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Elliptical galaxies were once thought to be aging star cities whose star-making heyday was billions of years ago. But new observations with NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope are helping to show that elliptical galaxies still have some youthful vigor left, thanks to encounters with smaller galaxies.
Images of the core of NGC 4150, taken in near-ultraviolet light with the sharp-eyed Wide Field Camera 3 (WFC3), reveal streamers of dust and gas and clumps of young, blue stars that are significantly less than a billion years old. Evidence shows that the star birth was sparked by a merger with a dwarf galaxy.
The new study helps bolster the emerging view that most elliptical galaxies have young stars, bringing new life to old galaxies.
“Elliptical galaxies were thought to have made all of their stars billions of years ago,” said astronomer Mark Crockett of the University of Oxford, leader of the Hubble observations. “They had consumed all their gas to make new stars. Now we are finding evidence of star birth in many elliptical galaxies, fueled mostly by cannibalizing smaller galaxies.
“These observations support the theory that galaxies built themselves up over billions of years by collisions with dwarf galaxies,” Crockett continues. “NGC 4150 is a dramatic example in our galactic back yard of a common occurrence in the early universe.”
The Hubble images reveal turbulent activity deep inside the galaxy’s core. Clusters of young, blue stars trace a ring around the center that is rotating with the galaxy. The stellar breeding ground is about 1,300 light-years across. Long strands of dust are silhouetted against the yellowish core, which is composed of populations of older stars.
From a Hubble analysis of the stars’ colors, Crockett and his team calculated that the star-formation boom started about a billion years ago, a comparatively recent event in cosmological history. The galaxy’s star-making factory has slowed down since then.
“We are seeing this galaxy after the major starburst has occurred,” explains team member Joseph Silk of the University of Oxford. “The most massive stars are already gone. The youngest stars are between 50 million and 300 to 400 million years old. By comparison, most of the stars in the galaxy are around 10 billion years old.”
The encounter that triggered the star birth would have been similar to our Milky Way swallowing the nearby Large Magellanic Cloud.
Minor mergers such as this one are more ubiquitous than interactions between hefty galaxies, the astronomers said. For every major encounter, there are probably up to 10 times more frequent clashes between a large and a small galaxy.