I am very happy to present the results from the first published paper based on your classifications of the HST-CANDELS Images.
Galaxy Zoo: CANDELS combined optical and infrared imaging from the Hubble Space Telescope, which allows us to probe galaxies back to when the universe was only around 3 billion years old (early than we could do with optical HST images alone). So we are looking at galaxies whose light has taken over 10 billion years to reach us!
Our first area of research with this data is to look at disk and barred disk galaxies, as the title suggests…….
This work is based on an initial sample of 876 disk galaxies, which are from the Cosmic Assembly Near-Infrared Deep Extragalactic Legacy Survey (CANDELS). We want to explore what happens to barred disk galaxies beyond eight billion years ago, building on our work looking at the evolving bar fraction with Galaxy Zoo: Hubble.
When we began this work, we were unsure what we would find when looking so far back. From our Galaxy Zoo: Hubble work we had identified that 10% of disk galaxies hosted a galactic bar eight billion years ago, but beyond this our knowledge of disks was limited to a single simulation of disk galaxies. This simulation predicted that bars in disk galaxies were very rare beyond the epoch we had observed to, as the Universe would be to young for disk galaxies to
have settled down enough to form barred structures.
As Figure 1 shows, we actually find that roughly 10% of all disk galaxies host a bar, even back to when the Universe was only 3 billion years old! This is a very exciting result, as it shows that disk galaxies were able to settle at much earlier times than originally believed.
What we need to understand now is how do these disk galaxies form their bars? Could they be completely settled disk galaxies which have naturally formed bars, even during this epoch of violent galaxy evolution where galaxy mergers are more frequent? Or were these bars formed by a galaxy-galaxy interaction, as seen by some simulations? The answer could be one or the other, or most likely a combination of these two theories. Either way, we hope to explore this population of barred disk galaxies in greater detail over the coming months!
So there is a summary of the first Galaxy Zoo: CANDELS paper. If you would like to see this in more detail, please take a look at the paper here, and why not check out the RAS press release too! Thank you all for your hard work, and keep classifying!
Posted on behalf of Tom Melvin.
While preparing for more observations of the Galaxy Zoo giant AGN clouds (Voorwerpjes), this is a good time to introduce more complete ways of obtaining astronomical spectra. Traditionally, we’ve put a long slit in front of spectrographs, so we can measure everything along that line without worries about overlapping spectra of different objects or pieces of sky. In some cases, as with the optical fibers used by the Sloan Digital Sky Survey, we get the light summed within a circular aperture on the sky (with Sloan, from hundreds of different objects at each pointing of the telescope). But many of the things we want to understand are large and oddly shaped, so these approaches limit us to a very partial view (or to making many observations to cover everything of interest). Enter the Integral-Field Unit (IFU), which is any kind of device that lets us get the spectrum of every point in some region of the sky. They often use fiber optics to rearrange light from the object, so each small region of it comes out at a different place on what would otherwise be the spectrograph slit. After that it all becomes a software problem.
IFUs are becoming more common on large telescopes. We’ve gotten excellent data on some Voorwerpje systems with the unit on the 8-meter Gemini North telescope. Here’s a sample of raw data on UGC 11185. Each horizontal streak is the spectrum of an area 0.2 arcseconds square. The sampling, sensitivity, and image quality are superb, revealing multiple clouds of gas moving within a total span of almost 1000 km/s.
On the other hand, if we want to use its whole wavelength range, the Gemini device covers only 3.5×5 arcseconds of sky at once. I’m headed to the 3.5m WIYN telescope on Kitt Peak to use a complementary device called Hexpak, newly commissioned by instrument designer Matt Bershady of the University of Wisconsin (who I’ve been emailing about this since I learned of the project three years ago). This fiber bundle plugs into the multipurpose spectrograph kept in a climate-controlled room below the telescope, and combines small and densely-packed fibers in the middle (for things like galactic nuclei, small and bright with lots of structure) and large fibers near the edges (collecting a lot of signal from large diffuse surrounding material – sound familiar?). Matt and his team were able to get a short exposure through thin clouds of UGC 11185 as a feasibility test – here’s a piece of that raw data frame, showing the small central fiber and the larger surrounding ones (which show brighter night-sky airglow lines as well as more object signal; the bright [O III] lines and H-beta are near the middle, with wavelength increasing to the right for each spectrum). I hope to get a lot more data like this shortly.
