Tag Archives: galaxy

Is our Milky Way galaxy a zombie, already dead and we don’t know it?

Like a zombie, the Milky Way galaxy may already be dead but it still keeps going. Our galactic neighbor Andromeda almost certainly expired a few billion years ago, but only recently started showing outward signs of its demise.

Galaxies seem to be able to “perish” – that is, stop turning gas into new stars – via two very different pathways, driven by very different processes. Galaxies like the Milky Way and Andromeda do so very, very slowly over billions of years.

How and why galaxies “quench” their star formation and change their morphology, or shape, is one of the big questions in extragalactic astrophysics. We may now be on the brink of being able to piece together how it happens. And part of the thanks goes to citizen scientists who combed through millions of galactic images to classify what’s out there.

Galaxies grow by making new stars

Galaxies are dynamic systems that continually accrete gas and convert some of it into stars.

Like people, galaxies need food. In the case of galaxies, that “food” is a supply of fresh hydrogen gas from the cosmic web, the filaments and halos of dark matter that make up the largest structures in the universe. As this gas cools and falls into dark matter halos, it turns into a disk that then can cool even further and eventually fragment into stars.

As stars age and die, they can return some of that gas back into the galaxy either via winds from stars or by going supernova. As massive stars die in such explosions, they heat the gas around them and prevent it from cooling down quite so fast. They provide what astronomers call “feedback”: star formation in galaxies is thus a self-regulated process. The heat from dying stars means cosmic gas doesn’t cool into new stars as readily, which ultimately puts a brake on how many new stars can form.

Most of these star-forming galaxies are disk- or spiral-shaped, like our Milky Way.

Left: a spiral galaxy ablaze in the blue light of young stars from ongoing star formation; right: an elliptical galaxy bathed in the red light of old stars.
Sloan Digital Sky Survey, CC BY-NC

But there’s another kind of galaxy that has a very different shape, or morphology, in astronomer-parlance. These massive elliptical galaxies tend to look spheroidal or football-shaped. They’re not nearly so active – they’ve lost their supply of gas and therefore have ceased forming new stars. Their stars move on far more unordered orbits, giving them their bulkier, rounder shape.

These elliptical galaxies differ in two major ways: they no longer form stars and they have a different shape. Something pretty dramatic must have happened to them to produce such profound changes. What?

Blue=young and red=old?

The basic division of galaxies into star-forming spiral galaxies blazing in the blue light of massive, young and short-lived stars, on the one hand, and quiescent ellipticals bathed in the warm glow of ancient low-mass stars, on the other, goes back to early galaxy surveys of the 20th century.

But, once modern surveys like the Sloan Digital Sky Survey (SDSS) began to record hundreds of thousands of galaxies, objects started emerging that didn’t quite fit into those two broad categories.

A significant number of red, quiescent galaxies aren’t elliptical in shape at all, but retain roughly a disk shape. Somehow, these galaxies stopped forming stars without dramatically changing their structure.

At the same time, blue elliptical galaxies started to surface. Their structure is similar to that of “red and dead” ellipticals, but they shine in the bright blue light of young stars, indicating that star formation is still ongoing in them.

How do these two oddballs – the red spirals and the blue ellipticals – fit into our picture of galaxy evolution?

Galaxy Zoo allows citizen scientists to classify galaxies.
Screenshot by Kevin Schawinski, CC BY-ND

Send in the citizen scientists

As a graduate student in Oxford, I was looking for some of these oddball galaxies. I was particularly interested in the blue ellipticals and any clues they contained about the formation of elliptical galaxies in general.

At one point, I spent a whole week going through almost 50,000 galaxies from SDSS by eye, as none of the available algorithms for classifying galaxy shape was as good as I needed it to be. I found quite a few blue ellipticals, but the value of classifying all of the roughly one million galaxies in SDSS with human eyes quickly became apparent. Of course, going through a million galaxies by myself wasn’t possible.

