Sunday, January 06, 2008


The local group of galaxies consists of two big spiral galaxies: our own Milky Way and Andromeda, and a rather small spiral galaxy known as the Triangulum and about 40 small galaxies of varied morphology.

Unlike most galaxies which are redshifted due to the expansion of the universe, Andromeda is blueshifted meaning that it is moving towards us. Eventually the Milky Way and Andromeda will collide, this is a bit uncertain because the only way to know for sure if the local group is bound we need to measure the radial and transverse velocities of its members, we can measure the radial speed from the redshift but transverse speeds are quite complicated to measure. Despite that, the measurements of the radial velocity of Andromeda are of 120 km s-¹ towards us and a transversal velocity of around 100 km s-¹ and it is certainly smaller than 200 km s-¹ (Loeb A., Reid M. J., Brunthaler A., Falcke H., 2005, ApJ,633, 894). Using this values we can conclude that the system is indeed bounded and that the merger is quite likely to happen.

The galaxies of the local group. Andromeda is clearly the biggest member (this doesn't means it is the most massive, we have reasons to believe that the Milky Way has more dark matter and is more massive). The only other major galaxy is Triangulum which is significantly smaller. The rest of galaxies are small and many of them have irregular morphologies like the Small Magellanic Cloud.

Kahn and Woltjer pioneered the study of the dynamics of the local group (Kahn F. D., Woltjer L., 1959, ApJ, 130, 705), they argued that Andromeda and the Milky Way formed quite closely and then separated with the expansion of the universe, then started to approach each other due to their gravitational attraction. From this suppositions they were able to estimate the mass of the local group and the size of the orbit.

A detailed simulation of this merger has been produced by T.J. Cox and Abraham Loeb (arxiv:0705.1170v1). They used a model of the local group proposed by Kyplin et al (Klypin A., Zhao H., Somerville R. S., 2002, ApJ, 573, 597) which has as much as 20 times more dark matter than baryonic matter. The diffuse intragroup medium was supposed to have a mass comparable to the mass of the galaxies. The simulations were carried with the GADGET 2 code (if you are computer and astro savvy, you can download this code and run your own simulations of astrophysical phenomena in your computer).

In this simulation we have the first detailed scenario for the Sun as the merger happens. This merger will start in less than 2 Gyr, first with tidal interactions that will create a stream of matter between the MW and Andromeda. As we mentioned in a previous post, the Earth will be out of the habitable zone in about 1.1 Gyr, unless some advanced civilization enlarges the radius of Earths orbit (Korycansky D. G., Laughlin G., Adams F. C., 2001,Ap&SS, 275, 349). Despite that, let's continue to discuss the fate of the solar system.

During the first close encounter, there is a 12% chance that the Sun will be pulled out of it's current position in the outer arms of the MW and reside in the extended tidal material between the MW and Andromeda, during this phase we expect a burst of star formation. After the second encounter the chance of residing in the tidal material rises to 30% and a more interesting outcome arises, there is a 2.7 % chance that the Sun will be captured by Andromeda. In this scenario any astronomer in the Earth will be able to see the MW (or rather its remains) from Andromeda in the night sky.

This is the simulation by Loeb et al. You can see that the collision won't be a head-on merger, but rather the two galaxies will spiral into each other, the final result of the merger is an elliptical galaxy.

After the merger is completed, the simulation suggests that the Sun will habit in the outer halo of a massive elliptic galaxy, which Cox and Loeb call Milkomeda. This is only a possible scenario using realistic assumptions about the local group, in their paper Cox and Loeb report a dozen of additional runs with different values of the density of the intragroup medium and the transverse medium and find that the outcome is esentially the same. The resulting galaxy has the R^(1/4) brightness distribution that is typical of elliptical galaxies, so our own local group will act as a prototype of the late forming elliptical galaxies.

Tomorrow the AAS anual reunion starts, so we can expect some nice news in astronomy for the next week!


muon said...

Two questions:

1) How much do these results depend on the modeling of black hole(s) at the center of the galaxy(ies)? Are the masses of the black holes large enough to play a significant dynamical role?

2) During the (near-)collision of the galaxies, how much higher will the probability for collisions of stars be compared to the probability now? Will there be changes to star populations?


Luis Sanchez said...

Hello muon, this are great questions!

A) As far as the dynamics of the merger concern, the black holes aren't that much relevant (the intracluster medium is much more important), but...

B) These black holes will almost surely merge into a single black hole, this is important because we have a relationship between the mass/brightness of a galaxy and the mass of its central black holes, the merger of the black holes is crucial for this relation in the merger of galaxies, during the formation of "Milkomeda" (or for that sake any galactic merger) the matter will start falling again in to the central black holes and form an AGN related starbust which takes us to...

C) Stellar populations do change, at the beginning of the starbusts the new formed massive stars quickly ionize the gas around them. This stars make the galaxy "color" bluer. Nonetheless, the gas reserves eventually are depleted and the galaxy gets a "red" color. So at the end of the merger galaxies end up as elliptical galaxies composed by old stars and lacking gas.

D) Despite the fact that new stars are formed in a phase of the merger, the gas available for making stars only accounts for the 7% of the baryonic mass of the MW, so even if it is completely transformed in to stars (which is false, star formation is a rather inefficient process) the star density won't rise that much, and the probability of collision between stars will remain to be quite low.

Luis Alberto

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