Hi! I’m Tom, and I’m a PhD student at the University of Nottingham, doing some research to try to understand how spiral galaxies have grown and changed over their lifetimes. I’m especially interested in looking at how the spiral arms have been affecting the galaxy as a whole. I’ve recently finished up a paper in MNRAS in which I’ve been demonstrating a couple of new methods using some Galaxy Zoo data.
Amelia has already written [ https://blog.galaxyzoo.org/2018/07/17/finding-bars-in-galaxy-zoo-3d/ ] about how she is using the MaNGA survey [ https://www.sdss.org/surveys/manga/ ] to try to understand what’s happening in bars, so I won’t go into too much detail about this fantastic survey. I’ll just say that it’s part of the Sloan Digital Sky Survey, and for each of its sample of 10,000 galaxies, we have measurements of the spectrum at every position across the face of the galaxy.
MaNGA is really useful for trying to understand how galaxies have grown to their current size, because it is possible to get some sort of estimation of what kinds of stars are present in different locations of the galaxy. It’s a difficult thing to measure, so we can’t say exactly how many of every different type of star is present, but we can at least get a broad picture of the kinds of stellar ages and chemical enrichment (“metallicity”) in the stars. Astronomers have used these kinds of tools to measure the average age or metallicity of stars in different parts of galaxies, and found that in most spirals, the further out you go in the galaxy, the younger the stars are on average. The usual interpretation of this is that bulges tend to have formed first, and the disks have grown in size over time afterwards.
I’m really interested in trying to push this picture in two ways. Firstly, I’ve been trying to see what we can learn from looking at the general distribution of stars of different ages and metallicities – not just the average properties – at each location in the galaxy. Secondly, I think there is a lot of information that we risk ignoring by only looking at how things change with galactic radius. Spiral arms and the bar aren’t evenly distributed around the galaxy, so if we can see how the stellar properties change as we move around the galaxy, we should be able to measure what effect the spiral arms and bars have on the stars. The goal would be to try to confirm whether the most popular models of the nature of spiral arms and bars are correct or not.
To properly do this, we need to know exactly where the spiral arms and bars are in the MaNGA galaxies, so that we can see how the stars vary in these different regions. Enter Galaxy Zoo: 3D, where volunteers are asked to tell us where the different components are.
All of this is what my most recent publication is about (read it in full at https://doi.org/10.1093/mnras/stz2204); we’ve shown that by combining the full spatial information available from MaNGA (augmented by Galaxy Zoo:3D) with the full distributions of the ages and metallicities of stars in each location, we can start to see some interesting things in the bar and spiral arms. It’s definitely best illustrated by an animation.
By splitting the age distributions up into different “time-slices”, we can create images of where stars of different ages are located in each of our MaNGA galaxies. Immediately from this one example, it’s obvious that there’s a lot of things going on here.
There are a few features in the animation that we’re not entirely convinced are real, but the main exciting things are that the spiral arms only show up in the youngest stars, and the bar grows and rotates as we move from older to younger stars. The growth of the bar is intriguing; this might be showing us how it formed. The bar changing with angle is even more exciting, and we think it shows us how quickly new-born stars become mixed and “locked” into the bar. The arms show what we should expect; spiral arms are areas of intense star formation, but over time the stars formed there will become mixed around the disk. We measured this effect by looking at what fraction of stars of each age are located in the volunteer-drawn spiral arms from Galaxy Zoo:3D.
This is really interesting, and highlights the power of combining large surveys like MaNGA with crowd-sourced information from the Zooniverse.
The next step is to do these kinds of things with more than just this one galaxy though. I’ve started looking at how these techniques can measure how fast the disks of spiral galaxies grew, using a large sample of spiral galaxies identified by Galaxy Zoo 2 volunteers. I’m also trying to measure how quickly stars get mixed away from spiral arms in different types of spiral galaxies. I have started to find some hints of some exciting results on both of these topics, which I would love to share in a future blog post if you’re interested.
However, I’m currently limited in the number of galaxies with spiral arm regions identified by Galaxy Zoo:3D volunteers, so it would be really helpful if we could get some more! Understanding what makes spiral structure appear in disky galaxies is one of the unsolved problems in galaxy evolution and formation, and the clues to finding out might well lie in measuring how spiral arms affect the galaxy’s stars. Galaxy Zoo:3D will definitely be able to play a role in this! Help us out at https://www.zooniverse.org/projects/klmasters/galaxy-zoo-3d.