“Graveyards of the Universe” –Massive Dead Galaxies Observed (Today’s Most Popular)

 

 

Elliptical-galaxy-2

 

In the local universe, massive galaxies hosting more than about 100 billion stars are predominantly dead elliptical galaxies, that is, without any signs of star-formation activity. Many questions remain on when, how and for how long star formation occurred in such galaxies before the cessation of star formation, as well as what happened since to form the dead elliptical galaxies seen today.


This past September, an international team led by researchers at Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Z├╝rich observed massive dead galaxies in the universe 4 billion years after the Big Bang with the Subaru Telescope's Multi-Object InfraRed Camera and Spectrograph (MOIRCS),  the 8.2 metre flagship telescope of the National Astronomical Observatory of Japan, located at the Mauna Kea Observatory on Hawaii, named after the open star cluster, The Pleiades, shown below . They discovered that the stellar content of these galaxies is strikingly similar to that of massive elliptical galaxies. Furthermore, they identified progenitors of these dead galaxies when they were forming stars at an earlier cosmic epoch, unveiling the formation and evolution of massive galaxies across 11 billion years of cosmic time.

The research team made use of fossil records imprinted by stars in the spectra of distant dead galaxies which give important clues to their age, metal content, and element abundances. Local massive dead galaxies are about 10 billion years old and rich in heavy elements. Also, alpha-elements, which measure the duration of star formation, are more abundant than iron, indicating that these galaxies formed a large amount of stars in a very short period. The team investigated the stellar content of galaxies in the distant universe 4 billion years after the Big Bang, in order to study galaxy evolution much closer to their formation epoch.

 

 

MaunaKea_Subaru

 

 

The team took the advantage of the MOIRCS's capability to observe multiple objects simultaneously, efficiently observing a sample of 24 faint galaxies. They created a composite spectrum that would have taken 200 hours of Subaru Telescope's time for a single spectrum of comparable quality.

Analysis of the composite spectrum shows that the age of the galaxies is already 1 billion years old when observed 4 billion years after the Big Bang. They host 1.7 times more heavy elements relative to the amount of hydrogen and their alpha-elements are twice enhanced relative to iron than the solar values. It is the first time that the alpha-element abundance in stars is measured in such distant dead galaxies, and it tells us that the duration of star formation in these galaxies was shorter than 1 billion years. These results reveal that these massive dead galaxies have evolved to today without further star formation.

What do massive dead galaxies look like when they are forming stars? To answer this, the team investigated the progenitors of their sample based on their spectral analysis. The progenitors must be star-forming galaxies in the universe 1 billion years before the observed epoch for the dead galaxies. Indeed, they do find similarly massive star-forming galaxies at the right epoch and with the right star formation rate expected from the spectra. If these active galaxies continue to create stars at the same rate, they will immediately become more massive than seen in the present universe. Therefore, these galaxies will cease star formation soon and simply age.

The dead elliptical galaxy shown at the top of the page, full of dark lanes of gas, likely formed in the merger of two other galaxies. Elliptical galaxies host less (or no) star birth than spiral galaxies like the Milky Way.

The Daily Galaxy via National Institutes of Natural Sciences

Image credit: NASA, ESA and The Hubble Heritage Team (STScI/AURA)

"The Galaxy" in Your Inbox, Free, Daily