Elsewhere, the European Southern Observatory has commissioned an enormous IFU, and the Sloan team has rebuilt their fiber bundles so that each one now makes multiple IFUs which can be placed on many galaxies at a time – this part of the Sloan survey extension is known as MANGA. Then there is the Spanish-led CALIFA project for hundreds of galaxies, which has publicly released data for their first two subsets. Then there are SAURON (whose data ca be tamed in software by GANDALF) and the upgrade of SCORPIO-2 and more… Swimming in data as we sift for knowledge, I am reminded of this anonymous computer error message in haiku form:
Out of memory.
We wish to hold the whole sky
but we never will.
At a conceptual level the formation of radio galaxies is pretty simple. According to a basic picture first introduced in the 1970s, a supermassive black hole in the center of a galaxy generates a symmetric pair of oppositely directed, high speed jets or beams of hot, ionized gas as a by-product of energy released or stored from matter falling onto the black hole. Those jets drill holes in the atmosphere of the galaxy and then even far beyond, dumping energy, excavating cavities and possibly entraining gas into the jets and cavities along the way. The jets carry magnetic fields and high energy electrons. Those electrons, spiraling in the magnetic fields light up the jets and the cavities they excavate in the radio band through a process called synchrotron emission.
While calculations based on this cartoon picture can correctly predict a few properties of radio galaxies, anyone who has looked at the images in Radio Galaxy Zoo can see that there must be a whole lot more to the story. Radio galaxies at best have only a rough bilateral symmetry with respect to their host galaxies. Furthermore, no two radio galaxies look alike, and most look pretty complicated; some could only be described as messy. In fact, the physics of radio galaxy formation is really very complex for a whole bunch of reasons that range from inherent instabilities in the dynamics of a fast jet, to the reality that the jets are not steady at the source. Furthermore, the surrounding environments are themselves messy, dynamic and sometimes even violent. All of these influences have impact on the appearances of radio galaxies.
The other side of the coin is that, if they can be understood, these complications may improve opportunities to decipher both the formation processes of the jets as well as the conditions that control their development and dissipation as they penetrate their environments. One part of piecing this puzzle together is expanding our awareness of all the things radio galaxies do, as well as when and where they do what they do. That’s what Radio Galaxy Zoo is about.
On the other hand, to go beyond the cartoon picture of what we see we also have to develop much more sophisticated and realistic models of the phenomena. This is very challenging. Because the detailed physics is so complex (messy!), astronomers have come to depend increasingly on large computer simulations that solve equations for gas dynamics with magnetic fields and high energy electrons. Pioneering gas dynamical simulations of jets in the 1980s already played an important role in confirming the value of the jet paradigm and helped to refine it soon after it was introduced.
Those early simulations were, however, seriously limited by available computer power and computational methods. In important ways the structures they made did not really look much like actual radio galaxies. At best they were too grainy. At worst important physics had to be left out, including the processes that actually produce the radio emission. This made it hard to know exactly how to compare the simulations with real radio galaxies. Thankfully, rapid improvements in both of those areas have led recently to much more realistic and detailed simulations that are starting to look more like the real thing and can be used to better pin down what is actually going on.
Our group at the University of Minnesota has been involved for some years now in pushing forward the boundaries of what can be learned about radio galaxies from simulations. I illustrate below some of the lessons we have learned from these simulations and some of the complex radio galaxy environments that it is now possible to explore through simulations. Each of these simulations was part of the work carried out by a student as part of their PhD training.
