How do galaxies grow?

August 26, 2008

How do galaxies form? The most widely accepted answer to this fundamental question is the model of 'hierarchical formation', a step-wise process in which small galaxies merge to build larger ones. One can think of the galaxies forming in a similar way to how streams merge to form rivers, and how these rivers, in turn, merge to form an even larger river. This theoretical model predicts that massive galaxies grow through many merging events in their lifetime. But when did their cosmological growth spurts finish? When did the most massive galaxies get most of their mass?

To answer these questions, astronomers study massive galaxies in clusters, the cosmological equivalent of cities filled with galaxies. "Whether the brightest galaxies in clusters grew substantially in the last few billion years is intensely debated. Our observations show that in this time, these galaxies have increased their mass by 50%," says Kim-Vy Tran from the University of Zürich, Switzerland, who led the research.

The astronomers made use of a large ensemble of telescopes and instruments, including ESO's Very Large Telescope (VLT) and the Hubble Space Telescope, to study in great detail galaxies located 4 billion light-years away. These galaxies lie in an extraordinary system made of four galaxy groups that will assemble into a cluster.

In particular, the team took images with VIMOS and spectra with FORS2, both instruments on the VLT. From these and other observations, the astronomers could identify a total of 198 galaxies belonging to these four groups.

The brightest galaxies in each group contain between 100 and 1000 billion of stars, a property that makes them comparable to the most massive galaxies belonging to clusters.

"Most surprising is that in three of the four groups, the brightest galaxy also has a bright companion galaxy. These galaxy pairs are merging systems," says Tran.

The brightest galaxy in each group can be ordered in a time sequence that shows how luminous galaxies continue to grow by merging until recently, that is, in the last 5 billion years. It appears that due to the most recent episode of this 'galactic cannibalism', the brightest galaxies became at least 50% more massive.

This discovery provides unique and powerful validation of hierarchical formation as manifested in both galaxy and cluster assembly.

"The stars in these galaxies are already old and so we must conclude that the recent merging did not produce a new generation of stars," concludes Tran. "Most of the stars in these galaxies were born at least 7 billion years ago."
-end-
The team is composed of Kim-Vy H. Tran (Institute for Theoretical Physics, University of Zürich, Switzerland), John Moustakas (New York University, USA), Anthony H. Gonzalez and Stefan J. Kautsch (University of Florida, Gainesville, USA), and Lei Bai and Dennis Zaritsky (Steward Observatory, University of Arizona, USA). The results presented here are published in the Astrophysical Journal Letters: "The Late Stellar Assembly Of Massive Cluster Galaxies Via Major Merging", by Tran et al.

ESO

Related Astronomers Articles from Brightsurf:

Astronomers are bulging with data
For the first time, over 250 million stars in our galaxy's bulge have been surveyed in near-ultraviolet, optical, and near-infrared light, opening the door for astronomers to reexamine key questions about the Milky Way's formation and history.

Astronomers capture a pulsar 'powering up'
A Monash-University-led collaboration has, for the first time, observed the full, 12-day process of material spiralling into a distant neutron star, triggering an X-ray outburst thousands of times brighter than our Sun.

Astronomers discover new class of cosmic explosions
Analysis of two cosmic explosions indicates to astronomers that the pair, along with a puzzling blast from 2018, constitute a new type of event, with similarities to some supernovae and gamma-ray bursts, but also with significant differences.

Astronomers discover planet that never was
What was thought to be an exoplanet in a nearby star system likely never existed in the first place, according to University of Arizona astronomers.

Canadian astronomers determine Earth's fingerprint
Two McGill University astronomers have assembled a 'fingerprint' for Earth, which could be used to identify a planet beyond our Solar System capable of supporting life.

Astronomers help wage war on cancer
Techniques developed by astronomers could help in the fight against breast and skin cancer.

Astronomers make history in a split second
In a world first, an Australian-led international team of astronomers has determined the precise location of a powerful one-off burst of cosmic radio waves.

Astronomers witness galaxy megamerger
Using the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA), an international team of scientists has uncovered a startlingly dense concentration of 14 galaxies that are poised to merge, forming the core of what will eventually become a colossal galaxy cluster.

Astronomers discover a star that would not die
An international team of astronomers has made a bizarre discovery; a star that refuses to stop shining.

Astronomers spun up by galaxy-shape finding
For the first time astronomers have measured how a galaxy's spin affects its shape -- something scientists have tried to do for 90 years -- using a sample of 845 galaxies.

Read More: Astronomers News and Astronomers Current Events
Brightsurf.com is a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to Amazon.com.