The Many Colors and Wavelengths of the Andromeda Galaxy

Andromeda is a beautiful galaxy to see with your own eyes, but in this video, ESA’s fleet of space telescopes — XMM Newton, Herschel, Planck and several ground-based telescopes — has captured M31, in different wavelengths, most of which are invisible to the eye. Each wavelength shows a different aspect of the galaxy’s nature, as well as providing a look at the lifecycle of the stars that make up Andromeda.
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Star Birth and Death in the Andromeda Galaxy

M31, or the Andromeda Galaxy seen in a variety of wavelengths by the Herschel and XMM-Newton space observatories. Credits: infrared: ESA/Herschel/PACS/SPIRE/J. Fritz, U. Gent; X-ray: ESA/XMM-Newton/EPIC/W. Pietsch, MPE; optical: R. Gendle


To the naked eye, the Andromeda galaxy appears as a smudge of light in the night sky. But to the combined powers of the Herschel and XMM-Newton space observatories, these new images put Andromeda in a new light! Together, the images provide some of the most detailed looks at the closest galaxy to our own. In infrared wavelengths, Herschel sees rings of star formation and XMM-Newton shows dying stars shining X-rays into space.

During Christmas 2010, the two ESA space observatories targeted Andromeda, a.k.a. M31.

Andromeda is about twice as big as the Milky Way but very similar in many ways. Both contain several hundred billion stars. Currently, Andromeda is about 2.2 million light years away from us but the gap is closing at 500,000 km/hour. The two galaxies are on a collision course! In about 3 billion years, the two galaxies will collide, and then over a span of 1 billion years or so after a very intricate gravitational dance, they will merge to form an elliptical galaxy.

Let’s look at each of the images:

Herschel’s view in far-infrared:

Andromeda in far-infrared from Herschel. Credits: ESA/Herschel/PACS/SPIRE/J. Fritz, U. Gent

Sensitive to far-infrared light, Herschel sees clouds of cool dust and gas where stars can form. Inside these clouds are many dusty cocoons containing forming stars, each star pulling itself together in a slow gravitational process that can last for hundreds of millions of years. Once a star reaches a high enough density, it will begin to shine at optical wavelengths. It will emerge from its birth cloud and become visible to ordinary telescopes.

Many galaxies are spiral in shape but Andromeda is interesting because it shows a large ring of dust about 75,000 light-years across encircling the center of the galaxy. Some astronomers speculate that this dust ring may have been formed in a recent collision with another galaxy. This new Herschel image reveals yet more intricate details, with at least five concentric rings of star-forming dust visible.

XMM Newton’s view in X-rays

XMM Newton's view in X-Ray. Credits: ESA/XMM-Newton/EPIC/W. Pietsch, MPE

Superimposed on the infrared image is an X-ray view taken almost simultaneously by ESA’s XMM-Newton observatory. Whereas the infrared shows the beginnings of star formation, X-rays usually show the endpoints of stellar evolution.

XMM-Newton highlights hundreds of X-ray sources within Andromeda, many of them clustered around the centre, where the stars are naturally found to be more crowded together. Some of these are shockwaves and debris rolling through space from exploded stars, others are pairs of stars locked in a gravitational fight to the death.

In these deadly embraces, one star has already died and is pulling gas from its still-living companion. As the gas falls through space, it heats up and gives off X-rays. The living star will eventually be greatly depleted, having much of its mass torn from it by the stronger gravity of its denser partner. As the stellar corpse wraps itself in this stolen gas, it could explode.

Together, the infrared and X-ray images show information that is impossible to collect from the ground because these wavelengths are absorbed by Earth’s atmosphere. Visible light shows us the adult stars, whereas infrared gives us the youngsters and X-rays show those in their death throes.

Where’s M31’s Thick Disc?

Within our own galaxy, the thick disc is a distinct population of stars that resides above and below the main (thin) disc. Its stars have a larger range of velocities, are generally older and more metal poor. While astronomers aren’t entirely sure how it formed (remnants of accretion of small galaxies or ejection from the thin disc), it’s certainly there and analogues have been observed in other galaxies, more than 10 megaparsecs away. If these thick discs are truly a product of mergers, then galaxies showing evidence of mergers in other regards should show the presence of this second population as well. Yet in the case of M31, the Andromeda galaxy, the closest major galaxy to our own, which is thought to have a rich merger history, traces of the thick disc have proved elusive. So where is it?

