Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Isolating a thick disc in Andromeda

Schematic representation of a thick disc structure. The thick disc is formed of stars that are typically much older than those in the thin disc, making it an ideal probe of galactic evolution . Credit: Amanda Smith, IoA graphics officer

A team of astronomers from the UK, the US and Europe have identified a thick stellar disc in the nearby Andromeda galaxy for the first time. The discovery and properties of the thick disc will constrain the dominant physical processes involved in the formation and evolution of large spiral galaxies like our own Milky Way.

By analysing precise measurements of the velocities of individual bright stars within the Andromeda galaxy using the Keck telescope in Hawaii, the team have managed to separate out stars tracing out a thick disc from those comprising the thin disc, and assess how they differ in height, width and chemistry.

Optical image of The Andromeda galaxy (M31)
Credit: Robert Gendler

Spiral structure dominates the morphology of large galaxies at the present time, with roughly 70% of all stars contained in a flat stellar disc. The disc structure contains the spiral arms traced by regions of active star formation, and surrounds a central bulge of old stars at the core of the galaxy. “From observations of our own Milky Way and other nearby spirals, we know that these galaxies typically possess two stellar discs, both a ‘thin’ and a ‘thick’ disc,” explains the leader of the study, Michelle Collins, a PhD student at Cambridge’s Institute of Astronomy. The thick disc consists of older stars whose orbits take them along a path that extends both above and below the more regular thin disc. “The classical thin stellar discs that we typically see in Hubble imaging result from the accretion of gas towards the end of a galaxy’s formation, whereas thick discs are produced in a much earlier phase of the galaxy’s life, making them ideal tracers of the processes involved in galactic evolution.”

Currently, the formation process of the thick disc is not well understood. Previously, the best hope for comprehending this structure was by studying the thick disc of our own Galaxy, but much of this is obscured from our view. The discovery of a similar thick disk in Andromeda presents a much cleaner view of spiral structure. Andromeda is our nearest large spiral neighbour -- close enough to be visible to the unaided eye -- and can be seen in its entirety from the Milky Way. Astronomers will be able to determine the properties of the disk across the full extent of the galaxy and look for signatures of the events connected to its formation. It requires a huge amount of energy to stir up a galaxy's stars to form a thick disc component, and theoretical models proposed include accretion of smaller satellite galaxies, or more subtle and continuous heating of stars within the galaxy by spiral arms.

Ages and orientations of the stellar components of disc galaxies. The halo (or spheroid) contains the oldest populations, followed by the thick stellar disc. The thin disc typically contains the youngest generations of stars. Credit: RAVE collaboration

"Our initial study of this component already suggests that it is likely older than the thin disc, with a different chemical composition'' commented UCLA Astronomer, Mike Rich, "Future more detailed observations should enable us to unravel the formation of the disc system in Andromeda, with the potential to apply this understanding to the formation of spiral galaxies throughout the Universe.''

"This result is one of the most exciting to emerge from the larger parent survey of the motions and chemistry of stars in the outskirts of Andromeda,'' said fellow team member, Dr. Scott Chapman, also at the Institute of Astronomy. "Finding this thick disc has afforded us a unique and spectacular view of the formation of the Andromeda system, and will undoubtedly assist in our understanding of this complex process.''

This study was published in Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society (see the accepted paper) by Michelle Collins, Scott Chapman and Mike Irwin from the Institute of Astronomy, together with Rodrigo Ibata from L'Observatoire de Strasbourg, Mike Rich from University of California, Los Angeles, Annette Ferguson from the Institute for Astronomy in Edinburgh, Geraint Lewis from the University of Sydney, and Nial Tanvir and Andreas Koch from the University of Leicester.

This study is published in Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society: