense, just how many things take on this common formation? Whisking up dust with a broom causes particles to swirl into a spiral shape… draining water invokes a swirling pattern… weather formations go spiral. It’s a universal happening and it happens for a reason. Apparently that reason is gravity and something to perturb it. In the case of a galaxy, it’s a giant molecular cloud – the star-forming regions. Introduced into the simulation, the clouds, says D’Onghia, a UW-Madison professor of astronomy, act as “perturbers” and are enough to not only initiate the formation of spiral arms but to sustain them indefinitely.
“We find they are forming spiral arms,” explains D’Onghia. “Past theory held the arms would go away with the perturbations removed, but we see that (once formed) the arms self-perpetuate, even when the perturbations are removed. It proves that once the arms are generated through these clouds, they can exist on their own through (the influence of) gravity, even in the extreme when the perturbations are no longer there.”
So, what of companion galaxies? Can spiral structure be caused by proximity? The new research also takes that into account and models for “stand alone” galaxies as well. However, that’s not all the study included. According to Vogelsberger and Hernquist, the new computer-generated simulations are focusing on clarifying observational data. They are taking a closer look at the high-density molecular clouds and the “gravitationally induced holes in space” which act as ” the mechanisms that drive the formation of the characteristic arms of spiral galaxies.”
Until then, we know spiral structure isn’t just a chance happening and – to wrap things up – it’s probably the most common form of galaxy in our Universe.
Its name is SPECA – a Spiral-host Episodic radio galaxy tracing Cluster Accretion. That’s certainly a mouthful of words for this unusual galaxy, but there’s a lot more going on here than just its name. “This is probably the most exotic galaxy with a black hole, ever seen. It is like a ‘missing-link’ between present day and past galaxies. It has the potential to teach us new lessons about how galaxies and clusters of galaxies formed in the early Universe,” said Ananda Hota, of the Academia Sinica Institute of Astronomy and Astrophysics (ASIAA), in Taiwan and who discovered this exotic galaxy.
Located about 1.7 billion light-years from Earth, Speca is a radio source that contains a central supermassive black hole. As we have learned, galaxies of this type produce relativistic “jets” which are responsible for being bright at the radio frequencies, but that’s not all they create. While radio galaxies are generally elliptical, Speca is a spiral – reason behind is really unclear. As the relativistic jets surge with time, they create lobes of sub-atomic material at the outer edges which fan out as the material slows down… and Speca is one of only two galaxies so far discovered to show this type of recurrent jet activity. Normally it occurs once – and rarely twice – but here it has happened three times! We are looking at a unique opportunity to unravel the mysteries of the beginning phase of a black hole jet.
“Both elliptical and spiral galaxies have black holes, but Speca and another galaxy have been seen to produce large jets. It is also one of only two galaxies to show that such activity occurred in three separate episodes.” explains Sandeep Sirothia of NCRA-TIFR. “The reason behind this on-off activity of the black hole to produce jets is unknown. Such activities have not been reported earlier in spiral galaxies, which makes this new galaxy unique. It will help us learn new theories or change existing ones. We are now following the object and trying to analyse the activities.”
Dr. Hota and an international team of scientists reached their first conclusions while studying combined data from the visible-light Sloan Digital Sky Survey (SDSS) and the FIRST survey done with the Very Large Array (VLA) radio telescope. Here they discovered an unusually high rate of star formation where there should be none and they then confirmed their findings with ultraviolet data from NASA’s GALEX space telescope. Then the team dug even deeper with radio information obtained from the NRAO VLA Sky Survey (NVSS). At several hundred million years old, these outer lobes should be beyond their reproductive years… Yet, that wasn’t all. GMRT images displayed yet another, tiny lobe located just outside the stars at the edge of Speca in plasma that is just a few million years old.
“We think these old, relic lobes have been ‘re-lighted’ by shock waves from rapidly-moving material falling into the cluster of galaxies as the cluster continues to accrete matter,” said Ananda. “All these phenomena combined in one galaxy make Speca and its neighbours a valuable laboratory for studying how galaxies and clusters evolved billions of years ago.”