Part of the problem in finding this galactic component is the angle at which the galaxy is presented to us. The galaxies for which a thick disc component have been detected (aside from our own) all lie edge on. This makes the process of finding the thick component greatly simplified. Astronomers can use photometric systems designed for detecting different populations of stars (young vs. old) and observe the change in distribution. When galaxies are presented closer to face on, the projection of the thick component onto the thin makes the identification far more difficult. The Andromeda galaxy is somewhere in between these two extremes and makes an angle of 77° on the sky (where 90° is edge on).

Due to this difficulty, another method is necessary to search for this extended population. Since 2002, a team led by Michelle Collins of Cambridge university has been using the Keck II telescope to search for the expected disc. To do this, the team has been using spectroscopic observations of numerous red giant stars to determine if a specific sub-population can be found with thick disc characteristics. While a sub-population has been discovered before in M31, its velocity dispersion was too low, and the distribution was too closely tied to the classical thin disc to truly be considered the missing component. Instead, it is referred to as the “extended disc”.

But where others have failed, Collins’ team has prevailed. From her team’s study, a recent paper claims to have discovered the thick disc and with such a large sample, have made some interesting observations about its nature. The first is that M31’s thick disc is nearly three times as thick. Additionally, the average velocity of both the thin and thick discs are notably higher (thinM31 = 32.0 kms-1, thinMW = 20.0 kms-1; thickM31 = 45.7 kms-1, thickMW = 40.0 km-1). If the thick disc is indeed related to mergers, then this may indicate that M31 has undergone a more intensive period of recent interactions than our own galaxy. However, the team notes that, from their observations alone, they are unable to constrain the formation methods of this component. While other studies have shown that accretion and ejection each leave distinct fingerprints, the necessary components were not mapped in sufficient detail to distinguish between the two.

Stolen: Magellanic Clouds – Return to Andromeda

The Magellanic Clouds are an oddity. Their relative velocity is suspiciously close to the escape velocity of the Milky Way system making it somewhat difficult for them to have been formed as part of the system. Additionally, their direction of motion is nearly perpendicular to the disk of the galaxy and systems, especially ones as large as the Magellanic Clouds, should show more orientation to the plane if they formed along side. Their gas content is also notably different than other satellite galaxies of our galaxy. The combination of these features suggests to some, that the Magellanic Clouds aren’t native to the Milky Way and were instead intercepted.

But where did they come from? Although the suggestion is not entirely new, a recent paper, accepted to the Astrophysical Journal Letters, suggests they may have been captured after a past merger in the Andromeda Galaxy (M31).

To analyze this proposition, the researchers, Yang (from the Chinese Academy of Sciences) and Hammers (of the University of Paris, Diderot), conducted simulations backtracking the positions of the Magellanic Clouds. While this may sound straightforward, the process is anything but. Since galaxies are extended objects, their three dimensional shapes and mass profiles must be worked out extremely well to truly account for the path of motion. Additionally, the Andromeda galaxy is certainly moving and would have been in a different position that it is observed today. But exactly where was it when the Magellanic Clouds would have been expelled? This is an important question, but not easy to answer given that observing the proper motions of objects so far away is difficult.

But wait. There’s more! As always, there’s a significant amount of the mass that can’t be seen at all! The presence and distribution of dark matter would greatly have affected the trajectory of the expelled galaxies. Fortunately, our own galaxy seems to be in a fairly quiescent phase and other studies have suggested that dark matter halos would be mostly spherical unless perturbed. Furthermore, distant galaxy clusters such as the Virgo supercluster as well as the “Great Attractor” would have also played into the trajectories.

These uncertainties take what would be a fairly simple problem and turn it into a case in which the researchers were instead forced to explore the parameter space with a range of reasonable inputs to see which values worked. In doing so, the pair of astronomers concluded “it could be the case, within a reasonable range of parameters for both the Milky Way and M31.” If so, the clouds spent 4 – 8 billion years flying across intergalactic space before being caught by our own galaxy.