The jets responsible for radio galaxy formation propagate at speeds that can be a significant fraction of the speed of light. They are almost certainly supersonic. These properties lead to several related behaviors that are illustrated in Figure 1. It turns out that the flows within such a jet tend periodically to expand and then to contract. As they do so they form a sequence of shocks along the jet. These are visible in the figure. The jet also creates a sonic boom or bow shock in front as it moves forward. A close look at the jet in this figure also reveals that the jet actually does not remain straight as it moves forward. The end of the jet turns out to be unstable, so soon after launch begins to ‘flap’ or wobble. As a result the end of the jet tends to jump around, enlarging the area of impact on the ambient medium.
Many radio galaxies form inside clusters of galaxies, where the ambient medium is highly non-uniform and stirred up as a result of its own, violent formation. This distorts and bends the radio structures. At the same time the energy and momentum deposited by the jets creates cavities in the cluster gas that lead to dark holes in the thermal X-ray emission of the cluster. Figure 2 illustrates some of these behaviors for a simulated radio galaxy formed at the center of a cluster. Even though the source of the radio galaxy is at rest, there are fast gas motions in the cluster gas that obviously deflect the radio galaxy jets. ‘Mock’ radio images representing synchrotron emission by high energy electrons in the magnetic field carried by the jets are shown on the right in the figure at two times. At the same two times mock images of thermal X-rays are shown to the left. The X-ray images have been processed to exaggerate the dark cavities produced by the jets. Note that each image spans about 700 kpc or 2 million light years.
Quite a few radio galaxies in clusters are not made by galaxies anchored in the cluster center, but are hosted by galaxies moving through the cluster. This is especially common in clusters that are in the process of merging with another cluster. In that case the host galaxy can be moving very fast, and even supersonically with respect to its local, ambient medium. Then the radio jets can be very strongly deflected into ‘tails’ by an effective cross wind and eventually disrupted. Figure 3 illustrates the mock synchrotron emission from such a simulated radio galaxy. The abruptness of jet bending depends on the relative speed of the jet with respect to its internal sound speed and the relative speed of the host galaxy through its ambient medium with respect to the sound speed of that medium. So, when strongly bent jets are seen in a radio galaxy it is a strong clue that the motion of the galaxy is supersonic in relation to its environment. When multiple tailed radio galaxies are found in a given cluster it provides potentially valuable information about the dynamical condition of the cluster, since a relaxed cluster ought not to have many galaxies moving at supersonic speeds through the cluster gas.
Even more complex motions between the host galaxies and the ambient gas are possible. Those can sometimes lead to really exotic-looking radio structures. One beautiful example of this is the radio source 3C75 in the merging cluster Abell 400. Evidently two massive galaxies have become gravitationally bound into a binary system with a separation of about 7 kpc. The orbital period should be around 100 Myr. The pair also appears to be moving together supersonically through the ambient medium. Each of those galaxies has formed radio jets. If it were not for the binary the expected outcome might resemble the situation pictured in Figure 3. However, the binary motions cause each of the two galaxies to oscillate in its motion and this causes the radio jets to develop more complex, twisted shapes before they disrupt into tails. Figure 4 illustrates a preliminary effort to simulate this dynamics. The image on the right shows the real 3C75, where pink is the radio emission (VLA) and blue is thermal X-rays (Chandra). The image on the left traces the distribution of gas expelled by each of the two galaxies in the binary system. This simulation seems to capture the general character of the dynamical situation responsible for 3C75.
From this short set of simulation results it ought to be clear why many different kinds of radio galaxy structures are expected to form. It also ought to be apparent that we need better catalogs of what behaviors do exist in nature in order to see how to focus our simulation efforts and to establish what are the most important dynamical conditions in radio galaxy formation.
One of our scientists Prof. Ray Norris put the call out to the Radio Galaxy Zoo community for a hunt on spiral galaxies hosting powerful radio sources. The first known galaxy of this type is 0313-192, a galaxy much like our Milky Way and has left astronomers baffled.
Figure 1: 0313-192 The wrong galaxy from the Astronomy Picture of the Day. Credit: W. Keel (U. Alabama), M. Ledlow (Gemini Obs), F. Owen (NRAO, AUI, NSF, NASA.