A short time later, a group of collaborators and I launched galaxyzoo.org and invited members of the public – citizen scientists – to participate in astrophysics research. When you logged on to Galaxy Zoo, you’d be shown an image of a galaxy and a set of buttons corresponding to possible classifications, and a tutorial to help you recognize the different classes.

By the time we stopped recording classifications from a quarter-million people, each of the one million galaxies on Galaxy Zoo had been classified over 70 times, giving me reliable, human classifications of galaxy shape, including a measure of uncertainty. Did 65 out of 70 citizen scientists agree that this galaxy is an elliptical? Good! If there’s no agreement at all, that’s information too.

Tapping into the “wisdom of the crowd” effect coupled with the unparalleled human ability for pattern recognition helped sort through a million galaxies and unearthed many of the less common blue ellipticals and red spirals for us to study.

The galaxy color-mass diagram. Blue, star-forming galaxies are at the bottom, in the blue cloud. Red, quiescent galaxies are at the top, in the red sequence. The ‘green valley’ is the transition zone in between.
Schawinski+14, CC BY-ND

Unwittingly living in the green valley?

The crossroads of galaxy evolution is a place called the “green valley.” This may sound scenic, but refers to the population between the blue star-forming galaxies (the “blue cloud”) and the red, passively evolving galaxies (the “red sequence”). Galaxies with “green” or intermediate colors should be those galaxies in which star formation is in the process of turning off, but which still have some ongoing star formation – indicating the process only shut down a short while ago, perhaps a few hundred million years.

As a curious aside, the origin of the term “green valley” may actually go back to a talk given at the University of Arizona on galaxy evolution where, when the speaker described the galaxy color-mass diagram, a member of the audience called out: “the green valley, where galaxies go to die!” Green Valley, Arizona, is a retirement community just outside of the university’s hometown, Tucson.

For our project, the really exciting moment came when we looked at the rate at which various galaxies were dying. We found the slowly dying ones are the spirals and the rapidly dying ones are the ellipticals. There must be two fundamentally different evolutionary pathways that lead to quenching in galaxies. When we explored these two scenarios – dying slowly, and dying quickly – it became obvious that these two pathways have to be tied to the gas supply that fuels star formation in the first place.

Imagine a spiral galaxy like our own Milky Way merrily converting gas to stars as new gas keeps flowing in. Then something happens that turns off that supply of fresh outside gas: perhaps the galaxy fell into a massive cluster of galaxies where the hot intra-cluster gas cuts off fresh gas from the outside, or perhaps the dark matter halo of the galaxy grew so much that gas falling into it gets shock heated to such a high temperature that it cannot cool down within the age of the universe. In any case, the spiral galaxy is now left with just the gas it has in its reservoir.

Since these reservoirs can be enormous, and the conversion of gas to stars is a very slow process, our spiral galaxy could go on for quite a while looking “alive” with new stars, while the actual rate of star formation declines over several billion years. The glacial slowness of using up the remaining gas reservoir means that by the time we realize that a galaxy is in terminal decline, the “trigger moment” occurred billions of years ago.

A Hubble image of part of the Andromeda galaxy, which like our Milky Way may be a galactic zombie.
NASA, ESA, J. Dalcanton, B.F. Williams and L.C. Johnson (University of Washington), the PHAT team, and R. Gendler, CC BY

The Andromeda galaxy, our nearest massive spiral galaxy, is in the green valley and likely began its decline eons ago: it is a zombie galaxy, according to our latest research. It’s dead, but keeps on moving, still producing stars, but at a diminished rate compared to what it should if it were still a normal star-forming galaxy. Working out whether the Milky Way is in the green valley – in the process of shutting down – is much more challenging, as we are in the Milky Way and cannot easily measure its integrated properties the way we can for distant galaxies.

Even with the more uncertain data, it looks like the Milky Way is just at the edge, ready to tumble into the green valley. It’s entirely possible that the Milky Way galaxy is a zombie, having died a billion years ago.