But could there be further evidence to support this? The authors note that if Andromeda underwent a merger event of such scale would likely have induced vast amounts of star formation. As such, we should expect to see an increase in numbers of stars with this age. The authors do not make any statements as to whether or not this is the case. Regardless, the hypothesis is interesting and reminds us how dynamic our universe can be.

M31’s Odd Rotation Curve

Early on in astronomical history, galactic rotation curves were expected to be simple; they should operate much like the solar system in which inner objects orbit faster and outer objects slower. To the surprise of many astronomers, when rotation curves were eventually worked out, they appeared mostly flat. The conclusion was that the mass we see was only a small fraction of the total mass and that a mysterious Dark Matter must be holding the galaxies together, forcing them to rotate more like a solid body.

Recent observations of the Andromeda Galaxy’s (M31) rotation curve has shown that there may yet be more to learn. In the outermost edges of the galaxy, the rotation rate has been shown to increase. And M31 isn’t alone. According to Noordermeer et al. (2007) “in some cases, such as UGC 2953, UGC 3993 or UGC 11670 there are indications that the rotation curves start to rise again at the outer edges of the HI discs.” A new paper by a team of Spanish astronomers attempts to explain this oddity.

Although many spiral galaxies have been discovered with the odd rising rotational velocities near their outer edges, Andromeda is both one of the most prominent and the closest. Detailed studies from Corbelli et al. (2010) and Chemin et al. (2009), mapped out the rise in HI gas, showing that the velocity increases some 50 km/s in the outer 7 kiloparsecs mapped. This makes up a significant fraction of the total radius given the studies extended to only ~38 kiloparsecs. While conventional models with Dark Matter are able to reproduce the rotational velocities of the inner portions of the galaxy, they have not explained this outer feature and instead predict that it should slowly fall off.

The new study, led by B. Ruiz-Granados and J.A. Rubino-Martin from the Instituto de Astrofisica de Canarias, attempts to explain this oddity using a force with which astronomers are very familiar: Magnetic fields. This force has been shown to decrease less rapidly than others over galactic distances and in particular, studies of M31’s magnetic field shows that it slowly changes angle with distance from the center of the galaxy. This slowly changing angle works in such a manner as to decrease the angle between the field and the direction of motion of particles within it. As a result, “the field becomes more tightly wound with increasing galactocentric distance” making the decrease in strength even slower.

Although galactic magnetic fields are weak by most standards, the sheer amount of matter they can affect and the charged nature of many gas clouds means that even weak fields may play an important role. M31’s magnetic field has been estimated to be ~4.6 microGauss. When a magnetic field with this value is added into the modeling equations, the team found that it greatly improved the fit of models to the observed rotation curve, matching the increase in rotational velocity.

The team notes that this finding is still speculative as the understanding of the magnetic fields at such distances is based solely on modeling. Although the magnetic field has been explored for the inner portions of the galaxy (roughly the inner 15 kiloparsecs), no direct measurement has yet been made in the regions in question. However, this model makes strict observational predictions which could be confirmed by future missions LOFAR and SKA.

Andromeda’s Unstable Black Hole

The Andromeda galaxy as seen in optical light, and Chandra's X-ray vision of the changing supermassive black hole in Andromeda's heart. Image Credit: X-Ray NASA/CXC/SAO/Li et al.), Optical (DSS)


The Andromeda galaxy, the closest spiral galaxy to our own Milky Way, has a supermassive blackhole at the center of it much like other galaxies. Because of its proximity to us, Andromeda – or M31 – is an excellent place to study just how the supermassive black holes in the centers of galaxies consume material to grow, and interact gravitationally with the surrounding material.

Over the course of the last ten years, NASA’s Chandra X-Ray observatory has monitored closely the supermassive black hole at Andromeda’s heart. This long-term data set gives astronomers a very nuanced picture of just how these monstrous black holes change over time. Zhiyuan Li of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics (CfA) presented results of this decade-long observation of the black hole at the 216th American Astronomical Society meeting in Miami, Florida this week.

From 1999 to 2006, M31 was relatively quiet and dim. In January of 2006, though, the black hole in the center of Andromeda suddenly brightened by over 100 times, and has remained 10 times as bright since. This suggests that the black hole swallowed something massive, but the details of the outburst in 2006 remain unclear.