Here is Prof. Norris’ post:
Keep an eye out for any hourglass sources that seem to be hosted by galaxies that look spiral in the infrared. These objects are incredibly rare in the local Universe (only 2 or 3 known) and we may not see any in Radio Galaxy Zoo, but if someone does find one, that would be worth writing a paper about (with the discoverer as co-author, of course). The rarity of radio-loud spirals is thought to be because the radio jets heat up and disrupt the gas in the spiral, switching off star formation, and turning the galaxy into a “red dead” elliptical. But we might find one or two where the jets have only just switched on and haven’t yet destroyed the spiral. See The radio core of the Ultraluminous Infrared Galaxy F00183-7111: watching the birth of a quasar for another example of this process in its very early stage. So keep your eyes peeled and yell out (very loudly) if you find one!
We are pleased to announce that the Radio Galaxy Zoo community has identified over a dozen potential candidates and we are in the process of following these up.
Have you seen any? Head over to Radio Galaxy Zoo to join in on the hunt and let us know what you find.
Some colleagues and I successfully proposed for a symposium on citizen science at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) in San Jose, CA in February 2015. (The AAAS is one of the world’s largest scientific societies and is the publisher of the Science journal.) Our session will be titled “Citizen Science from the Zooniverse: Cutting-Edge Research with 1 Million Scientists.” It refers to the more than one million volunteers participating in a variety of citizen science projects. This milestone was reached in February, and the Guardian and other news outlets reported on it.
The Zooniverse began with Galaxy Zoo, which recently celebrated its seventh anniversary. Of course, Galaxy Zoo has been very successful, and it led to the development of a variety of citizen science projects coordinated by the Zooniverse in diverse fields such as biology, zoology, climate science, medicine, and astronomy. For example, projects include: Snapshot Serengeti, where people classify different animals caught in millions of camera trap images; Cell Slider, where they classify images of cancerous and ordinary cells and contribute to cancer research; Old Weather, where participants transcribe weather data from log books of Arctic exploration and research ships at sea between 1850 and 1950, thus contributing to climate model projections; and Whale FM, where they categorize the recorded sounds made by killer and pilot whales. And of course, in addition to Galaxy Zoo, there are numerous astronomy-related projects, such as Disk Detective, Planet Hunters, the Milky Way Project, and Space Warps.
We haven’t confirmed all of the speakers for our AAAS session yet, but we plan to have six speakers who will introduce and present results from the Zooniverse, Galaxy Zoo, Snapshot Serengeti, Old Weather, Cell Slider, and Space Warps. I’m sure it will be exciting and we’re all looking forward to it!
I’ve used some statistical tools to analyze the spatial distribution of Galaxy Zoo galaxies and to see whether we find galaxies with particular classifications in more dense environments or less dense ones. By “environment” I’m referring to the kinds of regions that these galaxies tend to be found: for example, galaxies in dense environments are usually strongly clustered in groups and clusters of many galaxies. In particular, I’ve used what we call “marked correlation functions,” which I’ve found are very sensitive statistics for identifying and quantifying trends between objects and their environments. This is also important from the perspective of models, since we think that massive clumps of dark matter are in the same regions as massive galaxy groups.
We’ve mainly used them in two papers, where we analyzed the environmental dependence of morphology and color and where we analyzed the environmental dependence of barred galaxies. These papers have been described a bit in this post andthis post. We’ve also had other Galaxy Zoo papers about similar subjects, especially this paper by Steven Bamford and this one by Kevin Casteels.
What I loved about these projects is that we obtained impressive results that nobody else had seen before, and it’s all thanks to the many many classifications that the citizen scientists have contributed. These statistics are useful only when one has large catalogs, and that’s exactly what we had in Galaxy Zoo 1 and 2. We have catalogs with visual classifications and type likelihoods that are ten times as large as ones other astronomers have used.
What are these “marked correlation functions”, you ask? Traditional correlation functions tell us about how objects are clustered relative to random clustering, and we usually write this as 1+ ξ. But we have lots of information about these galaxies, more than just their spatial positions. So we can weight the galaxies by a particular property, such as the elliptical galaxy likelihood, and then measure the clustering signal. We usually write this as 1+W. Then the ratio of (1+W)/(1+ξ), which is the marked correlation function M(r), tells us whether galaxies with high values of the weight are more dense or less dense environments on average. And if 1+W=1+ξ, or in other words M=1, then the weight is not correlated with the environment at all.
