Observing bars in La Palma

As some might remember, in our last paper (which can be found here), we studied differences between weak and strong bars. One of our results was that star forming galaxies with stronger bars have significantly higher star formation in their centres compared to galaxies with weaker bars. This might be due to differences in the gas flows induced by the different types of bars. To investigate this, we selected a sample of 21 galaxies from Galaxy Zoo, which we plan to observe over the next couple days. 

The relationship between galactic bars and star formation has long been up for debate. Galactic bars are vast structures of co-orbiting gas, dust and stars that form directly across the galactic nucleus. It is thought that gas flows along the arms of the bar into the centre, increasing the central gas density. As gas density increases, the star formation rate would also. So, that should be the answer then? However, in reality, it is not so simple.

There are many different kinds of bars, with varying characteristics such as strengths and orientations. A galaxy might contain a very strong bar – where it clearly dominates even over the galactic disk – or it could have a very weak bar – where the disk dominates over it. So, we need to ask ourselves further, is the gas flow and resultant star formation higher in galaxies with strong bars? What about weak bars? Does it even change at all if we compare either type of bar to galaxies which have no bars? 

These are the questions we are going to answer at the Isaac Newton Telescope, or INT, on the island of Santa Cruz de la Palma. With a sample of 21 galaxies characterised by Galaxy Zoo – 7 strongly barred, 7 weakly barred and 7 with no bars at all – we are investigating if any relation between star formation rate and bar strength exists. An example of each type of galaxy in our sample is shown below. On the left is a galaxy with no bar at all, while on the right is a galaxy with a strong bar. The strong bar clearly dominates over the disk of the galaxy. The middle panel shows a galaxy with a much weaker bar, where the disk dominates over the disk galaxy.

To investigate this, we must turn to spectroscopy. Rather than utilise images, such as the ones above, we align a spectroscopic slit along and perpendicular to the bar direction on the image. The spectroscope will split the incoming light into a spectrum of wavelengths, where we will be able to find any spectral signatures of elements within the bars themselves. 

There are two chemical signatures of star formation that we are looking for. The first, an indirect measurement, is looking for Hydrogen Alpha, or Hα. If there is a much higher abundance of Hα at the core of a galaxy with a strong bar, weak bar or not, it is very likely that there is a higher gas density. Ergo, there is a higher star formation. The second signature we are looking for is Oxygen III, or O[III]. O[III] is highly ionised only typically exists in areas where there are high rates of the star formation; the newly born stars being the cause of the ionisation. This would be direct evidence of higher star formation.

So, what do we find? Thus far, due to the adverse weather conditions caused by tropical storm Hermine on La Palma, we have set our spectroscopic observations on a single strongly barred galaxy. We have extracted the spectrum, removed any sources of contamination and reduced to only that of the bar and galactic nucleus. The top image is the spectrum from the slit at ninety degrees perpendicular to the bar direction and the bottom is aligned along it.

The top spectrum (perpendicular to the bar) appears to be almost empty, with only noise present. Along the bar, however, we get a very strong emission line at precisely 6562.801Å. Guess which wavelength Hα happens to rest at? Precisely the same! 

This is certainly a promising initial result. If the abundance of Hα is much higher along bars than not, then this is certainly a case for them enhancing star formation! The next steps are to confirm this finding by taking observations for the rest of our sample. Once the weather clears up on La Palma, we will be aiming to finally answer the question, what do galactic bars do for star formation? Enhance, prevent or nothing? Well, it looks like enhancing has won the first point!

We will keep you updated!

David, Tobias and Chris

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