We’re extremely excited to announce the launch of two new image sets today on Galaxy Zoo. Working with some new scientific collaborators over the past few months, we’ve been able to access data from two new sources. This blogpost will go into more details on where the images come from, what you might expect to see, and what scientific questions your classifications will help us answer. (See Part 1 of this post to learn about the other new images from the DECaLS survey).
The second set of new data comes from the Illustris Project. Illustris is a state-of-the-art simulation of the Universe, led by a large team of researchers in the US, UK, and Germany. Large-scale cosmological simulations are a critical tool in astronomy; since we don’t have laboratories where we can replicate the conditions of processes like galaxy formation, we use computer simulations to investigate them instead. Such simulations start with what we believe conditions in the very early Universe were like (which we infer from the cosmic microwave background), and can include both dark matter and baryons (particles like protons and neutrons that eventually form the stars, dust and gas in galaxies). The simulation then tracks what happens to the matter and energy over billions of years as the Universe expands, evolving according to the laws of physics that are programmed into the simulation. This includes relations like the law of gravity, which dominates how dark matter moves, and hydrodynamics, which describe the motions of the gas. It’s truly amazing – scientists can watch galaxies form and evolve over huge scales of distance and time, and compare the results to real observations to test if the physics of the simulations are correct. Illustris is one of the largest and most detailed simulations ever run, taking more than 19 million CPU hours to run on powerful supercomputers.
This comparison to real data is the key feature that sparked the collaboration between Illustris and Galaxy Zoo. Once the simulation is run, astronomers analyze the results to see if their galaxies match the properties of those seen in the real Universe. This includes measurements like the total number of stars formed, the ratio of stars to dark matter, and the distribution of galaxies of different masses and luminosities. Another critical parameter we want to compare is galaxy morphology; measuring the ratio of ellipticals to spirals, for example, is an important test of whether the galaxy merger rate is correct, and if the simulation codes for star formation and gravitational interaction are correct.
The Illustris scientists have created images of the galaxies from their simulation that GZ volunteers will classify by their morphology. Our comparison data set for this will be the SDSS results from Galaxy Zoo 2, and the images are designed to match the Sloan images as closely as possible. This includes the same set of filters for the telescope, sizing the images so that the galaxies look like they’re at cosmic distance from the Milky Way, and setting them against backgrounds of stars and other galaxies. The quality of the simulations and images are amazing – these look to me like real galaxies in every way. It’s something that astronomers definitely couldn’t do ten years ago.
Although these images aren’t of “real” galaxies, we want to emphasize again how much your classifications will help scientists to do astronomical research. Simulations like Illustris are the only way that we can probe galaxy formation and evolution as it happens. Your classifications, both from Galaxy Zoo 2 and from the new Illustris data, provide vital tests for the output and will be fed back to the science teams in order to improve future versions of these sims.
If you have questions or want to discuss anything you see in the new images, please join the discussion with scientists and volunteers on Talk. The Illustris Project also has some amazing online tools if you want to learn more, including an interactive explorer of the simulation and videos of the evolving Universe. You also can explore specific galaxies you’ve classified via GZ:Examine. As always, thanks to everyone for your help!
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.