“Wasteful” galaxies launch heavy elements into surrounding halos and deep space, study finds

Research shows that more oxygen, carbon, and iron atoms exist in the sprawling gaseous halos outside galaxies than exist within the galaxies themselves.
By | Published: June 6, 2016 | Last updated on May 18, 2023
Circumgalactic medium
Spiral galaxies like the Milky Way are shown in the center, surrounded by the circumgalactic medium, which appears as black to our eyes. However, the circumgalactic medium contains very hot gas, shown in red, orange, and white that outweighs the central galaxies. The Cosmic Origins Spectrograph on the Hubble Space Telescope is an ultra-violet spectrograph that can probe these gaseous filaments and clumps.
Adrien Thob, LJMU
Galaxies “waste” large amounts of heavy elements generated by star formation by ejecting them up to a million light-years away into their surrounding halos and deep space, according to a new study led by the University of Colorado Boulder.

The research shows that more oxygen, carbon, and iron atoms exist in the sprawling gaseous halos outside galaxies than exist within the galaxies themselves, leaving the galaxies with fewer raw materials needed to build stars, planets, and life itself.

“Previously, we thought that these heavier elements would be recycled into future generations of stars and contribute to forming planetary systems and providing the building blocks of life,” said Benjamin Oppenheimer from the Center for Astrophysics and Space Astronomy (CASA) at CU-Boulder. “As it turns out, galaxies aren’t very good at recycling.”

The near-invisible reservoir of gas that surrounds a galaxy, known as the circumgalactic medium (CGM), is thought to play a central role in cycling elements in and out of the galaxy, but the exact mechanisms of this relationship remain elusive. A typical galaxy ranges in size from 30,000 to 100,000 light-years while the CGM can span up to a million light-years.

The researchers used data from the Cosmic Origin Spectrograph (COS), a $70 million instrument, designed to study the composition of the CGM. COS is installed on NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope and uses ultraviolet spectroscopy to study the evolution of the universe.

Spiral galaxies like the Milky Way actively form stars and have a bluish color while elliptical galaxies have little star formation and appear red. Both types of galaxies contain tens to hundreds of billions of stars that create heavy elements.

After running a series of simulations, the researchers found that the CGMs in both types of galaxies contained more than half a galaxy’s heavier elements, suggesting that galaxies are not as efficient at retaining their raw materials as previously thought.

“The remarkable similarity of the galaxies in our simulations to those targeted by the COS team enables us to interpret the observations with greater confidence,” said Robert Crain from Liverpool John Moores University.

The new simulations also explain the puzzling COS observation that there appears to be less oxygen around elliptical than spiral galaxies.

“The CGM of the elliptical galaxies is hotter,” said Joop Schaye from Leiden University in the Netherlands. “The high temperatures, topping over 1 million degrees Kelvin, reduce the fraction of the oxygen that is five times ionized, which is the ion observed by COS.”

By contrast, the temperature of the CGM gas in spiral galaxies is 300,000° Kelvin, or around fifty times hotter than the surface of the Sun.

“It takes massive amounts of energy from exploding supernovae and supermassive black holes to launch all these heavy elements into the CGM,” said Oppenheimer. “This is a violent and long-lasting process that can take over 10 billion years, which means that in a galaxy like the Milky Way this highly ionized oxygen we’re observing has been there since before the Sun was born.”