Ep. 718: Galaxy Series – Dwarf Galaxies

It’s time to begin a new mini-series, where we’ll look at different classes of galaxies. Today, we’ll start with the dwarf galaxies, which flock around larger galaxies like the Milky Way. Are they the building blocks for modern structures?


(This is an automatically generated transcript)

Fraser Cain [00:01:19] Astronomy cast. Episode 718 The Galaxy series: Dwarfs. Welcome to Astronomy Cast, our weekly fact space during through the cosmos, where we help you understand not only what we know, but how we know what we know. I’m Fraser Cain, I’m the publisher of Universe Today. With me, as always, is Doctor Pamela Gay, a senior scientist for the Planetary Science Institute and the director of CosmoQuest. Hey, Pamela. How are you doing?

Pamela Gay [00:01:40] I am doing okay enough. I am recovering from discovering shampoo I am terribly allergic to. I’m so sorry there was chaos on our normal recording day, and I continue to be in a bit of a Benadryl haze, but I’m better than it was yesterday. So thank you, everyone, for your patience.

Fraser Cain [00:02:02] All right. Well, hopefully you’ll be here cognizant and ready to explain galaxies. Now, I did one of my live streams last night, and I was talking about different kinds of telescopes, blah, blah, blah. And I always recommend first thing you do is you get a pair of binoculars and there’s like a sale on for Celestron Sky Masters. So, the 20mm x 80mm’s are down from $200 U.S to $140 U.S on Amazon. Wow.

Pamela Gay [00:02:32] Yes like 50%.

Fraser Cain [00:02:33] Yeah almost. And then similar for the 25mm x 70mm. And so I’m not sure what the story is. There’s no ad. This is not. We’re not sponsored – I just noticed this. And so if anyone’s like “oh I really want to pick up a pair of astronomical binoculars.” … I don’t know if the sale will last. But they seem to be relatively inexpensive on Amazon in the US, that is. That is the beginning and the end of this message.

It’s time to begin a new mini series where we’ll look at different classes of galaxies. And today we’re going to start with the dwarf galaxies, which flock around the larger galaxies like the Milky Way. Are they the building blocks for the modern structures that we see all around us? So, give me an example of a dwarf galaxy that maybe people in the southern hemisphere are familiar with. Give me two.

Pamela Gay [00:03:25] In the southern hemisphere, they have the Large and Small Magellanic Clouds. These are dwarf galaxies that look like someone grabbed a handful of the plane in the Milky Way and just tossed it to the side. These are two systems where it’s not entirely understood. And there is debate in the literature over whether or not they’re going to end up in orbit around our Milky Way, whether or not they’re going to end up flying past. Yeah. And I feel like every few years they change their mind. Right.

Fraser Cain [00:03:55] It’s like the question of whether or not the sun is going to consume the Earth. Yeah. We get we get that going back and forth as well. But it’s only like give us a comparison. Like how big and massive is a dwarf galaxy compared to something like the Milky Way?

Pamela Gay [00:04:13] They can get so tiny. So we have systems like the Ursa minor dwarf toroidal galaxy, which is one of the smaller ones that are the size of globular clusters. They have masses of hundreds of thousands of stars. Majority of that is actually dark matter. And then they get up to being fractions, like a few percent. 10%.

Fraser Cain [00:04:40] Yeah, yeah, yeah.

Pamela Gay [00:04:42] Of of the size of, of a spiral galaxy like us. Now, to be clear, the Large Magellanic Cloud is. A dwarf spiral barred according to the latest classifications. Right. So so I feel like there’s folks that are going to be adding are saying but I have heard it’s it’s still a dwarf, folks. It’s still a dwarf.

Fraser Cain [00:05:10] It’s a jumbo shrimp.

Pamela Gay [00:05:11] Yes.

Fraser Cain [00:05:12] Exactly right. So okay. And then a apart from the, the LMC, structurally, what do these dwarf galaxies tend to look like in terms of, like, regular matter? Stars got dark gas dust and dark matter.

