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7 October 2010

Caption: A simulation of a star-forming galaxy similar to those observed. Cold gas (red) flowing onto a spiral galaxy feeds star formation. This intense star formation drives turbulent outflows (blue). Image credit: Robert Crain, James Geach, the Virgo Consortium, Andy Green and Swinburne Astronomy Productions


'Living fossils' of space debunk star-formation route

Work based on data from the Australian Astronomical Observatory has discounted one explanation of how stars are formed.

The research is this week’s cover story in the journal Nature [7 October 2010].

In their paper ("High star formation rates as the origin of turbulence in early and modern disk galaxies"), Swinburne University astronomy student Andy Green, Green's supervisor and team leader Professor Karl Glazebrook, and their colleagues report finding galaxies in today's Universe that were thought to exist only in the distant past.

"They’re living fossils of space—galaxies we just didn’t expect to find in today’s world," said Green.

The galaxies in question are like our own Galaxy in shape, but unlike our Galaxy they are physically turbulent and are forming lots of stars.

Astronomers see many of them in the distant, early Universe, but they are rare now, and this team is the first to find any in today's Universe.

The finding knocks on the head one way astronomers thought stars might form.

Stars form from gas, and to form rapidly they need a good supply of it.

Astronomers had thought that star formation in distant, early galaxies might be fuelled by cold streams of gas continually falling into those galaxies.

But this mechanism could only work when the Universe was young. Finding these modern galaxies frenziedly forming new stars calls this idea into question.

Instead it seems more likely that galaxies get their new gas through 'mergers and acquisitions'—merging with like-sized counterparts or swallowing smaller galaxies.

To find the very rare, turbulent galaxies, the research team had to observe many galaxies, over a large volume of sky.

They started by selecting galaxies from the Sloan Digital Sky Survey that showed a key indicator of star formation—a bright H-alpha spectral line emitted by hydrogen gas.

Green then observed these chosen galaxies with the 3.9-m Anglo-Australian Telescope (AAT), operated by the Australian Astronomical Observatory, and the 2.3-metre telescope of the Australian National University, both located at Siding Spring Observatory in New South Wales. About two-thirds of the data came from the AAT.

Australian Astronomical Observatory Director, Professor Matthew Colless, was a member of the research team. He says the study shows the value of the Australian telescopes for complementing observations of the very distant Universe.

"Our telescopes are ideal for detailed study of the nearby counterparts of galaxies seen in the distant universe by the giant eight- and ten-metre telescopes," he said. "That's essential for piecing together the history of the Universe, from ancient times down to the present."

The Australian Astronomical Observatory is part of the Commonwealth Department of Innovation, Industry, Science and Research.



Andrew W. Green, Karl Glazebrook, Peter J. McGregor, Roberto G. Abraham, Gregory B. Poole, Ivana Damjanov, Patrick J. McCarthy, Matthew Colless & Robert G. Sharp. "High star formation rates as the origin of turbulence in early and modern disk galaxies." Nature 467, 684 (7 October 2010).


More information

Mr Andy Green
Swinburne University of Technology (Melbourne, Australia)
Tel: +61 (0)3 9214 5846

Professor Karl Glazebrook
Acting Director, Centre for Astrophysics & Supercomputing, Swinburne University of Technology
Mob: +61 416 094 732

Professor Matthew Colless
Director, Australian Astronomical Observatory (Sydney, Australia)
Tel: +61 (0)2 9372 4812
Mob: +61 (0)431 898 345