As you watch the above galaxy merger simulation created by Tiziana Di Matteo, Volker Springel, and Lars Hernquist, you are taking part in a visualization of two galaxies combining which both have central supermassive black holes and the gas distribution only. As they merge, you time travel over two billion years where the brightest hues indicate density while color denotes temperature. Such explosive process for the loss of gas is needed to understand how two colliding star-forming spiral galaxies can create an elliptical galaxy… a galaxy left with no fuel for future star formation. Outflow from the supernovae and central monster blackholes are the prime drivers of this galaxy evolution.
“Similarly, superfast jets from black holes are supposed to remove a large fraction of gas from a galaxy and stop further star formation. If the galaxy is gas-rich in the central region, and as the jet direction changes with time, it can have an adverse effect on the star formation history of a galaxy. Speca may have once been part of such a scenario. Where multiple jets have kicked out spiral arms from the galaxy. To understand such a process Dr Hota’s team has recently investigated NGC 3801 which has very young jet in very early-phase of hitting the host galaxy. Dust/PAH, HI and CO emission shows an extremely warped gas disk. HST data clearly showa outflow of heated-gas. This gas loss, as visualised in the video, has possibly caused the decline of star formation. However, the biggest blow from the monster’s jets are about to give the knock-down punch the galaxy.
“It seems, we observe this galaxy at a rare stage of its evolutionary sequence where post-merger star formation has already declined and new powerful jet feedback is about to affect the gaseous star forming outer disk within the next 10 million years to further transform it into a red-and-dead early-type galaxy.” Dr. Hota says.
The causes behind why present day radio galaxies do not contain a young star forming disks are not clear. Speca and NGC 3801 are ideal laboratories to understand black hole galaxy co-evolution processes.
Got a teenager? Then you know the story. Go to look for your favorite bag of chips and they’re gone. You eat one portion of meat and they need three. If you like those cookies, then you better have a darn good place to stash them. And, while you’re at it, their car needs gas. Apparently there’s a reason for the word “universal”, because teenage galaxies aren’t much different. Thanks to some new studies done by ESO’s Very Large Telescope, astronomers have been able to take a much closer look at adolescent galaxies and their “feeding habits” during their evolution. Some 3 to 5 billion years after the Big Bang they were happiest when just provided with gas, but later on they developed a voracious appetite… for smaller galaxies!
Scientists have long been aware that early galaxy structures were much smaller than the grand spirals and hefty ellipticals which fill the present Universe. However, figuring out exactly how galaxies put on weight – and where the bulk supply comes from – has remained an enigma. Now an international group of astronomers have taken on more than a hundred hours of observations taken with the VLT to help determine how gas-rich galaxies developed.
“Two different ways of growing galaxies are competing: violent merging events when larger galaxies eat smaller ones, or a smoother and continuous flow of gas onto galaxies.” explains team leader, Thierry Contini (IRAP, Toulouse, France). “Both can lead to lots of new stars being created.”
The undertaking is is MASSIV – the Mass Assembly Survey with the VIsible imaging Multi-Object Spectrograph, a powerful camera and spectrograph on the VLT. It’s incredible equipment used to measure distance and properties of the surveyed galaxies Not only did the survey observe in the near infrared, but also employed a integral field spectrograph and adaptive optics to refine the images. This enables astronomers to map inner galaxy movements and content, as well as leaving room for some very surprising results.
“For me, the biggest surprise was the discovery of many galaxies with no rotation of their gas. Such galaxies are not observed in the nearby Universe. None of the current theories predict these objects,” says Benoît Epinat, another member of the team.
“We also didn’t expect that so many of the young galaxies in the survey would have heavier elements concentrated in their outer parts — this is the exact opposite of what we see in galaxies today,” adds Thierry Contini.
These results point towards a major change during the galactic “teenage years”. At some time during the young Universe state, smooth gas flow was a considerable building block – but mergers would later play a more important role.
“To understand how galaxies grew and evolved we need to look at them in the greatest possible detail. The SINFONI instrument on ESO’s VLT is one of the most powerful tools in the world to dissect young and distant galaxies. It plays the same role that a microscope does for a biologist,” adds Thierry Contini.
The team plans on continuing to study these galaxies with future instruments on the VLT as well as using ALMA to study the cold gas in these galaxies. However, their work with gas isn’t the only “station” on the block. In a separate study led by Kate Rubin (Max Planck Institute for Astronomy), the Keck I telescope on Mauna Kea, Hawaii, has been used to examine gas associated with a hundred galaxies at distances between 5 and 8 billion light-years – the older teens. They have found initial evidence of gas flowing back into distant galaxies that are actively forming new stars.
Apparently, like a teenager with the munchies, matter finds its way into those galactic tummies. One feeding theory is an inflow from huge low-density gas reservoirs filling the intergalactic voids… another is huge cosmic matter cycle. While there is very little evidence to support either hypothesis, gases have been observed to flow away from some galaxies and may be moshed around by several different sources – such as supernovae events or peer pressure from gigantic stars.
“As this gas drifts away, it is pulled back by the galaxy’s gravity, and could re-enter the same galaxy in time scales of one to several billion years. This process might solve the mystery: the gas we find inside galaxies may only be about half of the raw material that ends up as fuel for star formation.” says Dr. Rubin. “Large amounts of gas are caught in transit, but will re-enter the galaxy in due time. Add up the galaxy’s gas and the gas currently undergoing cosmic recycling, and there is a sufficient amount of raw matter to account for the observed rates of star formation.”
It might very well be a case of cosmic recycling… but I’d feel safer hiding my cookies.
The sprawling northern constellation of Draco is home to a monumental galactic merger which left a singular spectacle – NGC 5907. Surrounded by an ethereal garment of wispy star trails and currents of stellar material, this spiral galaxy is the survivor of a “clash of the dragons” which may have occurred some 8 to 9 billion years ago. Recent theory suggests galaxies of this type may be the product of a larger galaxy encountering a smaller satellite – but this might not be the case. Not only is NGC 5907 a bit different in some respects, it’s a lot different in others… and peculiar motion is just the beginning.
“If the disc of many spirals is indeed rebuilt after a major merger, it is expected that tidal tails can be a fossil record and that there should be many loops and streams in their halos. Recently Martínez-Delgado et al. (2010) have conducted a pilot survey of isolated spiral galaxies in the Local Volume up to a low surface brightness sensitivity of ~28.5 mag/arcsec2 in V band. They find that many of these galaxies have loops or streams of various shapes and interpret these structures as evidence of minor merger or satellite infall.” says J. Wang of the Chinese Academy of Sciences. “However, if these loops are caused by minor mergers, the residual of the satellite core should be detected according to numerical simulations. Why is it hardly ever detected?”
The “why” is indeed the reason NGC 5907 is being intensively studied by a team of six scientists of the Observatoire de Paris, CNRS, Chinese Academy of Sciences, National Astronomical Observatories of China NAOC and Marseille Observatory. Even though NGC 5907 is a member of a galactic group, there are no galaxies near enough to it to be causing an interaction which could account for its streamers of stars. It is truly a warped galaxy with gaseous and stellar disks which extend beyond the nominal cut-off radius. But that’s not all… It also has a peculiar halo which includes a significant fraction of metal enriched stars. NGC 5907 just doesn’t fit the patterns.
“For some of our models, we assume a star formation history with a varying global efficiency in transforming gas to stars, in order to preserve enough gas from being consumed before fusion.” explains the research team. “Although this fine-tuned star formation history may have some physical motivations, its main role is also to ensure the formation of stars after the emergence of the gaseous disc just after fusion.”
Now enter the 32- and 196-core computers at the Paris Observatory center and the 680-core Graphic Processor Unit supercomputer of Beijing NAOC with the capability to run 50000 billion operations per second. By employing several state of the art, hydrodynamical, and numerical simulations with particle numbers ranging from 200 000 to 6 millions, the team’s goal was to show the structure of NGC 5907 may have been the result of the clash of two dragon-sized galaxies… or was it?