Pamela Gay [00:05:31] So they’re there are basically the smallest ones that are dark matter dominated and have globular cluster ish like masses. And then there are the larger ones, which were able to undergo multiple generations of star formation and have normal to low amounts of dark matter. So just like low luminosity galaxies can have squirrely amounts of dark matter, dwarf galaxies can have squirrely amounts of dark matter. And there’s lots of debate about how this ends up being the case. The story that seems to be coming together in the literature is that on the small side of this, you have that first generation of supernovae that goes off, and it is able to blast large amounts of the baryonic matter out of the halo, of these dwarf galaxies, when you start looking at them, in molecular lines, you see lots of cold gas outside the system’s core, and their dark matter dominated. So this seems to communicate that through supernovae and other actions, they blast out most of their luminous matter, most of their baryonic matter. Some of that gets blasted out at escape velocities. And what’s left behind is essentially a halo of dark matter hanging out darkly in in the halo of a galaxy.

Fraser Cain [00:07:01] So it’s kind of like a star, which, you know, or a stellar nebula. When it starts to finally form in, the stars start to turn on, and then they their stellar winds blow and they clear out all that gas and dust. There’s these three body interactions with stars whipping around each other, but in a large galaxy like the Milky Way, because the gravity is so intense, the escape velocity is very high. And so these stars are stuck. They’re just not near the cluster. They escape the velocity, they escape the cluster, but they don’t escape the galaxy. But I guess in these dwarf galaxies, there’s so little gravity holding the thing together that it can shed bits and pieces of itself out into space quite easily.

Pamela Gay [00:07:43] And this gets people asking questions along the lines of what is the difference between a small dwarf galaxy and a globular cluster? And it appears to be one strictly of of how they’re formed, where we’re now starting to understand that globular clusters most likely formed during galaxy interactions, where material gets slammed together and where these shockwaves come together, you get globular clusters forming, whereas dwarf galaxies form kind of like an open cluster writ large. You have this massive cloud of material that collapses under its own gravity. And as it does this, it’s it’s able to start having star formation. And so you have a dark matter halo. Luminous material gravitationally pulls into the center star formation. And supernovae can blast material out if it’s too small. Multiple generations of star formation can go on and it’s large enough. And, yeah, they’re just cool little systems.

Fraser Cain [00:08:51] Like with the Large Magellanic Cloud, though, the largest regions of star formation that we know of in our near vicinity are in that galaxy or in that dwarf galaxy, like there are like we think about the Tarantula Nebula. It’s a ludicrous amount of star formation stars vastly more massive than anything we know of in the Milky Way. So is that just a special case or. It is.

Pamela Gay [00:09:14] It’s big.

Fraser Cain [00:09:15] It’s big. Yeah.

Pamela Gay [00:09:16] This this is where we start getting into the jumbo shrimp category.

Fraser Cain [00:09:20] And it gets to tidal interactions too with the Milky Way.

Pamela Gay [00:09:23] Well, so you have a number of different things going on. This is a system that has its own globular clusters that is indeed interacting with the galaxy, our galaxy. There are occasional questions of were the Large and Small Magellanic Cloud wants the same thing? I don’t think that’s ever come to a consensus, but the question does get asked, which amuses me. And with all of these different interactions going on. Interactions. Trigger shockwaves trigger star formation. And so, as the system sweeps past the Milky Way as it interacts with our dark matter halo, as it starts to interact with our outermost, actual starts the baryonic stuffs. You’re getting shocks, the trigger star formation. And it’s glorious to look at.