First, I’ll show you one of our main results from that paper using Galaxy Zoo 1 data. The upper panel shows the clustering of galaxies in the sample we selected, and it’s a function of projected galaxy separation (rp). This is something other people have measured before, and we already knew that galaxies are clustered more than random clustering. But then we weighted the galaxies by the GZ elliptical likelihood (based on the fraction of classifiers identifying the galaxies as ellipticals) and then took the (1+W)/(1+ξ) ratio, which is M(rp), and that’s shown by the red squares in the lower panel. When we use the spiral likelihoods, the blue squares are the result. This means that elliptical galaxies tend to be found in dense environments, since they have a M(rp) ratio that’s greater than 1, and spiral galaxies are in less dense environments than average. When I first ran these measurements, I expected kind of noisy results, but the measurements are very precise and they far exceeded my expectations. Without many visual classifications of every galaxy, this wouldn’t be possible.
Second, using Galaxy Zoo 2 data, we measured the clustering of disc galaxies, and that’s shown in the upper panel of the plot above. Then we weighted the galaxies by their bar likelihoods (based on the fractions of people who classified them as having a stellar bar) and measured the same statistic as before. The result is shown in the lower panel, and it shows that barred disc galaxies tend to be found in denser environments than average disc galaxies! This is a completely new result and had never been seen before. Astronomers had not detected this signal before mainly because their samples were too small, but we were able to do better with the classifications provided by Zooites. We argued that barred galaxies often reside in galaxy groups and that a minor merger or interaction with a neighboring galaxy can trigger disc instabilities that produce bars.
What kinds of science shall we use these great datasets and statistics for next? My next priority with Galaxy Zoo is to develop dark matter halo models of the environmental dependence of galaxy morphology. Our measurements are definitely good enough to tell us how spiral and elliptical morphologies are related to the masses of the dark matter haloes that host the galaxies, and these relations would be an excellent and new way to test models and simulations of galaxy formation. And I’m sure there are many other exciting things we can do too.
You know those odd features in some SDSS images that look like intergalactic traffic lights?
They aren’t intergalactic at all: they’re asteroids on the move in our own solar system. They move slowly compared to satellite trails (which look more like #spacelasers), but they often move quickly enough that they’ve shifted noticeably between the red, green, and blue exposures that make up the images in SDSS/Galaxy Zoo. When the images from each filter are aligned and combined, the moving asteroid dots its way colorfully across part of the image.
These objects are a source of intense study for some astronomers and planetary scientists, and the SDSS Moving Object Catalog gives the properties of over 100,000 of them. Planetary astronomer Alex Parker, who studies asteroids, has made a video showing their orbits.
I find their orbits mesmerizing, and there’s quite a lot of science in there too, with the relative sizes illustrated by the point sizes, and colors representing different asteroid compositions and families. There’s more information at the Vimeo page (and thanks to Amanda Bauer for posting the video on her awesome blog).
One of the most common questions we receive about asteroids from Galaxy Zoo volunteers is whether there will ever be a citizen science project to find them. So far, as the catalog linked above shows, the answer has been that computers are pretty good at finding asteroids, so there hasn’t been quite the need for your clicks… yet. There are some asteroids that are a little more difficult to spot, and those we’d really like to spot are quite rare, so stay tuned for a different answer to the question in the future. And in the meantime, enjoy the very cool show provided by all those little traffic lights traversing their way around our solar system.
Great news everybody! The latest Galaxy Zoo 1 paper has been accepted by MNRAS and has appeared on astro-ph: http://arxiv.org/abs/1402.4814
In this paper, we take a look at the most crucial event in the life of a galaxy: the end of star formation. We often call this process “quenching” and many astrophysicists have slightly different definitions of quenching. Galaxies are the place where cosmic gas condenses and, if it gets cold and dense enough, turns into stars. The resulting stars are what we really see as traditional optical astronomers.
