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Infant Galaxies in Nearby Group

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A false-color radio image (data supplied by Dr. Min Yun, University of Massachusetts) of the hydrogen gas in the M81 Group. While much of the gas is bound to M81, a tidal stream linking M81 to NGC3077 is also seen. This gas was pulled into intergalactic space when the galaxies interacted about 300 million years ago. The blue points show the locations of young stars discovered in the survey (the survey region is outlined in yellow); these stars are coincident with the gas. The inset shows a color close up of one of the 'tidal dwarf' candidates (indicated by the white box), where the greatest concentration of blue stars is found. These stars are believed to have formed from the gas less than 100 million years ago. This material was presented to the American Astronomical Society meeting in Atlanta, Georgia on 8 January 2004.

Credit: Patrick Durrell and Megan DeCesar (Penn State University), based on HI data from Dr. Min Yun (University of Massachusetts), originally published by him in 1994.

A team of astronomers has discovered objects in the nearby M81 Galaxy Group that may be small, young galaxies that have formed only recently. If confirmed, these objects would be among the nearest examples of tidal dwarf galaxies — small galaxies formed from gas expelled by a larger galaxy due to gravitational interactions with other galaxies in the group. A report of their work is being presented today at the American Astronomical Society meeting in Atlanta, Georgia.

The team members presenting the report at the meeting include Megan DeCesar, an undergraduate student at Penn State University in University Park, Pennsylvania; Patrick Durrell, a research associate at Penn State; and John Feldmeier, a research associate at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, Ohio, and a National Science Foundation Astronomy and Astrophysics Postdoctoral Fellow. Other team members include Robin Ciardullo, professor of astronomy and astrophysics at Penn State; and Denise Hurley-Keller, research associate at Case Western Reserve University and a National Science Foundation Astronomy and Astrophysics Postdoctoral Fellow.

To find these curious objects, the team used the 100-Megapixel CCD camera of the Canada-France-Hawaii Telescope (CFHT), which can image a area of the sky 1.5 times the area of the Full Moon. In their search of the "empty'' regions between the galaxies M81 and NGC3077, the team found two small clumps of bright blue stars. These clumps, each of which are over 3000 light years across, have never been observed before and may reflect the initial burst of star formation in newly formed galaxies.

The M81 group of galaxies, named for its largest member, lies about 12 million light years from us. Like the Local Group of galaxies, home to the Milky Way, the M81 Group consists of a few large spirals and a few dozen smaller dwarf galaxies. However, the large spirals in the M81 group have passed close to each other recently — about 200 to 300 million years ago according to computer simulations. This close encounter caused large streams of hydrogen gas to be ripped out into intergalactic space. The clumps of young blue stars discovered by DeCesar and her collaborators lie inside these regions of stripped gas. Says Durrell, "These stars have almost certainly been formed inside the gas clouds. It gives us a close-up view of how star formation can occur when two galaxies pass close to each other.''

What these new objects truly are is unclear. They may well be tiny young galaxies which have just begun to form stars, each with less than 0.1 percent as many stars as our own Milky Way galaxy. Alternatively, these stars may not be bound to any galaxy, and may be destined to live their lives in intracluster space. What is clear, however, is that these stars did not form inside any of the large galaxies. Because hot blue stars live only a short time, their presence implies that the clumps cannot be more than 100 million years old, which is extremely young compared to most galaxies. Moreover, the new stars must have formed outside of the larger galaxies because the M81 group gas was stripped from its parent galaxies during the interaction over 200 million years ago. Hurley-Keller adds, "If these stars had formed inside the large galaxies, and then simply got ripped out, they would have expired long ago, before we could detect them."

If the young star clumps are indeed 'infant' dwarf galaxies, they would be among the closest examples of tidal dwarf galaxies. But even if these objects are not dwarf galaxies, their existence still proves that star formation can take place without a parent galaxy if there is a sufficient amount of gas around to make the process work. Says Feldmeier, "We have plenty of evidence that large galaxy clusters have stars outside the galaxies, but in this nearby, less-dense group, we are seeing stars actually form in intergalactic space.''

[ P D / R C /B K K ]


Patrick Durrell: 814-865-2918, pdurrell@astro.psu.edu
Denise Hurley-Keller: 216-368-6699, denise@smaug.astr.cwru.edu
Robin Ciardullo: 814-865-6601, rbc@astro.psu.edu
John Feldmeier: 216-368-0310, johnf@bottom.astr.cwru.edu
Barbara Kennedy (PIO): science@psu.edu or 814-863-4682

Click on image for high-resolution file.
An optical image of the galaxies NGC3077 (left) and M81 (right), showing the field covered by the survey. The area is a degree across. The original goal of the project was to look for old stars between these galaxies. Unexpectedly, newly formed stars were discovered in intergalactic space. This material was presented to the American Astronomical Society meeting in Atlanta, Georgia on 8 January 2004.

Photo Credit for Figure: The Digitized Sky Survey was produced at the Space Telescope Science Institute under U.S. Government grant NAG W-2166. The images of these surveys are based on photographic data obtained using the Oschin Schmidt Telescope on Palomar Mountain and the UK Schmidt Telescope. The plates were processed into the present compressed digital form with the permission of these institutions. The Second Palomar Observatory Sky Survey (POSS-II) was made by the California Institute of Technology with funds from the National Science Foundation, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, the National Geographic Society, the Sloan Foundation, the Samuel Oschin Foundation, and the Eastman Kodak Corporation.

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