Fraser Cain [00:10:15] Yeah, yeah. So then let’s talk about, like, where these things came from. Do we know where do or how dwarf galaxies originate? Because I’m, I’m sort of thinking about, say, a star cluster where you’ve got this giant stellar nebula like the Orion Nebula, and you’ve got concentrations of larger amounts with larger stars forming, and then you’ve got smaller areas and maybe you’re even getting these rogue planets forming. And so when we think about the primordial hydrogen and helium in the early universe, is it the same idea as a stellar nebula writ large, with large blobs turning into certain sized galaxies and smaller blobs turning into, you know, the the galaxy equivalent of red dwarf stars.

Pamela Gay [00:11:02] So so I. I’m just going to clean up the language here a little bit. So we have. You know, like blubber. No that’s fine. I’m down with blubber.

Fraser Cain [00:11:11] So. All right, all right.

Pamela Gay [00:11:13] Solar nebulae generally form to solar systems forming. We have star forming regions, which are a kind of nebula. I’m not sure what you’re referring to with a stellar nebula.

Fraser Cain [00:11:28] So a sort of star forming region like the Orion Nebula, where you’ve got this giant area of gas and dust of different concentrations and different stars whirling up inside this whole region of different masses. You know, there is this there is this mass relationship. Across the, you know, in a in a star forming region that creates. Stars of different sizes is of the same mechanism to make bigger galaxies versus dwarf galaxies.

Pamela Gay [00:11:57] No, because star forming regions are singular clouds that have been shocked into simultaneously forming all of these stars. And. You can have dwarf galaxies like Ursa minor, where all of the gas in them. I got shocked into a single star forming burst and whatever wasn’t used up got blasted away. But they didn’t form that way. They formed. We think that the modern dwarf, irregulars that are rich in star formation are actually analogs to these dwarf blue galaxies that we’re starting to see in images, where we’re seeing the smallest of the dark matter halos that formed are pulling in material. And that material, just like in any form in galaxy, has the chance to then clump up. And some of those clumps are going to form stars now, some form later. And. In the case of the dwarfs, there’s just not that much material. So you don’t tend to get the same numbers of star forming epics that you get with bigger systems. But it’s that same dark matter. Halo collects material inside material forms, galaxies, and these are essentially building blocks of large galaxies that came later.

Fraser Cain [00:13:23] Right, right. But I guess let me try and kind of rephrase the question, because I sort of I’m imagining in the beginning there is just the primordial hydrogen and helium. There is the dark matter. Yeah. Structure that that underlies the whole thing. And you’ve got different concentrations based on regions of over under density in the, in the original universe. And then gravity is pulling things together, pulling. And so places where you’ve got an over density, you’ve got more stuff being pulled together in places you’ve got an under density, you’ve got less of being pulled together. And after a while, like pizza dough that’s being pulled too thin, you start to get gaps opening up, voids opening up, and then the, you know, as you pull far farther and farther, then these things kind of snap and the gravity pulls them together into however much gas you have. And then the expansion continues. And so now you’re left with this just distribution of blob. I’m gonna go back to my blob of material that is now like gravitationally distinct from the other ones, as they’re sort of, you know, they’re still orbiting one another, but they are not continuing to merge up into larger objects in the beginning. That roughly on the right track then. And so the dwarf galaxies are like are the dwarf galaxies that we see today. The result of those sheared off chunks of primordial material. Or was there some mechanism later on that spun them out that that split them in half into smaller pieces?

Pamela Gay [00:15:09] So things don’t get split up later. Generally, unless it’s like a title tale or something. And those probably aren’t forming dwarf galaxies.

Fraser Cain [00:15:17] Right?

Pamela Gay [00:15:18] So the way to think about it is things tend to break up into pieces in a distribution. If you drop a mug, you’re going to get a distribution of pieces where you’ll have a few giant pieces, and then inevitably, a whole lot of little tiny crumbs, which is always the source of sadness when trying to reassemble the mugs powder.

Fraser Cain [00:15:40] Yeah, right.

Pamela Gay [00:15:42] And when the early universe fragmented, we had a distribution of of blobs of material going back to your blobs. And there were a few that were giant. And these were those first forming giant galaxies.

