Galaxies — systems like our Milky Way that contain up to hundreds of billions of stars — are the basic building blocks of the cosmos. One ambitious goal of contemporary astronomy is to understand the ways in which galaxies grow and evolve, a key question being star formation: What determines the number of new stars that will form in a galaxy?
The Sculptor Galaxy (NGC 253) is a spiral galaxy located in the southern constellation Sculptor. At a distance of around 11.5 million light-years from our solar system, it is one of our closer intergalactic neighbors and one of the closest starburst galaxies visible from the Southern Hemisphere. Using ALMA, astronomers have discovered billowing columns of cold dense gas fleeing from the center of the galactic disk.
“With ALMA’s superb resolution and sensitivity, we can clearly see for the first time massive concentrations of cold gas being jettisoned by expanding shells of intense pressure created by young stars,” said Alberto Bolatto of the University of Maryland in College Park. “The amount of gas we measure gives us very good evidence that some growing galaxies spew out more gas than they take in. We may be seeing a present-day example of a very common occurrence in the early universe.”
These results may help to explain why astronomers have found surprisingly few high-mass galaxies throughout the cosmos. Computer models show that older, redder galaxies should have considerably more mass and a larger number of stars than we currently observe. It seems that the galactic winds or outflow of gas are so strong that they deprive the galaxy of the fuel for the formation of the next generation of stars.
“These features trace an arc that is almost perfectly aligned with the edges of the previously observed hot ionized gas outflow,” said Fabian Walter from the Max Planck Institute for Astronomy in Heidelberg, Germany. “We can now see the step-by-step progression of starburst to outflow.”
The researchers determined that vast quantities of molecular gas — nearly 10 times the mass of our Sun each year and possibly much more — were being ejected from the galaxy at velocities between 90,000 and 600,000 mph (150,000 and 1,000,000 km/h). The total amount of gas ejected would add up to more gas than actually went into forming the galaxy’s stars in the same time. At this rate, the galaxy could run out of gas in as few as 60 million years.
“For me, this is a prime example of how new instruments shape the future of astronomy,” Walter said. “We have been studying the starburst region of NGC 253 and other nearby starburst galaxies for almost 10 years, but before ALMA, we had no chance to see such details.” The study used an early configuration of ALMA with only 16 antennas. “It’s exciting to think what the complete ALMA with 66 antennas will show for this kind of outflow!”
More studies with the full ALMA array will help determine the ultimate fate of the gas carried away by the wind, which will reveal whether the starburst-driven winds are recycling or truly removing star forming material.