Image of the Day: A Galaxy Early in the History of the Universe

Makingstarss This image from a supercomputer simulation shows galaxy formation occurring early in the history of the universe. The simulation was performed by Fermilab's Nickolay Gnedin and the University of Chicago’s Andrey Kravtsov at the National Center for Supercomputing Applications in Urbana-Champaign. Yellow dots are young stars. Blue fog shows the neutral gas. The red surface indicates molecular gas. The starry background has been added for aesthetic effect.

Cosmic dust is the indispensable ingredient for making stars and for understanding how primordial diffuse gas clouds assemble themselves into full-blown galaxies.


"Formation of galaxies is one of the biggest remaining questions in astrophysics," said Andrey Kravtsov, associate professor in astronomy & astrophysics at the University of Chicago.

at early stages of evolution, galaxies were much less efficient in converting their gas into stars," Kravtsov said.

Stellar evolution leads to increasing abundance of dust, as stars produce elements heavier than helium, including carbon, oxygen, and iron, which are key elements in dust particles. "Early on, galaxies didn't have enough time to produce a lot of dust, and without dust it's very difficult to form these stellar nurseries," Kravtsov said. "They don't convert the gas as efficiently as galaxies today, which are already quite dusty."

The star-formation process begins when interstellar gas clouds become increasingly dense. At some point the hydrogen and helium atoms start combining to form molecules in certain cold regions of these clouds. A hydrogen molecule forms when two hydrogen atoms join. They do so inefficiently in empty space, but find each other more readily on the surface of a cosmic dust particle.

"The biggest particles of cosmic dust are like the smallest particles of sand on good beaches in Hawaii," Gnedin said.

These hydrogen molecules are fragile and easily destroyed by the intense ultraviolet light emitted from massive young stars. But in some galactic regions dark clouds, so-called because of the dust they contain, form a protective layer that protects the hydrogen molecules from the destructive light of other stars.

"I like to think about stars as being very bad parents, because they provide a bad environment for the next generation," Gnedin joked. The dust therefore provides a protective environment for stellar nurseries, Kravtsov noted.

"There is a simple connection between the presence of dust in this diffuse gas and its ability to form stars, and that's something that we modeled for the first time in these galaxy-formation simulations," Kravtsov said. "It's very plausible, but we don't know for sure that that's exactly what's happening."

The Gnedin-Kravtsov model also provides a natural explanation for why spiral galaxies predominately fill the sky today, and why small galaxies form stars slowly and inefficiently.

"We usually see very thin disks, and those types of systems are very difficult to form in galaxy-formation simulations," Kravtsov said.

That's because astrophysicists have assumed that galaxies formed gradually through a series of collisions. The problem: simulations show that when galaxies merge, they form spheroidal structures that look more elliptical than spiral.

But early in the history of the universe, cosmic gas clouds were inefficient at making stars, so they collided before star formation occurred. "Those types of mergers can create a thin disk," Kravtsov said.

As for small galaxies, their lack of dust production could account for their inefficient star formation. "All of these separate pieces of evidence that existed somehow all fell into one place," Gnedin observed. "That's what I like as a physicist because physics, in general, is an attempt to understand unifying principles behind different phenomena."

Casey Kazan via University of Chicago

Image Credit: Nick Gnedin

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