Fraser Cain [00:16:01] Right.

Pamela Gay [00:16:02] But the majority were these little tiny lumps of extra material that pulled in stuff, and then those within them could fragment further. So you have all this stuff is gravitationally bound together, but within this gravitationally bound together, you could get further fragmenting into star forming regions that would start up stars at different points, different times, due to what triggers were there to start the star formation. So entire universe has swept over and under densities. It fragments into pieces. Big pieces formed giant galaxies. The majority is little pieces from little galaxies that are gravitationally bound. And within that gravitationally bound, you could get further collapse into star forming regions.

Fraser Cain [00:16:56] So I mean, we thanks to Gaia, the amazing guy emission, we can see the evidence of the dwarf galaxies that the Milky Way has consumed in the ancient past.

Pamela Gay [00:17:09] And and we’re still eating a very hungry galaxy. Sure.

Fraser Cain [00:17:15] But it is interesting that a lot of the larger mergers, like, I think the last great merger happened like 8 billion years ago. Yeah. So so you say it’s happening now, but it sounds like it was furious in the early universe. And now it’s a lot less common as as the universe matures into a, into a old age. But how what contribution? Because it’s all right. Like, one of the big questions that that Webb was designed to ask was, will we see these dwarf galaxies coming together as building blocks of the larger galaxies? That is, those observations are now happening. What is this story that we’re seeing of galactic evolution over the entire age of the universe?

Pamela Gay [00:18:04] We’re still figuring out all the details. What we do see is there are these small, bright blue, furious. First, start with star formation galaxies in the early universe. Just finding them. What we see is there are galaxies that are undergoing greater amounts of merger activity in the past. There are more quasars in the past. And that excess material to feed black holes that, significantly more galaxy merger is going on the past. What is happening is over time, gravity is pulling things into tighter and tighter structures. So we went from lots and lots of small stuff to the small stuff. Having time to consume one another, to building bigger things, then kept eating the smaller things. And so we have this picture where some galaxies did just form giant from day zero. But the majority of systems grew through the constant merger of larger and larger systems. And the shapes of the galaxies seem to be dominated by what were the angles that they came together? What were the eye? Basically the distribution of big thing to small things orbiting it for grand spirals. So a lot of these grand design spiral galaxies that we see are driven by having a smaller companion. So here we can think dwarf galaxies in many cases for bringing us grand designs, spiral galaxies. Through this constant merger of systems we get bigger and bigger things. And this is an ongoing process. We continue to eat dwarf galaxies in lower numbers because we’ve already ate so many of them. There’s just not as many left to be eaten.

Fraser Cain [00:20:02] Right?

Pamela Gay [00:20:03] We continue to eat them. And then we’re also seeing the larger systems merging together. And and this is where things get more and more interesting as time progresses, because we’re going to run out of things to merge eventually. Right. And and so it’s, it’s small galaxies merging bigger and bigger all the way down.

Fraser Cain [00:20:25] I mean, I think there’s sort of like two pathways that’s there’s really interesting things to do with T. And the first one is this idea, you know, they’re called the impossible galaxies, but they just, you know, they’re not impossible. They’re possible. But the gist is that we’ve got these big galaxies early on in the universe. You’re seeing quasars at less than a billion years after the Big Bang. You’re seeing spiral galaxies again as literally within, you know, the first billion years of the universe. And so that is definitely pushing things back to what you mentioned, that you get large chunks are just turning directly into big galaxies. And and then also this history, thanks to guy of seeing when the mergers happened that that a lot of the big mergers happened early on in the Milky Way’s history. And that’s just driven by these dwarf galaxies. And so what do you know? It’s more complicated than we thought, that it’s probably both right, that you’re getting the dwarf galaxies being the building blocks of the galaxies. And a lot of them are just never making it close to another galaxy and are remaining unperturbed since almost the beginning of the universe.

