See the video of our latest hangout here (or, if you prefer, click to download the podcast version):
Spiral galaxies are seemingly endless sources of fascination, perhaps because they’re so complex and diverse. But why does spiral structure exist? Why do some spiral galaxies have clearly defined spiral arms and others have flocculent structure that barely seems to hold together? What’s the difference between a 2-arm spiral and a 3-arm spiral? How many kinds of spirals do we actually observe? And what is happening to the stars and gas in spiral galaxy disks?
All of the above questions are related to a question we got right at the end of our last hangout: what is the significance of the number of spiral arms? Determining how many spiral arms a galaxy has is hard, and is often subjective — so why bother?
It’s a good question. Part of the reason spiral arm classification & count is a challenge is that it often depends on the wavelength at which you observe a galaxy. New stars tend to form along the spiral arms, whereas older stars have time to spread out into more uniform orbits. So ultraviolet observations of a galaxy, which tend to pick out the new and bright stars, often highlight the spiral arms much more strongly than longer-wavelength observations, which see more light from older stars.
It’s not quite that simple, though. As you get to longer and longer wavelengths, you start to pick up the heat radiated by clouds of gas and dust, which are often stellar nurseries — and often trace spiral arms. At a wavelength of 21 centimeters you can detect neutral Hydrogen, which provides raw material for the cooling and condensation of gas into cold, dense molecular clouds that form stars in their densest pockets. Each wavelength you observe at provides a glimpse at a different targeted feature of a spiral galaxy.
Including our own, of course: we live in a spiral galaxy (though how many arms it has, and whether it’s flocculent, is a matter of debate), and it provides the best means of studying star formation up close. When studying other galaxies, it’s easy to get caught up in the race to discover the biggest, the smallest, the farthest and the most extreme, and forget that our own Universal neighborhood is pretty amazing too.
For example, one of the most famous nebulae in the world was recently imaged by one of the most famous telescopes in the world — again — but this time in the near-infrared. The Horsehead Nebula is a well-known feature in the Orion star-forming complex, and the new Hubble images provide a great opportunity to learn even more about this region that has been studied for hundreds of years. How thick and cold is the gas and dust in the nebula? How long will it take for it to dissipate under the harsh radiation of the bright, young stars near it? What’s going on behind it?
The near-infrared view from HST is sort of the sweet spot in this spectacular space — the wavelengths aren’t so long that the resolution suffers, but they are long enough that you see through a bit more of the clouds than in the optical. So you see more of the structure of the cloud itself, and more of where it’s thin and thick. If you zoom in, you can even see distant galaxies peeking through! And not just on the edges: in some parts you can see galaxies through the middle of the nebula. Wow. This image alone contains spiral galaxy insights big and small, near and far, from the very distant universe and right in our own backyard.
Note: right at the end of the hangout, we again got another great question from a viewer that we didn’t have time to answer. So stay tuned for the next hangout when we just might have a thing or two to say about dark matter, dark energy and new projects!
I enjoy days where we get to use questions from the public to meander our way through the Universe. Our latest live hangout saw us discussing the latest update to the Galaxy Zoo site — made based on your clicks! — and doing a live, collective classification on a few example objects from our Hubble sample that we hope represent the kind of things you’ll be seeing more of from now on.
We debated, for example, whether this galaxy’s central “feature” was a bulge or a bar:
Whether this relatively featureless galaxy’s blue smudge indicates a voorwerp:
And how many spiral arms this galaxy has:
We also talked about the origin and importance of dust in galaxies, and just what a green pea would look like in the Hubble data. Green peas are galaxies with incredibly high rates of star formation. They’re rare in the local Universe, but how rare do we think they were billions of years ago, at the epoch we’re looking back to with Hubble?
And, for that matter, what were the stars like then? Astronomers very broadly group stars into three populations depending on their composition. The very earliest stars were made from the primordial elements forged during the Big Bang — almost entirely Hydrogen and Helium, nearly devoid of anything else (we call “anything else” a metal, including elements like Carbon and Oxygen). The next generation of stars had some metals, but the Universe has been around long enough that those stars (even the lower-mass ones that live for a long time) are past their prime and a new generation, one with compositions generally like our Sun, are now in their heyday.