The Conversation

Kevin Schawinski, Assistant Professor of Galaxy & Black Hole Astrophysics, Swiss Federal Institute of Technology Zurich

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Our solar system’s water may actually be older than the sun

A study of the ancient molecular clouds throughout our galaxy, has revealed that water, the compound necessary for sustaining life as we know it, has been around much longer than we realized. In fact, the earliest reservoirs in the universe may have appeared as soon as one billion years after the Big Bang event.

The biggest mystery with the formation of water, however, is how a molecule consisting of two hydrogen atoms and an oxygen atom would have existed in the early universe, as element weighing more than helium are the products of stars, formed within their cores many ages after the Big Bang occurred.

The earliest stars in the known universe would not only have to form, but would take substantial amounts of time to afterwards mature and die. Therefore the heavier elements like oxygen would take centuries before rising from the furnace of these stars by means of stellar winds and through supernovae events (the death of a star), which would take place eons after. Considering the entire life cycles of stars, alongside the fact that an ever expanding universe which the Big Bang model requires would imply that it took time for the oxygen atoms to be released in sufficient numbers throughout the universe, have all contributed to astronomer suspicions that the molecular bonds necessary for water did not come into existence until rather late in the history of the cosmos.

The new research, which was published this week through the journal Astrophysical Journal Letters, suggests that the wait for the earliest water in the universe was not nearly as long. In fact, not only were there molecules, but probably a heavy abundance of water only a billion years after the universe was born.

“We looked at the chemistry within young molecular clouds containing a thousand times less oxygen than our sun. To our surprise, we found we can get as much water vapor as we see in our own galaxy,” said Avi Loeb, an astrophysicist from the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics (CfA) in Massachusetts.

The first stars which came to existence in the 100 million years following the Big Bang were gigantic and unstable. Of gaseous materials, these early stars rapidly burnt out their supply of hydrogen fuel, before exploding in the supernovae phase – explosive events of radiation that can be seen across galaxies. These cosmic explosions unleashed heavier elements into the universe. What resulted were extensive pockets of gasses rich with the heavy elements. Of course, by comparison to the modern Milky Way Galaxy, these early gas clouds that formed after the explosion were still rather poor in oxygen.

Even with such low levels of oxygen, the overall environment at the time was rather suitable for “cooking” water molecules – providing the spark necessary for hydrogen and oxygen to bond. Temperatures of 80 degrees Fahrenheit were rather ideal for combining what oxygen that happened to exist with the plentiful number of hydrogen atoms.

“These temperatures are likely because the universe then was warmer than today and the gas was unable to cool effectively,” said the study’s co-investigator Shmuel Bialy of Tel Aviv University.

“The glow of the cosmic microwave background was hotter, and gas densities were higher,” added Amiel Sternberg, another co-author who is also from Tel Aviv University.

The early days of our universe’s history were far from the in place to be, as an abundance of these young stars would actively unleash a great deal of powerful ultraviolet radiation strong enough to rip apart the newly-formed water molecules. After several million years of water production, however, the destructive impact given off by the ultraviolet light would eventually while the resulting water formation would then continue to accelerate, producing a wealth of organic molecules that can even be seen throughout our own solar system.

The new study has only focused on how water formation occurs in the gaseous phase, without taking into consideration liquid water or ice, the predominant form in which it occurs throughout our galaxy, encrusting a number of moons and planets.

This surprising discovery suggests that even within the first billion years of our universe, there was quite a nurturing environment for H2O production in clouds, and that there may have been a number of worlds containing life, possibly even on some of the protoplanets within our own solar system before they were destroyed. This distribution of water in relatively oxygen poor clouds may even be the reason that life as we know it is so dependent on water, as the epochs that followed would see the formation of stars in a universe that already had water in it.

James Sullivan
James Sullivan is the assistant editor of Brain World Magazine and a contributor to Truth Is Cool and OMNI Reboot. He can usually be found on TVTropes or RationalWiki when not exploiting life and science stories for another blog article.