Not all stars shine the same way though: stars much more massive than our sun are very bright and shine in a blue light as they are very hot. They’re also very short-lived. Lower mass stars take a more leisurely pace and don’t shine as bright (they’re not as hot). This is why star-forming galaxies are blue, and quiescent galaxies (or “quenched” galaxies) are red: once star formation stops, the bluest stars die first and aren’t replaced with new ones, so they leave behind only the longer-lived red stars for us to observe as the galaxy passively evolves.
Blue Ellipticals & Red Spirals
The received wisdom in galaxy evolution had been that spirals are blue, and ellipticals are red, meaning that spirals form new stars (or rather: convert gas into stars) and ellipticals do not form new stars (they have no gas to convert to stars). Since you’re taking part in Galaxy Zoo, you know that this isn’t entirely true: there are blue (star-forming) ellipticals and red (passive) spirals. It’s those unusual objects that we started Galaxy Zoo for, and in this paper they help us piece together how, why and when galaxies shut down their star formation. You can already conclude from the fact that blue ellipticals and red spirals exist that there is no one-to-one correlation between a galaxy’s morphology and whether or not it’s forming stars.
Blue, Red and…. Green?
A few years back, astronomers noticed that not all galaxies are either blue and star forming or red and dead. There was a smaller population of galaxies in between those two, which they termed the “green valley” (the origin of the term is rather interesting and we talk about it in this Google+ hangout). So how do these “green” galaxies fit in? The natural conclusion was that these “in between” galaxies are the ones who are in the process of shutting down their star formation. They’re the galaxies which are in the process of quenching. Their star formation rate is dropping, which is why they have fewer and fewer young blue stars. With time, star formation should cease entirely and galaxies would become red and dead.
The Green Valley is a Red Herring
Ok, why is this green valley a red herring you ask? Simple: the green valley galaxies aren’t a single population of similar galaxies, but rather two completely different populations doing completely different things! And what’s the biggest evidence that this is the case? Some of them are “green spirals” and others are “green ellipticals”! (Ok, you probably saw that coming from a mile away).
So, we have both green spirals and green ellipticals. First: how do we know they must be doing very different things? If you look at the colour-mass diagram of only spirals and only ellipticals, we start to get some hints. Most ellipticals are red. A small number are blue, and a small number are green. If the blue ellipticals turn green and then red, they must do so quickly, or there would be far more green ellipticals. There would be a traffic jam in the green valley. So we suspect that quenching – the end of star formation – in ellipticals happens quickly.
In the case of spirals, we see lots of blue ones, quite a few green one and then red ones (Karen Masters has written several important Galaxy Zoo papers about these red spirals). If spirals slowly turn red, you’d expect them to start bunching up in the middle: the green “valley” which is revealed to be no such thing amongst spirals.
Galaxy Quenching time scales
We can confirm this difference in quenching time scales by looking at the ultraviolet and optical colours of spirals and ellipticals in the green valley. What we see is that spirals start becoming redder in optical colours as their star formation rate goes down, but they are still blue in the ultraviolet. Why? Because they are still forming at least some baby stars and they are extremely bright and so blue that they emit a LOT of ultraviolet light. So even as the overall population of young stars declines, the galaxy is still blue in the UV.
Ellipticals, on the other hand, are much redder in the UV. This is because their star formation rate isn’t dropping slowly over time like the spirals, but rather goes to zero in a very short time. So, as the stellar populations age and become redder, NO new baby stars are added and the UV colour goes red.
It’s all about gas
Galaxies form stars because they have gas. This gas comes in from their cosmological surroundings, cools down into a disk and then turns into stars. Galaxies thus have a cosmological supply and a reservoir of gas (the disk). We also know observationally that gas turns into stars according to a specific recipe, the Schmidt-Kennicutt law. Basically that law says that in any dynamical time (the characteristic time scale of the gas disk), a small fraction (around 2%) of that gas turns into stars. Star formation is a rather inefficient process. With this in mind, we can explain the behaviour of ellipticals and spirals in terms of what happens to their gas.
