Tag Archives: spiral

Radio-optical overlay image of galaxy J1649+2635. Yellow is visible-light image; Blue is the radio image, indicating the presence of jets.

Credit: Mao et al., NRAO/AUI/NSF, Sloan Digital Sky Survey

Strange Galaxy Perplexes Astronomers

With the help of citizen scientists, a team of astronomers has found an important new example of a very rare type of galaxy that may yield valuable insight on how galaxies developed in the early Universe. The new discovery technique promises to give astronomers many more examples of this important and mysterious type of galaxy.

The galaxy they studied, named J1649+2635, nearly 800 million light-years from Earth, is a spiral galaxy, like our own Milky Way, but with prominent “jets” of subatomic particles propelled outward from its core at nearly the speed of light. The problem is that spiral galaxies are not supposed to have such large jets.

“The conventional wisdom is that such jets come only from elliptical galaxies that formed through the merger of spirals. We don’t know how spirals can have these large jets,” said Minnie Mao, of the National Radio Astronomy Observatory (NRAO).

Radio-optical overlay image of galaxy J1649+2635. Yellow is visible-light image; Blue is the radio image, indicating the presence of jets. Credit: Mao et al., NRAO/AUI/NSF, Sloan Digital Sky Survey
Radio-optical overlay image of galaxy J1649+2635. Yellow is visible-light image; Blue is the radio image, indicating the presence of jets.
Credit: Mao et al., NRAO/AUI/NSF, Sloan Digital Sky Survey

J1649+2635 is only the fourth jet-emitting spiral galaxy discovered so far. The first was found in 2003, when astronomers combined a radio-telescope image from the Karl G. Jansky Very Large Array (VLA) and a visible-light image of the same object from the Hubble Space Telescope. The second was revealed in 2011 by images from the Sloan Digital Sky Survey and the VLA, and the third, found earlier this year, also was discovered by combining radio and visible-light images.

“In order to figure out how these jets can be produced by the ‘wrong’ kind of galaxy, we realized we needed to find more of them,” Mao said.

To do that, the astronomers looked for help. That help came in the form of large collections of images from both radio and optical telescopes, and the hands-on assistance of volunteer citizen scientists. The volunteers are participants in an online project called the Galaxy Zoo, in which they look at images from the visible-light Sloan Digital Sky Survey and classify the galaxies as spiral, elliptical, or other types. Each galaxy image is inspected by multiple volunteers to ensure accuracy in the classification.

So far, more than 150,000 Galaxy Zoo participants have classified some 700,000 galaxies. Mao and her collaborators used a “superclean” subset of more than 65,000 galaxies, for which 95 percent of those viewing each galaxy’s image agreed on the classification. About 35,000 of those are spiral galaxies. J1649+2635 had been classified by 31 Galaxy Zoo volunteers, 30 of whom agreed that it is a spiral.

Next, the astronomers decided to cross-match the visible-light spirals with galaxies in a catalog that combines data from the NRAO VLA Sky Survey and the Faint Images of the Radio Sky at Twenty Centimeters survey, both done using the VLA. This job was done by Ryan Duffin, a University of Virginia undergraduate working as an NRAO summer student. Duffin’s cross-matching showed that J1649+2635 is both a spiral galaxy and has powerful twin radio jets.

“This is the first time that a galaxy was first identified as a spiral, then subsequently found to have large radio jets,” Duffin said. “It was exciting to make such a rare find,” he added.

Jets such as those seen coming from J1649+2635 are propelled by the gravitational energy of a supermassive black hole at the core of the galaxy. Material pulled toward the black hole forms a rapidly-rotating disk, and particles are accelerated outward along the poles of the disk. The collision that presumably forms an elliptical galaxy disrupts gas in the merging galaxies and provides “fuel” for the disk and acceleration mechanism. That same disruption, however, is expected to destroy any spiral structure as the galaxies merge into one.

J1649+2635 is unusual not only because of its jets, but also because it is the first example of a “grand design” spiral galaxy with a large “halo” of visible-light emission surrounding it. 

“This galaxy presents us with many mysteries. We want to know how it became such a strange beast,” Mao said. “Did it have a unique type of merger that preserved its spiral structure? Was it an elliptical that had another collision that made it re-grow spiral arms? Is its unique character the result of interaction with its environment?”

“We will study it further, but in addition, we need to see if there are more like it,” Mao said.

“We hope that with projects like the Galaxy Zoo and another called Radio Galaxy Zoo, those thousands of citizen scientists can help us find many more galaxies like this one so we can answer all our questions,” Mao said. Mao and her colleagues have dubbed these rare galaxies “Spiral DRAGNs,” an acronym for the technical description, “Double-lobed Radio sources Associated with Galactic Nuclei.”

