The Curious Lives of Radio Galaxies – Part Two

This is the second half of a description of radio galaxies from Anna Kapinska, Radio Galaxy Zoo science team member.

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.


Figure 5: 3C 236, the second largest giant radio galaxy, extends nearly 15 million light- years across. It is located at a redshift z = 1.0 and has angular dimensions of over 40 arc-minutes in radio images. Credits: NVSS, WRST, Mack et al. 1996.

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.

Fading away
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!


Figure 6: A prototypical dead (relic) radio galaxy, B2 0924+30. Radio waves are imaged in green, while optical image from SDSS is in yellow-red. The angular dimension of this galaxy is 13.5 arc-minutes, and it lies at a redshift z = 0.027, what translates to 430 kilo-parsec (1.4 million light-years) in size. Credits: Murgia

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!


Figure 7: Re-started radio galaxy, PKS B1545-321. This radio galaxy has the so-called double-double structure, which consists of two pairs of double lobes. The outer pair of lobes are older and they are slowly fading away. The inner pair of lobes are created after the radio galaxy is born again. This radio galaxy is also a giant, the outer lobes extend to one Mega-parsec (3 million light-years). Credits: Safouris et al 2002.

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