Astrophysicists who were analyzing galaxy formation recently looked at how intergalactic gas and dust is transported over time and across great distances. They found that up to half of the matter in our Milky Way galaxy likely comes from other galaxies far, far away.
“Given how much of the matter out of which we formed may have come from other galaxies, we could consider ourselves space travelers or extragalactic immigrants,” Daniel Anglés-Alcázar, an astrophysics postdoctoral fellow from Northwestern University who led the study, said in a statement. “It is likely that much of the Milky Way’s matter was in other galaxies before it was kicked out by a powerful wind, traveled across intergalactic space and eventually found its new home in the Milky Way.”
This is a “first-of-its-kind analysis,” the team said, with the findings opening a new line of research into understanding galaxy formation. The study appears in the Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society.
Anglés-Alcázar and his fellow researchers used a supercomputer simulation based on the FIRE (Feedback in Realistic Environments) project, which is co-led by Northwestern physics and astronomy professor Claude-André Faucher-Giguère. FIRE uses numerical simulations that can produce realistic 3D models of galaxies. Anglés-Alcázar developed state-of-the-art algorithms to follow how a galaxy forms over time, from just after the Big Bang to the present day.
The findings on galactic evolution were unexpected, and the researchers coined a new term to explain the phenomenon: intergalactic transfer.
The simulations showed that supernova explosions within galaxies eject enormous amounts of gas, which causes atoms to be transported from one galaxy to another via powerful galactic winds. Even though galaxies are far apart from each other, the galactic winds propagate material at several hundred kilometers per second, and over several billion years this process infused new material into galaxies, sparking star formation.
“We show that in situ star formation fueled by fresh accretion dominates the early growth of galaxies of all masses, while the re-accretion of gas previously ejected in galactic winds often dominates the gas supply for a large portion of every galaxy’s evolution,” the team wrote. “Externally processed material contributes increasingly to the growth of central galaxies at lower redshifts.”
By tracking in detail the complex flows of matter in the simulations, the research team found that gas flows from smaller galaxies to larger galaxies, such as the Milky Way, where the gas forms stars. Additionally, even stars formed in one galaxy could be transferred to another. This transfer of mass through galactic winds can account for up to 50 percent of matter in the larger galaxies, the researchers said.
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