Pamela Gay [00:21:35] And the difficult thing is, they are hard to see. And when the smaller things are the most numerous and the smallest things tend to be the most dark matter dominated, it becomes very difficult to do a census of these beyond our own local group. We know dwarf galaxies dominate. We know that galaxies, large ones, participate in dwarf tossing using their gravity on a regular basis.

Fraser Cain [00:22:02] Right.

Pamela Gay [00:22:03] And and so this is the hardest to observe kind of galaxy. And also the most common and also the most necessary to understand what I love is as we try and understand our past, different things that we’ve known for a long time, like the other half classifications of galaxy clusters where half of them not half, but a lot of them are going in entirely the wrong direction. And we have this thick disk to our galaxy that has a slightly different metal composition. That is all getting tracked back to eating larger dwarf galaxies and consuming their their globular clusters consuming their matter. We are a system made from multiple galaxies coming together and sharing their material and their angular momentum and everything else to give us this barred spiral structure. And that bar is due to our companions.

Fraser Cain [00:23:02] Right? Yeah. Now, you talked about sort of how some of these galaxies are dark matter dominated. Yes. In other cases it’s the opposite. They have very little dark matter. So what is the mechanism that is creating such vast differences in composition for these different dwarf galaxies?

Pamela Gay [00:23:23] It likely comes down to different interactions. This is what we’re also finding with the low surface luminosity galaxies, where if you have a system that or two systems that pass through each other, you can end up with the dark matter staying in one part and some of the luminous matter escaping. And so you get systems that are luminous matter dominated, you get systems that are dark matter dominated. And of course, the Holy Grail is finding the system that is just dark matter. We haven’t quite got there yet. We’re getting close with some of these systems. Yeah. They’re the the luminous to dark matter ratio is in the hundreds with some galaxies. And this is where it starts to get necessary to look in every wavelength to find. All right. Is there just super cold gas in these systems that is giving the mass that we don’t otherwise see? Because cold mass is. Is transparent and not exactly luminous and optical. So millimeter dishes are so important for studying these, getting down, looking for the molecules and. They’re cool and hard to see and don’t get the attention they deserve, because they’re not necessarily the kind of thing you write press releases with pretty pictures about. Yeah.

Fraser Cain [00:24:54] It is amazing to me how often new dwarf galaxies are being discovered, that every year or so, I feel like there’s a couple of new dwarf galaxies that turn up from larger and larger surveys of our neighborhood. And some of these ones, as you said, that are, you know, are dark matter dominated, are harder to find. And so often it’s like gravitational lensing gives us insights into where these things are. And I know and you mentioned early on there’s like one that, as you said, has the mass of a star cluster.

Pamela Gay [00:25:28] Yeah. There’s several like that. Yeah.

Fraser Cain [00:25:30] And yet is a is a galaxy with all the parts and pieces.

Pamela Gay [00:25:36] The Ursa minor dwarf squirrel galaxy is near and dear to me. It was the topic of my master’s thesis.

Fraser Cain [00:25:41] Yeah.

Pamela Gay [00:25:41] If you take an image of it and it’s about a degree across. So you need a big field of view. You can’t tell you’re seeing a galaxy. It’s just an over density of stars in the sky. And it’s closer to us than some of our globular clusters. So these are large diffuse systems where you can see individual stars and look right through them to galaxies beyond. They’re super cool.

Fraser Cain [00:26:08] I’m looking at. There’s like since when you did your doctoral thesis, there have been many more. Even lighter. Even smaller.

Pamela Gay [00:26:17] Oh, yeah.

Fraser Cain [00:26:18] Galaxies. It’s it’s kind of amazing. So for example, is one called SEG two that has about a thousand stars. Yeah. That’s it. A thousand stars in a galaxy.

Pamela Gay [00:26:28] Yeah.

Fraser Cain [00:26:29] So again, this is the scale of of what’s out there. And yet the galaxy itself has about 55,000 times the mass of the sun. And so.

