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GEMINI PROBES THE CENTER OF ANDROMEDA GALAXY WITH UNPRECEDENTED CLARITY

June 5, 2006

For Embargoed Release: 9:30 AM MDT, June 5, 2006

Media Contacts:

  • Peter Michaud
    Gemini Observatory, Hilo HI

    (808) 974-2510 (Desk)
    (808) 937-0845 (Cell)
    pmichaud@gemini.edu
  • Doug Isbell
    NOAO, Tucson AZ

    (520) 318-8214 (Desk)
    (520) 991-0380 (Cell)
    disbell@noao.edu

Science Contacts:

Two studies featured today at the American Astronomical Society Meeting in Calgary, Canada, bring into focus the core and evolution of our nearest large galaxy neighbor. High-resolution infrared observations of the Andromeda Galaxy (M31) made at Gemini Observatory reveal an intriguing dust-enshrouded star near the core of the galaxy, while extremely sharp adaptive optics images allowed the analysis of thousands of individual stars that indicates a long-stable environment around the galaxy’s core.

These results were announced by two teams of researchers during a press conference at the meeting that also included the release of new images of the entire span of M31 obtained with the Spitzer Space Telescope. The Gemini teams included Canadian researcher Tim Davidge (NRC, Herzberg Institute of Astrophysics, Victoria BC) and Knut Olsen of the National Optical Astronomy Observatory (NOAO). The new data about individual stars in M31 obtained with the Gemini North Telescope on Mauna Kea, Hawaii, demonstrate dramatically the complementarity of ground-based telescopes, which can record images with unprecedented spatial resolution, and space-based facilities, which have higher sensitivity.

The teams used Gemini’s infrared capabilities in order to penetrate obscuring dust to study individual stars near the center of M31 that could not be detected with visible light. Gemini’s resolution allowed the teams to isolate and study individual stars in densely crowded fields in the galaxy.

Figure 2. Near-IR images of the nucleus of M31 obtained at Gemini North and CFHT. The top two panels are reduced data, the bottom panel is a model created by the team. In the model a point-source contributing 20% of the total flux offset 0.1" from the bright nucleus is added to reproduce the morphology seen in the K' observation.

Looking Deep Into the Heart of Andromeda

In the study led by Davidge the core of M31 was observed in the infrared to search for objects that could only be resolved using a large ground-based telescope of Gemini’s aperture (8 meters). This work discovered a compelling infrared source near the galaxy’s core that shares a common link with our Milky Way galaxy.

The core of M31 contains a puzzling dual nucleus – one of which harbors a supermassive black hole that is heavier than the black hole at the heart of our own galaxy. The intense gravitational field from the black hole may tear apart the clouds of gas and dust that are the nurseries of star formation, so it was thought that the center of M31 was only populated only by old stars.

However, the Gemini data contain information about a luminous object called an Asymptotic Giant Branch (AGB) star that lies between the two nuclei. AGB’s are highly evolved stars that spew dust into space and create extended dust shells that emit excess thermal infrared light. Such stars have young ages (due to their short lives), and are also seen near the center of our galaxy.

This finding provides critical information in the ongoing effort to compare the evolutionary paths of M31 and the Milky Way. It suggests that the centers of M31 and the Milky Way may have had broadly similar star-forming histories.

“Now we see that the centers of M31 and the Milky Way may be more similar than once thought," said Davidge. "These two neighbors in space share some similarities, although not where we might expect. This agreement gives us hope that the center of the Milky Way may be representative of other galaxies. If so we can use our home galaxy as a laboratory to understand much more distant galaxies.”

Figure 3. The locations of the NIRI/Altair and HST/NICMOS fields are shown with respect to an optical image mosaic of M31, courtesy of the NOAO Local Group Survey (Massey et al. 2006). The image is roughly 2.5 degrees on a side, or 5 times the diameter of the full moon.

Full-Resolution TIFF | 9.50mb
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An Extreme Stellar Harvest

Observations by the team led by Knut Olsen also used Gemini North, but with the adaptive optics (AO) system ALTAIR, developed at the National Research Council of Canada’s Herzberg Institute of Astrophysics in Victoria BC. This work provides the deepest and highest-resolution images ever obtained of the central bulge and inner disk of M31 in the near-infrared (but not including its nucleus).

These AO near-infrared observations isolated thousands of individual stars in three fields within 9 arcminutes (6,500 light-years) of the galaxy’s core. When this information was combined with HST/NICMOS data, the team was able to derive rough star-formation histories for stellar populations in the bulge and inner disk of M31. The analysis shows that most stars in these regions are relatively old, with heavy-element compositions similar to our Sun, regardless of the star’s location relative to the bulge and disk.

According to current theories of galactic formation and evolution, much of the buildup of a galaxy occurs through the merging of smaller clumps of matter into bigger ones. The remainder of a galaxy’s mass is acquired by slower accretion from surrounding space. Galaxy disks are relatively fragile, and are destroyed in overly violent mergers. Measuring the ages and abundances of the majority population of stars in galaxy disks thus tells us when this merger activity must have settled down. The new results suggest that the disk that we currently see in M31 has been around for at least 6 billion years, or roughly half the age of the universe, and could have existed relatively undisturbed at even older ages.

The results were obtained by comparing the observed distributions of the brightness of individual stars with knowledge of how the luminosities of stars evolve with time for stars with different masses and chemical compositions. A complicating factor is that interstellar dust also affects the observed brightness of stars. For example, the Spitzer image of M31 shows that there is plenty of dust in the galaxy. Observing in the near-infrared, as opposed to optical wavelengths, limits the effects of dust on the results.

Still deeper observations of more fields in M31’s disk are needed to illuminate its star formation history in even greater detail. Large AO-equipped ground-based telescopes provide the high spatial resolution that is the key to seeing an unblended view of the vast numbers of stars present at any location in M31. “One of the limitations of our study was that in order to use adaptive optics, we had to select fields with a relatively bright foreground guide star nearby,” said Olsen. “Now that Gemini and other large ground-based telescopes are getting equipped with laser guide stars we’ll be able to probe almost any location in the galaxy with adaptive optics and untangle the blur and overlapping of star images to really understand the full story of what these stars can tell us.”