“The exceptional features of NGC 5907 can be reproduced, together with the central galaxy properties, especially if we compare the observed loops to the high-order loops expected in a major merger model.” says Wang. “Given the extremely large number of parameters, as well as the very numerous constraints provided by the observations, we cannot claim that we have already identified the exact and unique model of NGC 5907 and its halo properties. We nevertheless succeeded in reproducing the loop geometry, and a disc-dominated, almost bulge-less galaxy.”
In the meantime, major galaxy merger events will continue to be a top priority in formation research. “Future work will include modelling other nearby spiral galaxies with large and faint, extended features in their halos.” concludes the team. “These distant galaxies are likely similar to the progenitors, six billion years ago, of present-day spirals, and linking them together could provide another crucial test for the spiral rebuilding disc scenario.”
In as much time as it takes to give birth to human life, a supercomputer and a team of researchers at the University of California, Santa Cruz, and the Institute for Theoretical Physics in Zurich have given rise to the first simulation of the physics involved in galaxy formation that produced the Milky Way. They named their child Eris…
“Previous efforts to form a massive disk galaxy like the Milky Way had failed, because the simulated galaxies ended up with huge central bulges compared to the size of the disk,” said Javiera Guedes, who recently earned her Ph.D. in astronomy and astrophysics at UC Santa Cruz and is first author of a paper which has been accepted for publication in the Astrophysical Journal.
Like the Milky Way, Eris is a lovely barred spiral galaxy – her figure and star content as identical as modeling can make it. By studying our own galaxy and others like it, this simulation fits the mold from every angle. “We dissected the galaxy in many different ways to confirm that it fits with observations,” Guedes said.
And “seven sisters” were involved in the project, too. NASA’s state-of-the-art Pleiades supercomputer took on the task of 1.4 million processor-hours. But the calculations didn’t stop there. Simulations on supercomputers at UCSC and the Swiss National Supercomputing Center were involved, too. “We took some risk spending a huge amount of supercomputer time to simulate a single galaxy with extra-high resolution,” Madau said.
For over two decades, attempts at creating the evolution of a Milky Way type galaxy have been just outside the grasp of researchers. They just weren’t able to produce the proper shape, size and population to fit known properties. Thanks to this new breakthrough, support for the “cold dark matter” theory has predominated and the Big Bang theory supported. What gave Eris the edge? Try our now better understanding star formation.
“Star formation in real galaxies occurs in a clustered fashion, and to reproduce that out of a cosmological simulation is hard,” Madau said. “This is the first simulation that is able to resolve the high-density clouds of gas where star formation occurs, and the result is a Milky Way type of galaxy with a small bulge and a big disk. It shows that the cold dark matter scenario, where dark matter provides the scaffolding for galaxy formation, is able to generate realistic disk-dominated galaxies.”
Giving birth to Eris wasn’t an easy task. Through low-resolution simulations, researchers began assembling clumps of dark matter – shaping them into galactic halos. From there they selected information on a halo with similar mass and merger history to our own and “rewound the tape” to its infancy. By focusing on a small area, they were able to add additional particle information and step up the resolution.
“The simulation follows the interactions of more than 60 million particles of dark matter and gas. A lot of physics goes into the code–gravity and hydrodynamics, star formation and supernova explosions–and this is the highest resolution cosmological simulation ever done this way,” said Guedes, who is currently a postdoctoral researcher at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich (ETH Zurich).
What sets Eris apart from its predecessors is the ability to “see” in high resolution / high density. This allows for a more pragmatic approach to star formation and placement. It’s an important consideration, because supernova occur in high density regions and high resolution allows them to be taken into account.
“Supernovae produce outflows of gas from the inner part of the galaxy where it would otherwise form more stars and make a large bulge,” Madau said. “Clustered star formation and energy injection from supernovae are making the difference in this simulation.”
The large black holes that reside at the center of galaxies can be hungry beasts. As dust and gas are forced into the vicinity around the black holes, it crowds up and jostles together, emitting lots of heat and light. But what forces that gas and dust the last few light years into the maw of these supermassive black holes?