Spirals are like Zombies
Spirals quench their star formation slowly over maybe a billion years or more. This can be explained by simply shutting off the cosmological supply of gas. The spiral is still left with its gas reservoir in the disk to form stars with. As time goes on, more and more of the gas is used up, and the star formation rate drops. Eventually, almost no gas is left and the originally blue spiral bursting with blue young stars has fewer and fewer young stars and so turns green and eventually red. That means spirals are a bit like zombies. Something shuts off their supply of gas. They’re already dead. But they have their gas reservoir, so they keep moving, moving not knowing that they’re already doomed.
Ellipticals life fast, die young
The ellipticals on the other hand quench their star formation really fast. That means it’s not enough to just shut off the gas supply, you also have to remove the gas reservoir in the galaxy. How do you do that? We’re not really sure, but it’s suspicious that most blue ellipticals look like they recently experienced a major galaxy merger. There are also hints that their black holes are feeding, so it’s possible an energetic outburst from their central black holes heated and ejected their gas reservoir in a short episode. But we don’t know for sure…
So that’s the general summary for the paper. Got questions? Ping me on twitter at @kevinschawinski
Last time we discussed the early and mid stages of radio galaxy life that take up the majority of the radio galaxy lifetime. Today we will go much further following paths of aging radio galaxies.
‘Only few of us get here’
As we discussed last time, radio galaxies are typically between tens and hundreds of kilo- parsecs in size (30 thousands – 3 million light-years). However, some of our buddies will grow to enormous sizes. Once a radio galaxy reaches one Mega-parsec in size (3.3 million light-years across) it’s called a giant – that is, a giant radio galaxy. Not every radio galaxy will reach such enormous sizes; only the most powerful ones whose environments are not extremely dense do. We don’t see too many giant radio galaxies. There are two main problems. One is that they are of low radio luminosity, and so our telescopes are not always sensitive enough to detect more than a subset of radio galaxies reaching this stage of their lives. The other problem is that giants are often composed of numerous bright knots spread over a large area and it’s difficult for us to tell which of these knots are associated with the giant and which are from unrelated sources.
Giant radio galaxies are usually hundred of thousands, or more, years old and they are very large and extended. They can tell us a lot about what is going on within the space in between galaxies in groups and clusters, and that’s why radio astronomers cherish these giants! The largest giant radio galaxy known is 4.5 Mega-parsecs across (named J1420-0545), which is almost 15 million light-years! In radio images these radio galaxies extended over 20 or 30 arc-minutes, which means you will normally see only one of their lobes at a time in any of the Radio Galaxy Zoo images we classify. This is also the reason why we would tag these Radio Galaxy Zoo images as #overedge or #giants.
But radio galaxies will not grow to infinity, they will eventually die. What happens then is that the radio galaxy starts fading away. Physically, at this point, the supermassive black hole stops providing jets with fresh particles, which means the jets and lobes or radio galaxy are not fed with new material. The electrons in the radio galaxy lobes have a finite amount of energy they can release as light, and so the lobes simply fade away until they are no longer visible with our telescopes. Dying radio galaxies become progressively less powerful, and less pronounced: no bright jet knots nor hotspots are present within the lobes anymore (see Figure 6). Eventually we can’t see these radio galaxies any more with our telescopes. You would typically mark these radio sources as #relics or #extended in Radio Galaxy Zoo images. It takes only ten thousand years for the brightest features of radio galaxy lobes to disappear, which is barely 0.01% of the total lifespan of radio galaxy. Again, just as the birth, it’s a blink of an eye!
So is that the end?
Well… not really! Astronomers have seen evidence that radio galaxies re-start. What does that mean? That means radio galaxies sort of resurrect. After switching off, the supermassive black hole is radio silent for a while, but it can become active again; that is the whole cycle of radio galaxy life can start all over again. A single host galaxy can have multiple radio galaxy events. We still don’t know the ratio of how long the galaxy is in quiet, silent stage, to how long is in its active, violent radio galaxy forming stage. We also do not know if all galaxies go through the active, radio galaxy forming stage, or whether it’s just some of them. And we don’t know what exactly is the process that makes the galaxies switch on and off. But details on that… that’s yet another story!