Naturally, though, since the Sun is our First Star, we call its generation Population I. The slightly older stars, many of which are still around and living in our galaxy and others, are Population II; and the very massive rockstars of the early universe that have all died out are called Population III. So “Pop III” were the first stars — a slight reversal, but labels and names that seemed like a better idea at the time than with hindsight are nothing new in Astronomy. (Exhibit A: the magnitude system. Exhibit B: “planetary nebula“.)
Bonus: green peas, voorwerpjes, and planetary nebulae are just three of the phenomena that (at least in part) glow green to human eyes because of one particular frequency of light emitted by Oxygen at a certain temperature, an atomic transition seen only rarely on Earth but fairly often in the Universe.
Also, did you know that dust grains are the singles bars of the atomic universe, allowing atoms to meet and combine into molecules and cooling the gas clouds they live in — which in turn helps new stars form? Heating and cooling, gravity and pressure, and the interplay between atoms, molecules, and radiation are all a part of what gives us this amazingly diverse Universe. We understand quite a lot of it given that we are such a tiny part of it, but what we know is dwarfed by what we don’t. And that’s just the way astronomers like it… we love a challenge and we’re glad to have as much help as possible sorting things out.
Here’s the hangout video:
I’m delighted to announce that the latest paper based on Galaxy Zoo classifications was accepted to appear in the Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society earlier this week, and appears on the arxiv this morning (link).
Usually there is a long delay between submission and acceptance of papers (something Kevin discussed on this blog in “What Happens Next – Peer Review“), but in this case the initial referee report came back after 2 days, and the paper was accepted only 2 weeks after the first submission so I never got time to post to the arxiv or write a blog post about it before it was accepted! This was certainly the smoothest and fastest referee process I’ve been through.
Here’s the title page.
So what was new about this paper was that we combined information on the morphologies (whether or not the spiral galaxies had bars) with information on the amount of atomic hydrogen gas the galaxies contained and and our main result was that galaxies with more atomic gas in them, are less likely to have a bar.
But I want to back up a bit first and tell you about where we get this information on the atomic gas content, and why it might be interesting. As you might guess from the title of the paper it’s from something called the ALFALFA survey (and the new names in the author list for a Galaxy Zoo paper – Martha Haynes and Riccardo Giovanelli – are from Cornell University who are running this survey). Atomic hydrogen emits radio waves at a frequency of 1.4 GHz (or 21cm). This is detectable by a classic radio telescope (in what we call the “L”-band which makes up the second L of ALFALFA). In the case of ALFALFA, we use the Arecibo radio telescope (two of the “A”s in the acronym stand for Arecibo, the third is for array), which is the worlds biggest single dish radio telescope deep in the jungle of Puerto Rico.
ALFALFA is a massive survey which will map the location of atomic hydrogen over basically the whole sky visible to the Arecibo radio telescope. What’s neat about a survey for something which emits as a specific frequency is that you actually get a 3D map of where the hydrogen is – both redshift and sky position! Anyway, we made use of about 40% of the survey which is already complete, and which covers about 25% of the area of the sky in which the Galaxy Zoo galaxies are found (the Sloan Digital Sky Survey Legacy Area). Adding some cuts on how face-on the galaxies are so that the bars can be identified, and to make sure the sample contains the same size galaxies right through it’s volume we ended up with 2090 galaxies with both atomic hydrogen detections and bar classifications from you guys. This is an order of magnitude larger than any similar sample! So thanks.
Atomic hydrogen is the basic building block of galaxies (after dark matter). It represents the fuel for future star formation in a galaxy – a galaxy with a lot of atomic hydrogen could in principle make a lot of new stars. Many spiral galaxies have a lot of atomic hydrogen (with perhaps as much as 10 times as much mass in hydrogen as in stars!), while a typical elliptical galaxy has very little atomic gas, and so cannot form lots of new stars.
So our observation that bars are more likely to be found in spiral galaxies with less atomic gas supports our earlier ideas about bars possibly “killing” spirals (ie. helping to stop them form stars).
Of course it’s never quite that straightforward with galaxies. To start with correlation is not the same as causation, and to that we add that lots of things are correlated. We show some of that in the figure above. Bars are more likely in redder spirals which have more stars (“log Mstar” represents stellar mass in units relative to the mass of our Sun) and which also have less atomic gas. So the skeptical astronomer could say this has nothing to do with the gas content at all, just that the types/sizes of galaxies with less bars have more gas. To test that idea we measured the typical gas content of a spiral galaxy with a given number of stars, and from that we calculated how “deficient” or rich in atomic hydrogen any given galaxy was. Then we plotted the bar fraction against that. The convention in astronomy is to call how much less atomic hydrogen a galaxy has than normal it’s “HI deficiency” which gets bigger the less atomic hydrogen there is (from the people who brought you the magnitude scale!).