It has been theorized that mergers between galaxies disturbs the gas and dust in a galaxy, and forces the matter into the immediate neighborhood of the black hole. That is, until a recent study of 140 galaxies hosting Active Galactic Nuclei (AGN) – another name for active black holes at the center of galaxies – provided strong evidence that many of the galaxies containing these AGN show no signs of past mergers.
The study was performed by an international team of astronomers. Mauricio Cisternas of the Max Planck Institute for Astronomy and his team used data from 140 galaxies that were imaged by the XMM-Newton X-ray observatory. The galaxies they sampled had a redshift between z= 0.3 – 1, which means that they are between about 4 and 8 billion light-years away (and thus, the light we see from them is about 4-8 billion years old).
They didn’t just look at the images of the galaxies in question, though; a bias towards classifying those galaxies that show active nuclei to be more distorted from mergers might creep in. Rather, they created a “control group” of galaxies, using images of inactive galaxies from the same redshift as the AGN host galaxies. They took the images from the Cosmic Evolution Survey (COSMOS), a survey of a large region of the sky in multiple wavelengths of light. Since these galaxies were from the same redshift as the ones they wanted to study, they show the same stage in galactic evolution. In all, they had 1264 galaxies in their comparison sample.
The way they designed the study involved a tenet of science that is not normally used in the field of astronomy: the blind study. Cisternas and his team had 9 comparison galaxies – which didn’t contain AGN – of the same redshift for each of their 140 galaxies that showed signs of having an active nucleus.
What they did next was remove any sign of the bright active nucleus in the image. This means that the galaxies in their sample of 140 galaxies with AGN would essentially appear to even a trained eye as a galaxy without the telltale signs of an AGN. They then submitted the control galaxies and the altered AGN images to ten different astronomers, and asked them to classify them all as “distorted”, “moderately distorted”, or “not distorted”.
Since their sample size was pretty manageable, and the distortion in many of the galaxies would be too subtle for a computer to recognize, the pattern-seeking human brain was their image analysis tool of choice. This may sound familiar – something similar is being done with enormous success with people who are amateur galaxy classifiers at Galaxy Zoo.
When a galaxy merges with another galaxy, the merger distorts its shape in ways that are identifiable – it will warp a normally smooth elliptical galaxy out of shape, and if the galaxy is a spiral the arms seem to be a bit “unwound”. If it were the case that galactic mergers are the most likely cause of AGN, then those galaxies with an active nucleus would be more probable to show distortion from this past merger.
The team went through this process of blinding the study to eliminate any bias that those looking at the images would have towards classifying AGN as more distorted. By both having a reasonably large sample size of galaxies and removing any bias when analyzing the images, they hoped to definitively show whether the correlation between AGN and mergers exists.
The result? Those galaxies with an Active Galactic Nucleus did not show any more distortion on the whole than those galaxies in the comparison sample. As the authors state in the paper, “Mergers and interactions involving AGN hosts are not dominant, and occur no more frequently than for inactive galaxies.”
This means that astronomers can’t point towards galactic mergers as the main reason for AGN. The study showed that at least 75% of AGN creation – at least between the last 4-8 billion years – must be from sources other than galactic mergers. Likely candidates for these sources include: “galactic harrassment”, those galaxies that don’t collide, but come close enough to gravitationally influence each other; the instability of the central bar in a galaxy; or the collision of giant molecular clouds within the galaxy.
Knowing that AGN aren’t caused in large part by galactic mergers will help astronomers to better understand the formation and evolution of galaxies. The active nuclei in galaxies that host them greatly influence galactic formation. This process is called ‘AGN feedback’, and the mechanisms and effects that result from the interplay between the energy streaming out of the AGN and the surrounding material in the center of a galaxy is still a hot topic of study in astronomy.
Mergers in the more distant past than 8 billion years might yet correlate with AGN – this study only rules out a certain population of these galaxies – and this is a question that the team plans to take on next, pending surveys by the Hubble Space Telescope and the James Webb Space Telescope. Their study will be published in the January 10 issue of the Astrophysical Journal, and a pre-print version is available on Arxiv.