Today’s blog post is written by Radio Galaxy Zoo science team member Anna Kapinska, who works on radio jets and studies how they affect the galaxies which host them at various stages of the Universe’s evolution. This is the first of a two-part series.
As most of you know by now (after classifying hundreds of radio and infrared images in our amazing Radio Galaxy Zoo!) radio galaxies are not the type of object that most of us are used to. There’s no stars and dust; no light from that. It’s all about the jets – outflows of particles ejected from the vicinity of the galaxy’s monstrous supermassive black hole and moving nearly at the speed of light. Some of these particles, electrons, emit light while spiralling in the black hole magnetic field. By no means are the radio galaxies stationary or boring!
Radio galaxies can live for as long as a few hundred thousand or even a few million years. They grow and mature over that time, and so they change. They even don’t disappear straight after they die; that takes time too. So, how does the life of a radio galaxy look like?
Just as for ourselves, humans, we have names for different stages of radio galaxy life. There are newborn and young radio galaxies. There are adults – these are the most often encountered individua. There are also old, large giants. And there are dead radio galaxies – the slowly fading away breaths of magnificent lives – a rare encounter as they don’t stay with us for too long. So, how do these radio galaxies look like and what exactly happens during their lives? Over the next two blogs I will take you through the evolutionary stages of radio galaxies.
Let’s start off with a simple plot astronomers like to use for an overview of a radio galaxy evolution during its lifetime. The plot describes how the radio luminosity changes with the radio galaxy size (Figure 2). The larger the radio galaxy, the older it is (usually), so we can trace the changes in radio galaxy luminosity and structure (size) as it gets older.
The early years
After a radio galaxy is born it will be growing up very quickly – in a blink of an eye its jets will be penetrating dense environments out to the borders of the host galaxy (the one you can see in optical and infrared wavelengths). Astronomers call these sources GPS (Gigahertz peaked sources) and CSS (compact steep spectrum) radio sources. The GPS/CSS sources are very small; they reach only kilo-parsec distances from the central black hole (3.5 thousand light years), which is merely few arc seconds, or even less, in radio images. This is the reason why we usually detect them as compact radio sources; however, one can sometimes see their double radio structure (that is the jets) in very high resolution radio images (Figure 3), hence really they are just mini-doubles!
This stage of radio galaxy life is the only one at which the radio galaxy luminosity rises steeply as the source grows in size. The stage lasts only for tens to hundreds of thousands of years, which is barely 0.1% of the radio galaxy’s lifetime. This means there is a very short window of time when we can spot CSS and GPS sources, but there are many of these sources around and they are also very bright (their radio luminosities are typically the maximum a radio galaxy can reach) so we often detect them.
After the childhood radio galaxies enter the adulthood. Astronomers have dozen of names to describe the adult radio galaxies and this depends on their structure observed in radio waves, but really, what these radio galaxies have in common is their age and size. They are usually tens to hundreds of millions of years old, and between tens and hundreds of kilo-parsecs in size (30 thousands – 3 million light-years). The luminosity of these radio galaxies slowly drops as they penetrate through the intergalactic space. When you inspect the Radio Galaxy Zoo images, these radio sources are the #hourglass, #doublelobe and #plumes. 3C 237 and Centaurus A are fantastic examples of what we usually see! (Figure 4).
You will quickly notice that there are two main types of these radio galaxies; one type that has very strong radio emission at the end of the lobes (#hourglass, #doublelobes) which is the signature of jets pushing through the ambient medium around radio galaxy. These radio galaxies are called FR IIs by radio astronomers, and the bright spots at the ends of the lobes are called hotspots. The second type has their maximum radio luminosity close to the supermassive black hole or half way through the lobes; these are #plumes within the Radio Zoo and are tagged FRIs by radio astronomers. Plumes are less powerful than the hourglass, but they are even more of a challenge to astronomers!
The radio galaxy adult stage will be the majority of their lifetime, and that’s why they are the radio galaxies and radio structures one would typically see. Next time we will see what happens when the radio galaxy gets old!