One of the Oldest Galaxies in the Universe Discovered

Perhaps the most mind-bending thing about the universe is how you can see back in time, merely by staring far enough into the night sky, as the light from the stars take eons to reach us. Peering in far enough, you can see the remnants of the days when our universe began. Investigating the first billion years of the universe, scientists have now uncovered one of the first galaxies, which came into being some 700 million years after the Big Bang event. As exciting as this sounds, researchers are left with a new puzzle – why, despite its advanced age and small size, is it filled with cosmic dust?

The problem, according to the paper published in Monday’s issue of Nature, is why this dust is here at all. Daniel Marrone, who is an expert on galaxy formation at the University of Arizona did not participate in the study but was immensely surprised to read of the discovery. While we may be made of star stuff – our body composed of the same elements forged in the galaxy’s beginning, the universe following the Big Bang was all helium and hydrogen gas – as well as the elusive dark matter, hardly anything that would leave behind dusty remnants, the leftovers of ancient stars that burst.

This is yet another surprising discovery changing the way that scientists have approached cosmology. “Last week,” says Marrone, “we learned of an incredibly massive black hole in the early universe. Now we have this average galaxy with significant amounts of dust. We’ve had this cartoon picture of the early universe, but it’s clear that we really don’t know what’s going on.”

The gasses floated through the universe for the millions of years after the Big Bang inflation event, condensing into the first stars. That buildup of heat forged the heavier elements – among them carbon, silicon, and oxygen, before they died, unleashing those elements far into space. The first dust formed from those elements, and later congealed to become planets and asteroids.

The first of our stars had likely lived full cycles before this recently discovered galaxy, which astronomers are calling A1689-zD1, was born, indicating a universe that still had considerable dust. Most of it, however, would likely have come from large, bright galaxies that formed lots of stars. By contrast, A1689-zD1 is considerably small and dim, not larger than the Large Magellanic Cloud, a dwarf galaxy orbiting our Milky Way.

Not many of these early galaxies have been discovered, due to their far distance and their dimness – leaving many cosmologists to speculate on the nature of what others may look like. They are currently tracked down by traces of the gravitational waves they give off, an aspect of Einstein’s general theory of relativity which states that gravity coming from objects closer will warp light rays coming off of distant objects. Ironically, Einstein suspected that we’d never have the technology needed to observe this process which astronomers refer to as gravitational lensing.

Darach Watson, the paper’s lead author, used the Very Large Telescope (VLT) of Chile’s Atacama Desert to study the massive cluster of galaxies known as Abell 1689. The gravity of Abell 1689 magnified galaxy A1689-zD1 by a factor of nine, says Watson, allowing him, along with several colleagues to measure its proximity to Earth and then determine from how long ago the light from its star systems began to move towards Earth.

Although the VLT picks up starlight, it cannot recognize dust, so one of his colleagues verified the discovery with a dust-sensitive ALMA radio telescope. “She had a look,” says Watson, “and bingo!”

In the paper, they suggest that the buildup may have come from supernovae that were short-lived, bursting apart after only a few million years, with the large amounts of dust piling up quickly due to their size. This is a stark contrast to dwarf galaxies, which generally accumulate dust over billions of years, from stars with long lives. “But they’d have to produce the maximum possible dust,” he says, to account for what ALMA sees, “and the dust can’t be destroyed.”

The only way to test their idea further would be sure to discover small galaxies such as the A1689-zD1 in the nearby area. Unfortunately, due to their low levels of light, this is a rather difficult task. They would then have to determine whether galaxies of this size with high levels of dust are more common than others. “We don’t have any other candidates at this point,” says Watson.

However, as another generation of telescopes that read wavelength frequencies come to light, things may soon change.

James Sullivan
James Sullivan is the assistant editor of Brain World Magazine and a contributor to Truth Is Cool and OMNI Reboot. He can usually be found on TVTropes or RationalWiki when not exploiting life and science stories for another blog article.

Could Dark Matter Be Behind Earth’s Extinction Events?

