Galactic census reveals origin of most ‘extreme’ galaxies

  • A wide field view of the central region of the Virgo Cluster, measuring 4.4 million light years on each side, from the Sloan Digital Sky Survey. (Courtesy photo/Special to West Hawaii Today)

Astronomers have found that the key to understanding galaxies with “extreme” sizes, either small or large, may lie in their surroundings.

An international team of astronomers used data from the Canada-France-Hawaii Telescope (CFHT) on Maunakea to explore how a galaxy’s environment can influence a galaxy’s classification as an “ultra-compact” or “ultra-diffuse” galaxy. This research, recently published in the Astrophysical Journal, has led the team to speculate that these “extreme” objects could have started out resembling normal galaxies, but then evolved to have unusual sizes through interactions with neighboring galaxies.

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Astronomers discovered ultra-compact dwarf galaxies (UCDs) a quarter-century ago and they are the densest known galaxies in the Universe. Currently, competing theories describe UCDs either as large star clusters, or as the remnants of larger galaxies that have been stripped of their gas and outer stars.

Ultra-diffuse galaxies (UDGs) are a mystery at the other end of the size spectrum. They are much larger, and have a much lower concentration of stars, than typical galaxies with similar brightness. Some theories suggest that UDGs are massive galaxies whose gas — the fuel for their star formation — was removed before many stars could form. Others suggest that they were once normal galaxies that have been made more diffuse through mergers and interactions.

The team identified both ultra-compact and ultra-diffuse galaxies as part of an unprecedented census of galaxies residing in the nearby Virgo cluster. The investigation used data from the Next Generation Virgo Cluster Survey (NGVS) obtained at the CFHT using MegaCam, a wide-field, optical camera. At a distance of 50 million light years, Virgo is the galaxy cluster nearest to the Milky Way, and contains several thousand member galaxies, the majority of which are revealed, for the first time, in the NGVS data.

“We found hundreds of UCDs in the nearby Virgo galaxy cluster, and at least some of them appear to have started their lives as larger galaxies,” said Chengze Liu of Shanghai Jiao Tong University, lead author of the first study.

While UCDs are similar in appearance to a large star cluster, a number of UCDs in this study were found with faint stellar envelopes surrounding the central, compact core. These envelopes could be the last remnants of a galaxy that has gradually been stripped away by gravitational tidal forces from neighboring galaxies. Additionally, more UCDs were identified in regions of the Virgo cluster with the highest density of galaxies. Together, these pieces of evidence suggest that at least some of the UCDs found in dense environments formed through the transformation of normal galaxies.

Similarly, astronomers observed a greater concentration of UDGs in the galaxy packed core of the Virgo cluster.

“We found that the ultra-diffuse galaxies in the Virgo cluster are more concentrated toward the dense cluster core, indicating that a dense environment may be important for their formation,” said Sungsoon Lim of the University of Tampa, and the lead author of the second study. “The diversity in their properties suggest that while no single process has given rise to all objects within the UDG class, at least some UDGs have appearances suggesting their diffuse nature is due to tidal interactions or to the merger of low-mass galaxies.”

Another mystery is that some UDGs were found to contain significant populations of globular star clusters.

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“The intense star-forming events needed to make globular clusters generally make a galaxy less, rather than more diffuse, so understanding how we get globular clusters in ultra-diffuse galaxies is an interesting challenge,” said Professor Eric Peng of Peking University’s Kavli Institute for Astronomy and Astrophysics, and co-author on both studies.

“To find galaxies that are truly unusual, you first need to understand the properties of so-called normal galaxies,” said Dr. Patrick Cote of the National Research Council of Canada’s Herzberg Astronomy and Astrophysics Research Center, and an author on both studies. “NGVS provides the deepest, most complete look at the entirety of the Virgo cluster galaxy population, allowing us to find the most compact and most diffuse galaxies, advancing our understanding of how they fit into the general picture of galaxy formation.”

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