Galaxies come in three main shapes - elliptical, spiral (such as the Milky Way) and irregular. They can be massive or small. To add to this mix, galaxies can also be blue or red. Blue galaxies are still actively forming stars. Red ones mostly are not currently forming stars, and are considered passive. The processes that cause galaxies to "quench," that is, cease star formation, are not well understood, however, and constitute an outstanding problem in the study of the evolution of galaxies. Now, using a large sample of around 70,000 galaxies, a team of researchers led by University of California, Riverside astronomers Behnam Darvish and Bahram Mobasher may have an explanation for why galaxies stop creating stars.
The research team, which included scientists at the California Institute of Technology and Lancaster University, United Kingdom, combed through available data from the COSMOS UltraVISTA survey that give accurate distance estimates for galaxies over the past 11 billion years, and focused on the effects of external and internal processes that influence star formation activity in galaxies.
External mechanisms, the research team notes, include drag generated from an infalling galaxy within a cluster of galaxies, which pulls gas away; multiple gravitational encounters with other galaxies and the dense surrounding environment, resulting in material being stripped away from the galaxy; and the halting of the supply of cold gas to the galaxy, thus strangling the galaxy of the material needed to produce new stars over a prolonged period of time.
The researchers explain that internal mechanisms include the presence of a black hole (in which jets, winds, or intense radiation heat up hydrogen gas in the galaxy or blow it out completely, thus preventing the gas from cooling and contracting to form stars) and "stellar outflow" (for example, high-velocity winds produced by massive young stars and supernovae that push the gas out of the host galaxy).
"By using the observable properties of the galaxies and sophisticated statistical methods, we show that, on average, external processes are only relevant to quenching galaxies during the last eight billion years," said Darvish, a former graduate student in the UC Riverside Department of Physics and Astronomy and the first author of the research paper that appears today in The Astrophysical Journal. "On the other hand, internal processes are the dominant mechanism for shutting off star-formation before this time, and closer to the beginning of the universe."