Pamela Gay [00:26:41] 1000 matter that.

Fraser Cain [00:26:42] Dark dark matter dominated. Yeah. Exactly. Right. That is that is causing the bulk of that of the mass of that galaxy. It’s fascinating. And. I wish they were easier to see because they are telling the true story of the history of the universe. And this is what Webb. One of the things Webb was really designed to do was to find these things and see them coming together, to really tell us that story of where we came from. And if there couldn’t be a more cutting edge piece of research right now that, you know, we look back and we think, oh, what are the things that changed dramatically? I’ll bet you the story of dwarf galaxies will be one of the ones that we’re going to come back to in ten years and go, oh, we didn’t know anything about galaxies. And thanks to thanks to all of these, like Euclid and Vera Rubin and Nancy Grace Roman and, the Desy database, because all these things that are coming online to search for dark matter, dark energy, and to do these detailed galaxy surveys of the area around us. And I think our our understanding of the universe is going to change subtly or dramatically in the coming years. And so don’t be surprised if we like dwarf galaxies. We hardly knew you.

Pamela Gay [00:28:02] And what’s amazing is what is nearly invisible today, because they’re made of elder red stars.

Fraser Cain [00:28:08] Yeah.

Pamela Gay [00:28:09] They shone like fireflies in the early universe. These were rich in blue stars billions of years ago, and so how our universe looks has radically changed with the single epic of star formation dying out in all these systems. So they were the bright blue galaxies of the past, and they’re the red, almost impossible to see galaxies of today.

Fraser Cain [00:28:35] All right. So stay tuned to this series. We will be back next week with the next episode. Thanks, Pamela.

Pamela Gay [00:28:42] Thank you, Fraser, and thank you to everyone out there who is donating at the $10 a week or higher level. Thank you, actually, to everyone that donates. I just want to be clear, we are grateful for all of you, but I only mispronounce the names of folks donating at the $10 or higher level. This week I’m going to tempt and fail to pronounce the following people who I am grateful for as names. Thank you to Paul L Hayden, Steven Coffee, Bart Flaherty, Benjamin Carrier, and 1961 super symmetrical Michael Purcell. Jim Schooler share some Andrew Stevenson, Tim McCormack, and the lonely stand person Kenneth Ryan, Gregory Singleton, Frodo Tenham Bo, Michael Regan, father Prax J. Alex Anderson, Glenn McDavid, Jim McGinn, Bruce Amazing, Szymanski, planetary, the air major Michael York, Matthew Horstman, Scott. Cohen, Scott. Bieber, Georgie. Ivanov, Justin. Proctor, Matthias. Hayden, Lu Zealand, Nyla the big squish squash David Gates, Benjamin. Mueller. Cooper, Eran. Zagreb, beta. Peter Philip Grant, Grand Don. Mondesi, James. Raj. Roger. Wow. That one I shouldn’t have to stumble over but I’m going to today. It’s a that’s. Yeah, it is. Shawn. Max, Cami Raspbian, Nate Detweiler, Sam Brooks and his mom and Dean, thank you all so very much. You make this show possible.

Fraser Cain [00:30:18] Thanks, everyone. And we’ll see you next week.

Pamela Gay [00:30:21] Bye bye. Astronomy cast is a joint product of Universe Today and the Planetary Science Institute. Astronomy cast is released under a Creative Commons Attribution license. So love it, share it, and remix it, but please credit it to our hosts, Fraser Cain and Doctor Pamela Gay. You can get more information on today’s show topic on our website. Astronomy. Cars.com. This episode was brought to you thanks to our generous patrons on Patreon. If you want to help keep the show going, please consider joining our community at Patreon.com Slash Astronomy Cast. Not only do you help us pay our producers a fair wage, you will also get special access to content right in your inbox and invites to online events. We are so grateful to all of you who have joined our Patreon community already. Anyways, keep looking up. This has been Astronomy Cast.