Galaxies get more chaotic as they age

4 April 2024
Age the driving force changing how stars move within galaxies, study finds
Research led by Professor Scott Croom from ASTRO 3D and the School of Physics has ruled out mass and environmental factors as the main drivers of increasing galactic chaos. Data from more than 3000 galaxies has shown it is age that leads to relative 'disorganisation' in galactic structure.
An image taken by the Subaru Telescope of one of over 3000 galaxies observed by the SAMI team.  Credit: HSC-SSP/M. Koike/NAOJ.

An image taken by the Subaru Telescope of one of more than 3000 galaxies observed by the SAMI Galaxy Survey team.  Credit: HSC-SSP/M. Koike/NAOJ

Galaxies start life with their stars rotating in an orderly pattern but in some the motion of stars is more random. Until now, scientists have been uncertain about what causes this – possibly the surrounding environment or the mass of the galaxy itself.

A new study, published in the Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society, has reported that the most important factor is neither of these things. It shows the tendency of the stars to have random motion is driven mostly by the age of the galaxy – things just get messy over time.

The study’s lead author is Professor Scott Croom from the School of Physics, ARC ASTRO 3D and Sydney Institute for Astronomy.

He said: “When we did the analysis, we found that age, consistently, whichever way we slice or dice it, is always the most important parameter. Once you account for age, there is essentially no environmental trend, and it’s similar for mass.

“If you find a young galaxy it will be rotating, whatever environment it is in, and if you find an old galaxy, it will have more random orbits, whether it’s in a dense environment or a void.”

Updating galactic knowledge

The study updates our understanding from previous studies that have variously suggested environment or mass as more important factors. But the earlier work is not necessarily incorrect, said second author Dr Jesse van de Sande.

Young galaxies are star-forming super-factories, while in older ones, star formation ceases.

“We do know that age is affected by environment. If a galaxy falls into a dense environment, it will tend to shut down the star formation. So, galaxies in denser environments are, on average, older,” Dr van de Sande said.

“The point of our analysis is that it’s not living in dense environments that reduces their spin, it’s the fact that they’re older.”

Our own galaxy, the Milky Way, still has a thin star forming disk, so is still considered a high spin rotational galaxy.

Professor Croom said: “But when we look at the Milky Way in detail, we do see something called the Milky Way thick disk. It’s not dominant, in terms of light, but it is there and those look to be older stars, which may well have been heated from the thin disk at earlier times, or born with more turbulent motion in the early Universe.”

SAMI Galaxy Survey

The research used data from observations made under the SAMI Galaxy Survey. The SAMI instrument was built in 2012 by the University of Sydney and the Anglo-Australian Observatory (now Astralis). SAMI uses the Anglo-Australian Telescope, at Siding Spring Observatory, near Coonabarabran, New South Wales. It has surveyed 3000 galaxies across a large range of environments.

comparison of young (top) and old (bottom) galaxies showing rotational velocity.

A comparison of a young (top) and old (bottom) galaxy observed as part of the SAMI Galaxy Survey, including rotational velocity (centre) and random velocities (right).  The top galaxy has an average age of 2 billion years, high rotation and low random motion. The bottom galaxy has an average age of 12.5 billion years, slower rotation and much larger random motion. Image from the Hyper Suprime-Cam Subaru Strategic Program

The study allows astronomers to rule out many processes when trying to understand galaxy formation and fine-tune models of how the Universe has developed. The next steps will be to develop simulations of galaxy evolution with more granular detail.

“One of the challenges of getting simulations right is the high resolution you need to predict what's going on. Typical current simulations are based on particles which have the mass of maybe 100,000 stars and you can't resolve small-scale structures in galaxy disks,” Professor Croom said.

The Hector Galaxy Survey will help Professor Croom and his team expand this work using a new instrument on the Anglo-Australian Telescope.

Professor Julia Bryant inside the SAMI survey telescope. Photo: Scott Croom

Professor Julia Bryant inside the SAMI survey telescope. Photo: Scott Croom

“Hector is observing 15,000 galaxies but with higher spectral resolution, allowing the age and spin of galaxies to be measured even in much lower mass galaxies and with more detailed environmental information,” said Professor Julia Bryant, lead of the Hector Galaxy Survey at the University of Sydney.

Professor Emma Ryan-Weber, Director of ASTRO 3D, said: “These findings answer one of the key questions posed by ASTRO 3D: how does mass and angular momentum evolve in the Universe? This careful work by the SAMI team reveals that the age of a galaxy determines how the stars orbit. This critical piece of information contributes to a clearer big-picture view of the Universe.”

The research team also included scientists from Macquarie University, Swinburne University of Technology, the University of Western Australia, the Australian National University, the University of New South Wales, the University of Cambridge, the University of Queensland, and Yonsei University in the Republic of Korea.

SAMI Galaxy Survey in operation


The authors declare no competing interests. Research was funded by the Australian Research Council

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