Mao and Duffin worked with Frazer Owen, Emmanuel Momjian, and Mark Lacy, also of the NRAO; Bill Keel of the University of Alabama; Glenn Morrison of the University of Hawaii and the Canada-France-Hawaii Telescope; Tony Mroczkowski of the Naval Research Laboratory; Susan Neff of NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center; Ray Norris of CSIRO Astronomy and Space Science in Australia; Henrique Schmitt of the Naval Research Laboratory; and Vicki Toy and Sylvain Veilleux of the University of Maryland. The scientists are reporting their findings in theMonthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society. 

The National Radio Astronomy Observatory is a facility of the National Science Foundation, operated under cooperative agreement by Associated Universities, Inc.

Source: NRAO


The Party’s Over for These Youthful Compact Galaxies

Researchers using NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope and Chandra X-ray Observatory have uncovered young, massive, compact galaxies whose raucous star-making parties are ending early. The firestorm of star birth has blasted out most of the remaining gaseous fuel needed to make future generations of stars. Now the party’s over for these gas-starved galaxies, and they are on track to possibly becoming so-called “red and dead galaxies,” composed only of aging stars.

Astronomers have debated for decades how massive galaxies rapidly evolve from active star-forming machines to star-starved graveyards. Previous observations of these galaxies reveal geysers of gas shooting into space at up to 2 million miles an hour. Astronomers have suspected that powerful monster black holes lurking at the centers of the galaxies triggered the gaseous outflows and shut down star birth by blowing out any remaining fuel.

Now an analysis of 12 merging galaxies at the end of their star-birthing frenzy is showing that the stars themselves are turning out the lights on their own star-making party. This happened when the universe was half its current age of 13.7 billion years.

“Before our study, the common belief was that stars cannot drive high-velocity outflows in galaxies; only more powerful supermassive black holes can do that,” explained Paul Sell of Texas Tech University in Lubbock, lead author of a science paper describing the study’s results. “Through our analysis we found that if you have a compact enough starburst, which Hubble showed was the case with these galaxies, you can actually produce the velocities of the outflows we observed from the stars alone without needing to invoke the black hole.”

Team member Christy Tremonti of the University of Wisconsin-Madison first identified the galaxies from the Sloan Digital Sky Survey as post-starburst objects spouting high-speed gaseous fountains. The sharp visible-light views from Hubble’s Wide Field Camera 3 show that the outflows are arising from the most compact galaxies yet found. These galaxies contain as much mass as our Milky Way galaxy, but packed into a much smaller area. The smallest galaxies are about 650 light-years across.

In such small regions of space, these galaxies are forming a few hundred suns a year. (By comparison, the Milky Way makes only about one sun a year.) This makes for a rowdy party that wears itself out quickly, in only a few tens of millions of years. One reason for the stellar shutdown is that the gas rapidly heats up, becoming too hot to contract under gravity to form new stars. Another possibility is that the star-birthing frenzy blasts out most of the star-making gas via powerful stellar winds.

“The biggest surprise from Hubble was the realization that the newly formed stars were born so close together,” said team member Aleks Diamond-Stanic of the University of Wisconsin-Madison, who first suggested the possibility of starburst-driven outflows from these galaxies in a 2012 science paper. “The extreme physical conditions at the centers of these galaxies explain how they can expel gas at millions of miles per hour.”

To identify the mechanism triggering the high-velocity outflows, Sell and his team used the Chandra X-ray Observatory and other telescopes to determine whether the galaxies’ supermassive black holes (weighing up to a billion suns) were the powerhouses driving them. After analyzing all of the observations, the team concluded that the black holes were not the source of the outflows. Rather, it was the powerful stellar winds from the most massive and short-lived stars at the end of their lives, combined with their explosive deaths as supernovae.


Based on their analysis of the Hubble and Chandra data, team members suggest that the “party begins” when two gas-rich galaxies collide, funneling a torrent of cold gas into the merging galaxies’ compact center. The large amount of gas compressed into the small space ignites the birth of numerous stars. The energy from the stellar firestorm then blows out the leftover gas, quenching further star formation.

“If you stop the flow of cold gas to form stars, that’s it,” explained Sell, who conducted the research while a graduate student at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. “The stars stop forming, and the galaxy rapidly evolves and may eventually become a red, dead elliptical galaxy. These extreme starbursts are quite rare, however, so they may not grow into the typical giant elliptical galaxies seen in our nearby galactic neighborhood. They may, instead, be more compact.”

The team’s results were published in the July 11 edition of the Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society.

Source: Hubble Site