Next time you hike in the woods, pause at a babbling stream. Watch carefully how the water flows around rocks. After piling up in curved waves on the upstream side, like the bow wave in front of a motorboat, the water speeds around the rock, spilling into a riotous, turbulent wake downstream. Lightweight leaves or grass blades can get trapped in the wake, swirling round and round in little eddy currents that collect debris.
Astronomers have found something similar happening in the turbulent wake of a tiny galaxy that is plunging into a cluster of 1,500 galaxies in the constellation Virgo. In this case, however, instead of collecting grass and leaves, eddy currents in the little galaxy’s tail seem to be gathering gaseous material to make new stars.
“It’s a fascinating case of turbulence [rather than gravity] trapping the gas, allowing it to become dense enough to form stars,” says Janice A. Hester of the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena.
The tell-tale galaxy, designated IC 3418, is only a hundredth the size of the Milky Way and hardly stands out in visible light images of the busy Virgo Cluster. Astronomers realized it was interesting, however, when they looked at it using NASA's Galaxy Evolution Explorer satellite. “Ultraviolet images from the Galaxy Evolution Explorer revealed a long tail filled with clusters of massive, young stars,” explains Hester.
Galaxies with spectacular tails have been seen before. Usually they are behemoths–large spiral galaxies colliding with one another in the crowded environment of a busy cluster. Tidal forces during the collision pull gas and stars of all ages out of these massive galaxies to form long tails. But in IC 3418, the tail has just young stars. No old stars.
“The lack of older stars was one tip-off that IC 3418’s tail isn’t tidal,” says Hester. “Something else must be responsible for these stars”.
Hester and eight coauthors published their findings in the June 10, 2010, issue of The Astrophysical Journal Letters. The team described the following scenario: IC 3418 is speeding toward the center of the Virgo cluster at 1,000 kilometers per second. The space between cluster galaxies is not empty; it is filled with a gaseous atmosphere of diffuse, hot hydrogen. Thus, like a bicyclist coasting downhill feels wind even on a calm day, IC 3418 experiences “a stiff wind” that sweeps interstellar gas right out of the little galaxy, said Hester–gas that trails far behind its galaxy in a choppy, twisting wake akin to the wake downstream of the rock in the babbling brook. Eddy currents swirling in the turbulent wake trap the gas, allowing it to become dense enough to form stars.
“Astronomers have long debated the importance of gravity vs. turbulence in star formation,” Hester noted. “In IC 3418’s tail, it’s ALL turbulence.”
To many astronomers, that’s a surprising tale indeed.
See other surprising UV images from the Galaxy Evolution Explorer at http://www.galex.caltech.edu. Kids (and grownups) can play the challenging new Photon Pileup game at http://spaceplace.nasa.gov/en/kids/galex/photon/ .
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