Killing Star Formation in Satellite Galaxies

When a dwarf galaxy falls into the halo of a large galaxy like the Milky Way, how is star formation in the dwarf affected? A collaboration led by Andrew Wetzel (California Institute of Technology and Carnegie Observatories) recently set out to answer this question using observations of nearby galaxies and simulations of the infall process.

Observed Quenching

Isolated dwarf galaxies tend to be gas-rich and very actively star-forming. In contrast, most dwarf galaxies within 300 kpc of us (the Milky Way’s virial radius) contain little or no cold gas, and they’re quiescent: there’s not much star formation happening.

And this isn’t just true of the Milky Way; we observe the same difference in the satellite galaxies surrounding Andromeda galaxy. Once a dwarf galaxy has moved into the gravitational realm of a larger galaxy, the satellite’s gas vanishes rapidly and its star formation is shut off — but how, and on what timescale?

Known dwarf galaxies

The known dwarf galaxies in the Local Group (out to 1.6 Mpc) are plotted by their distance from their host vs. their stellar mass. Blue stars indicate actively star-forming dwarfs and red circles indicate quiescent ones. Credit: Wetzel et al. 2015.

Timescales for Quiescence

To answer these questions, the authors explored the process of galaxy infall using Exploring the Local Volume in Simulations (ELVIS), a suite of cosmological N-body simulations intended to explore the Local Group. They combined the infall times from the simulations with observational knowledge of the fraction of nearby galaxies that are currently quiescent, in order to determine what timescales are required for different processes to deplete the gas in the dwarf galaxies and quench star formation.

Based on their results, two types of quenching culprits are at work: gas consumption (where a galaxy simply uses up its immediate gas supply and doesn’t have access to more) and gas stripping (where external forces like ram pressure remove gas from the galaxy).

These processes operate at different rates for different sizes of galaxies. The authors argue that for galaxies with stellar mass larger than 109 solar masses, the primary means of quenching is gas consumption. The timescale for this mechanism to quench the largest galaxies is roughly 5 Gyr. For galaxies with stellar mass smaller than 109 solar masses, gas stripping takes over, and star-formation is quenched within 1 Gyr for the smallest galaxies.

Neither quenching mechanisms operates efficiently for galaxies with stellar mass right around 109 solar masses, though, so these galaxies can sustain star formation for much longer. This could explain why the Magellanic clouds (which both have stellar mass of roughly 109 solar masses) are still star-forming despite being within the Milky Way’s halo!



Andrew R. Wetzel et al. 2015 ApJ 808 L27 doi:10.1088/2041-8205/808/1/L27

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