Anyway you can see we still see a clear trend, which demonstrates that it’s likely to be the atomic gas driving the correlation. Where a galaxy is richer in atomic hydrogen than normal it’s less likely to host a bar, and vice versa. Very atomic hydrogen rich galaxies which are massive and have bars are really quite rare!
Here are some examples of low and high mass galaxies which are gas rich or poor and with or without bars.
I made images of the whole sample we use available here.
At the end of the paper we put forward three possible explanations for the correlation, all of which fit in with the observations we presented. It’s possible that the bars are causing the atomic gas in galaxies to be used up faster – “killing” the galaxy. The bar does this by driving the gas to the centre of the galaxy where it gets denser, turns into molecular hydrogen and from that stars (but only in the centre). It’s also possible (based on dynamical studies of galaxies) that gas slows down the formation of a bar in a spiral galaxy, and/or destroys the bar. Finally it’s possible that as a galaxy interacts with its neighbours, a bar gets triggered and its gas gets stripped (ie. the correlation between the two is caused by an external process). We’ll need to do more work to figure out which of these (or which combination of them) is the most important.
To my mind the most interesting result was a hint that if a gas rich galaxy does (rarely) host a bar, it’s optically redder than similar galaxies without bars. It’s just possible that bars hold back infall of gas from the outer regions of a spiral galaxy and slow down star formation over all in that galaxy. That idea needs testing, but if it’s true it’s saying that an internal structure like a bar plays an important role in the global star formation history of a galaxy.
Anyway thanks again for the classifications!
The gold standard for galaxy classification among professional astronomers is of course the Hubble classification. With a few minor modifications, this classification has stood in place for almost 90 years. A description of the scheme which Hubble calls “a detailed formulation of a preliminary classification presented in an earlier paper” (an observatory circular published in 1922) can be found in his 1926 paper “Extragalactic Nebulae” which is pretty fun to have a look at.
Hubble’s classification is often depicted in a diagram – something which is probably familiar to everyone who has taken an introductory astronomy course. Astronomers call this diagram the “Hubble Tuning Fork”. I have been meaning for a while to make a new version of the Hubble tuning fork based on the type of images which were used in Galaxy Zoo 1 and 2 (OK the prettiest ones I could find – these are not typical at all). Anyway here it is. The Hubble Tuning Fork as seen in colour by the Sloan Digital Sky Survey:
I should say that my choice of galaxies for the sequence owes a lot of credit to an excellent Figure illustrating galaxy morphologies in colour SDSS images which can be found in this article on Galaxy Morphology (arXiV link) written by Ron Buta from Alabama (Figure 48). I strongly recommend that article if you’re looking for a thorough history of galaxy morphology.
Inspired by the “Create a Hubble Tuning Fork Diagram” activity provided by the Las Cumbres Observatory, I also provide below a blank version which you can fill in with your favourite Galaxy Zoo galaxies should you want to. I have to say though, the Las Cumbres version of the activity looks even more fun as they also talk you through how to make your own colour images of the galaxies to put on the diagram.
Anyway I hope you like my new version of the diagram as much as I do. Thanks for reading, Karen.
Following on from my post about the Hubble diagram, I thought I’d mention a bit about the main types of galaxies that are out there. Galaxies come in three basic types: spirals, ellipticals and irregulars. Each of these three broad morphologies of galaxy tells us a little about what is going on inside the galaxy itself. They are all structured differently.
The spiral arms of a galaxy contain most of the interstellar medium – dust and other material between stars – within a galaxy. It is in the spiral arms that new stars are forming, hence their usually bright, blueish or white colour. Spirals are made of about 10-20% dust and gas. This is the source material for the stars that are forming within the spiral arms. It is the dust that obscures background light to create the dark lanes you see in spiral galaxies. You can the arms and the dust lanes very well in this artistic impression of our own galaxy, the Milky Way from Nick Risinger / NASA.
The central bulge of spiral galaxy contains older, redder stars and often also contains a invisible, massive black hole. Some, but by no means all, central bulges have the appearance of a mini elliptical galaxy.
