ALMA unveils rapid star formation in distant galaxies

ALMA unveils rapid star formation in distant galaxies

Image credit: NASA, ESA, the Hubble Heritage Team (STScI/AURA)-ESA/Hubble Collaboration and A. Evans (University of Virginia, Charlottesville/NRAO/Stony Brook University).

Researchers have found that forming stars at extreme rates 9 billion years ago were more efficient than average today. The question astronomers have been asking is whether such starbursts in the early universe were the result of having an overabundant gas supply, or whether converted gas more efficiently.

In general, the larger a galaxy’s mass, the higher its rate of forming new stars — a relation called the star formation “main sequence.” However, every now and then a galaxy will display a burst of newly-formed stars that shine brighter than the rest. A collision between two large galaxies is usually the cause of such starburst phases, where the cold gas residing in the giant molecular clouds becomes the fuel for sustaining such high rates of star formation.

A new study published in Astrophysical Journal letters on 14 October, led by John Silverman at the Kavli Institute for the Physics and Mathematics of the Universe, studied (CO) gas content in seven distant starburst galaxies when the universe was a young 4 billion years old. This was feasible with the advent of the Atacama Large Millimetre Array (), located on a mountaintop plateau in Chile, which works in tandem to detect electromagnetic waves at a wavelength range in the millimetre (pivotal for studying molecular gas) and a sensitivity level that is just starting to be explored by astronomers today.

Left: Map of the galaxy PACS-867 taken by ALMA where the emission from carbon monoxide (CO) shows the molecular gas reservoir out of which stars form. Centre: Image taken by the Hubble Space Telescope Advanced Camera for Surveys of PACS-867 that shows the rest-frame UV light from young stars in the individual components of highly disturbed galaxies as a result of a massive merger. The location of the molecular gas in Image 1 is overlaid (blue contours) that shows where new stars, enshrouded by dust, are forming. Right: Spitzer Space Telescope infrared image (3.6 micron) of PACS-867 highlights the stars embedded in dust and associated with the molecular gas. The UV light associated with the gas is faint while it is brighter in the infrared. This is due to the presence of dust that impacts the UV more than the IR. Left image credit: ALMA (ESO/NAOJ/NRAO), J. Silverman (Kavli IPMU); Centre image credit: NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope, ALMA (ESO/NAOJ/NRAO), J. Silverman (Kavli IPMU); Right image credit: NASA/Spitzer Space Telescope, ALMA (ESO/NAOJ/NRAO), J. Silverman (Kavli IPMU).

The researchers found the amount of CO-emitting gas was already diminished even though the galaxy continued to form stars at high rates. These observations are similar to those recorded for starburst galaxies in the vicinity of the Milky Way today, but the amount of gas depletion was not quite as rapid as expected. This led researchers to conclude that there might be a continuous increase in the efficiency depending on how high a galaxy is above the average rate of forming stars.

This study relied on a variety of powerful telescopes available through the COSMOS survey. Only the Spitzer and Herschel Observatories could measure accurate rates of star formation, and the Subaru Telescope could confirm the nature and distance of these extreme galaxies using spectroscopy.

“These observations clearly demonstrate ALMA’s unique capability to measure with ease a critical component of high redshift galaxies thus indicative of the remarkable results to come from ALMA,” said John Silverman.


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