Starbursts in dwarf galaxies last 100 times longer than astronomers thought

May 1st, 2009 - 3:35 pm ICT by ANI  

Hubble Space Telescope Washington, May 1 (ANI): An analysis of archival images of small, or dwarf, galaxies taken by NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope suggests that starbursts, intense regions of star formation, sweep across the whole galaxy and last 100 times longer than astronomers thought.

The longer duration may affect how dwarf galaxies change over time, and therefore may shed light on galaxy evolution.

“Our analysis shows that starburst activity in a dwarf galaxy happens on a global scale,” explained Kristen McQuinn of the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis and leader of the study.

“There are pockets of intense star formation that propagate throughout the galaxy, like a string of firecrackers going off,” she added.

According to McQuinn, the duration of all the starburst events in a single dwarf galaxy would total 200 million to 400 million years.

These longer timescales are vastly more than the 5 million to 10 million years proposed by astronomers who have studied star formation in dwarf galaxies.

“They were only looking at individual clusters and not the whole galaxy, so they assumed starbursts in galaxies lasted for a short time,” McQuinn said.

Dwarf galaxies are considered by many astronomers to be the building blocks of the large galaxies seen today, so the length of starbursts is important for understanding how galaxies evolve.

“Astronomers are really interested to find out the steps of galaxy evolution,” McQuinn said.

“Exploring these smaller galaxies is important because, according to popular theory, large galaxies are created from the merger of smaller, dwarf galaxies. So understanding these smaller pieces is an important part of filling in that scenario,” she added.

McQuinn’s team analyzed archival Advanced Camera for Surveys data of three dwarf galaxies: NGC 4163, NGC 4068, and IC 4662.

Their distances range from 8 million to 14 million light-years away. The trio is part of a survey of starbursts in 18 nearby dwarf galaxies.

Hubble’s superb resolution allowed McQuinn’s team to pick out individual stars in the galaxies and measure their brightness and color.

Two of the galaxies, NGC 4068 and IC 4662, show active, brilliant starburst regions in the Hubble images.

The most recent starburst in the third galaxy, NGC 4163, occurred 200 million years ago and has faded from view.

The team looked at regions of high and low densities of stars, piecing together a picture of the starbursts.

The galaxies were making a few stars, when something, perhaps an encounter with another galaxy, pushed them into high star-making mode.

According to McQuinn, instead of forming eight stars every thousand years, the galaxies started making 40 stars every thousand years, which is a lot for a small galaxy. (ANI)

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