The central bulge and spiral arms vary greatly in appearance from galaxy-to-galaxy. But of course, you know this from working on Galaxy Zoo!
Spiral galaxies are also made up of a third component: the galactic halo. This is an almost spherical fuzz of stars and globular clusters surrounding the galaxy, trapped by gravity. You can see the halo quite well in the above image of the Sombrero Galaxy, which is a spiral seen almost edge-on. This image is from Hubble Heritage
Elliptical galaxies are essentially all bulge and nothing else! In an elliptical galaxy the stars tend to be older and there is less gas and dust around. The stars orbit around the centre of mass of the galaxy in a more random way – their orbits are not constrained to a disk shape. There is very little star formation going on in elliptical galaxies and so they usually appear reddish in colour: dominated by older, cooler stars.
There is obviously little to say about the structure of irregular galaxies because they are irregular. They make up about a quarter of all galaxies. It is thought that many irregulars were once ellipticals or spirals and have been distorted by interactions or collisions with other galaxies. Irregular galaxies can have very high star formation rates and can contain a lot of dust and gas – often more than spiral galaxies.
Galaxy Zoo: Hubble has a whole new branch of questions to try and help classify these clumpy galaxies.
You could add this fourth category to the list of galaxy types. Dwarf galaxies might appear to be just smaller versions of the above types, but they are the most common type of galaxy. There are more dwarfs than any of the others, if you just count them up.
The Large and Small Magellanic Clouds – the LMC and SMC, which are visible in the Southern Hemisphere – are actually two small galaxies, orbiting around our own larger Milky Way. The image below, from Mr. Eclipse, shows both of these objects. The LMC is an irregular galaxy and the SMC is a dwarf.
We’ll continue talking about the different types of galaxies – and how they all fit together – in the next post in this series. In the meantime might I suggest yet another type of galaxy, perhaps with a coffee and a bit of classification?
We heard a few days ago that our paper on red spirals has been accepted by the journal. Not only is this another success for Galaxy Zoo science, but it’s a tribute to the hard work of Karen who led the effort. What with the first Zoo 2 paper being submitted and a few other distractions as well it’s been a very busy week for her.
The paper itself is another variation on what should be becoming a very familiar theme for those who have followed Galaxy Zoo science: colour and shape are not the same, and tell us different things. To recap slightly, as young, massive and short-lived stars are blue, colour is a measure of what’s happened recently. The blue spiral arms in the galaxy pictured below, for example, mark sites of recent star formation.
It was known long before Galaxy Zoo that most of the star formation in our local Universe takes place in spiral galaxies, and so they tend to be blue whereas ellipticals are often red. In looking at the blue ellipticals and now the red spirals, it’s clear that interesting things happen when this rule is broken.
Before we can work out what’s going on though, we have to find our red spirals, and this is trickier than it sounds. If we weren’t careful, then our sample would get contaminated by edge-on systems, which appear redder because of the effect of the dust that scatters light which travels through the disk. As this paper uses only Zoo 1 data, we just selected the roundest spirals assuming that this would get rid of those pesky edge-on systems; we also insist that Zooites were able to identify a direction to the spiral arms.
It turns out that 6% of spiral galaxies are red, which I think is higher than most would have guessed before this project. So how did a substantial number of spiral galaxies come to turn red? What caused them to cease forming stars and become what the paper title calls them : ‘Passive red spirals’?
One important clue is understanding where this process happens. It turns out that the greater the density of the environment a spiral finds itself in (that is, the more neighbours it has) the more likely it is to be red…but only up to a point. Once we find ourselves near the core of a cluster of galaxies, the number and fraction of red spirals drops dramatically. So whatever it is that is causing the spirals to turn red must be more likely in the outskirts of galaxy clusters, but relatively rare outside this particular environment.
The story is, as ever, a little more complicated than that. If it was the environment that was driving the dramatic change from blue to red, then we’d expect the properties of the red spirals to depend on the environment. We might find that those in the densest environments were redder than their (still quite red) counterparts further out, for example. But we don’t. We don’t see any connection between the properties of the red spiral and the environment they find themselves in.
In my next blog, I’ll look at what we do know about this mysterious population of galaxies unearthed by your hard work. Until then, if you want the gory details, you can find the latest version of the paper over here.