The black hole in M31, located in the Andromeda constellation, likely continues to feed off of the stellar winds of a nearby star or the material in a large gas cloud that is falling into the black hole. As material is consumed, it drives the productions of X-rays in a relativistic jet streaming out from the black hole, which are then picked up by Chandra’s X-ray eyes.

The black hole in M31 is 10 to 100,000 times dimmer than expected, given that it has a large reservoir of gas surrounding it.

“The black holes in both Andromeda and the Milky Way are incredibly feeble. These two ‘anti-quasars’ provide special laboratories for us to study some of the dimmest type of accretion even seen onto a supermassive black hole,” Li said.

Accretion of matter into supermassive black holes is important to study because the evolution of galaxies is influenced by this process, Li said. The gravitational interplay of the black hole with the surrounding material in a galaxy, as well as the energy released when such supermassive black holes consume material in their surrounding accretion disks, change the structure of the galaxy as it forms. A better understanding of just how these supermassive black holes act in the later stages of spiral galaxy life may give clues as to what astronomers can expect to see in other galaxies.

M31 is readily seen with the naked eye in the constellation Andromeda, and is breathtaking to see through a telescope or binoculars. You won’t be able to see the black hole at its center, however! For more information on observing Andromeda, see our Guide to Space article on M31.

Source: Eurekalert

Andromeda’s Double Nucleus – Explained at Last?

M31's nucleus (Credit: WF/PC, Hubble Space Telescope)

In 1993, the Hubble Space Telescope snapped a close-up of the nucleus of the Andromeda galaxy, M31, and found that it is double.

In the 15+ years since, dozens of papers have been written about it, with titles like The stellar population of the decoupled nucleus in M 31, Accretion Processes in the Nucleus of M31, and The Origin of the Young Stars in the Nucleus of M31.

And now there’s a paper which seems, at last, to explain the observations; the cause is, apparently, a complex interplay of gravity, angular motion, and star formation.

It is now reasonably well-understood how supermassive black holes (SMBHs), found in the nuclei of all normal galaxies, can snack on stars, gas, and dust which comes within about a third of a light-year (magnetic fields do a great job of shedding the angular momentum of this ordinary, baryonic matter).

Also, disturbances from collisions with other galaxies and the gravitational interactions of matter within the galaxy can easily bring gas to distances of about 10 to 100 parsecs (30 to 300 light years) from a SMBH.

However, how does the SMBH snare baryonic matter that’s between a tenth of a parsec and ~10 parsecs away? Why doesn’t matter just form more-or-less stable orbits at these distances? After all, the local magnetic fields are too weak to make changes (except over very long timescales), and collisions and close encounters too rare (these certainly work over timescales of ~billions of years, as evidenced by the distributions of stars in globular clusters).

That’s where new simulations by Philip Hopkins and Eliot Quataert, both of the University of California, Berkeley, come into play. Their computer models show that at these intermediate distances, gas and stars form separate, lopsided disks that are off-center with respect to the black hole. The two disks are tilted with respect to one another, allowing the stars to exert a drag on the gas that slows its swirling motion and brings it closer to the black hole.

The new work is theoretical; however, Hopkins and Quataert note that several galaxies seem to have lopsided disks of elderly stars, lopsided with respect to the SMBH. And the best-studied of these is in M31.

Hopkins and Quataert now suggest that these old, off-center disks are the fossils of the stellar disks generated by their models. In their youth, such disks helped drive gas into black holes, they say.

The new study “is interesting in that it may explain such oddball [stellar disks] by a common mechanism which has larger implications, such as fueling supermassive black holes,” says Tod Lauer of the National Optical Astronomy Observatory in Tucson. “The fun part of their work,” he adds, is that it unifies “the very large-scale black hole energetics and fueling with the small scale.” Off-center stellar disks are difficult to observe because they lie relatively close to the brilliant fireworks generated by supermassive black holes. But searching for such disks could become a new strategy for hunting supermassive black holes in galaxies not known to house them, Hopkins says.

Sources: ScienceNews, “The Nuclear Stellar Disk in Andromeda: A Fossil from the Era of Black Hole Growth”, Hopkins, Quataert, to be published in MNRAS (arXiv preprint), AGN Fueling: Movies.

Death in the Sky: M31 Shreds its Satellites

False-color map of the density of red giants in M31 (Star count map credit: Mikito Tanaka, Tohoku University)

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.