Earth’s orbit along the Galactic Disc, is a long yet predictable journey that lasts for eons, but not without consequence, as Michael Rampino, a professor of biology at New York University recently observed. Rampino’s newest research, published in the Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society, believes that these infrequent rotations have coincided with the state of life on Earth.

While we often think of the comet that brought a rather dramatic end to the dinosaurs 65 million years ago when we hear of extinction, it was hardly the first time that many species died out together. Nor was it even remotely the worst. That distinction belongs to the Permian-Triassic extinction event, which occurred 252 million years ago, coinciding with the Galactic Disc rotation, in which 83 percent of all life became extinct – owing to not only volcanic events but ocean acidification and the impact of several meteors. It took approximately 10 million years for much of the life left on Earth to replenish itself. While it took more than one event to make things hostile for life on Earth, Rampino has attributed the increased number of meteoric impacts to a buildup of dark matter, which may upset the orbits of comets and also increase heating at the Earth’s core – igniting volcanic activity, a trend currently being seen in Iceland.

Even the era that paleontologists purport to be the golden age of Dinosaurs – the Jurassic period – in which some of the largest species of sauropods thrived, was preceded by another violent extinction event – the Triassic-Jurassic extinction – taking place 201.3 million years ago. It took about 10,000 years, partially because of increased activity at a massive underwater volcano known as the Central Atlantic Magmatic Province, as well as several meteoric events which took place in Europe. Today, these periods are known by the rock layers they left behind, yet it is clear that each are caused by the same violent reactions in nature and the resulting change in climate.

The Galactic Disc is a region of the Milky Way Galaxy that defines its shape and contains our solar system, amidst a heavy clutter of stars and clouds of cosmic dust and reactive gasses. Yet, surrounding the cluster, is the elusive dark matter, particles which are primarily known because of the remarkable gravity they release, impervious to light and other forms of electromagnetic radiation.

According to prior studies, the Earth makes a rotation around the Galactic Disc once every 250 million years. However, the path is not always circular but wavy, as the Sun and other planets weave their way in and out of the crowded disc at intervals of approximately 30 million years or so. The Cretaceous-Paleocene event also coincides with these patterns.

So why does dark matter in particular seem like the culprit in these occurrences? When comets move through the disc, concentrations of dark matter can sometimes intensify to the point that they begin to throw comets off course, sometimes this instability causes them to collide with the planet, acts that have defined the shape of Earth throughout its history, and also perhaps supplying it with the very amino acids necessary to sustain life. But dark matter has another somewhat more pernicious impact on our planet in a different way, too.

As the Earth is exposed to dark matter on its rotations, Rampino learned that dark matter could essentially build up within the planetary core, producing an intense heat as its particles collide with each other inside. Eventually the heat builds up considerable pressure, leading to mountain building, volcanic eruptions, and even reversals in the planet’s magnetic field. The history of rises and falls in sea levels also shows a peak happening every 30 million years.

The new model of dark matter and its interactions with planets as they move across the Galaxy could significantly impact how we perceive geological and biological development. Already, our current understanding of the Earth’s natural history is one of violent and destructive events. Dark matter could be a critical cause behind it all. Already, in what geologists have petitioned to refer to as the Anthropocene Era (the Age of Humans – due to our species’ shaping of the planet for better or for worse), many other researchers believe we are in the midst of a sixth extinction event – with climbing levels of CO2 adding to the acidification of the ocean each year. Like dark matter, humans have the power to impact the universe too.

To put this all in perspective, Rampino said in his paper: “We are fortunate enough to live on a planet that is ideal for the development of complex life. But the history of Earth is punctuated by large scale extinction events, some of which we struggle to explain. It may be that dark matter — the nature of which is still unclear but which makes up around a quarter of the universe — holds the answer. As well as being important on the largest scales, dark matter may have a direct influence on life on Earth.”

James Sullivan
James Sullivan is the assistant editor of Brain World Magazine and a contributor to Truth Is Cool and OMNI Reboot. He can usually be found on TVTropes or RationalWiki when not exploiting life and science stories for another blog article.