A subject of long-standing interest in extragalactic astronomy is how stars form in galaxies. Some galaxies are “red and dead” – most of their stars formed long ago, and have evolved as stars will: the massive stars live bright but short lives, leaving the less massive ones to linger longer, producing relatively little light until they swell up to become red giants as they too near the end of their lives. Other galaxies, including our own Milky Way, made some stars in the ancient past and are still actively forming stars today. So what’s the difference?
The difference between star forming galaxies and those that are red and dead turns out to be both simple and complicated. For one, star forming galaxies have a supply of cold gas in their interstellar media, the fuel from which stars form. Dead galaxies have very little in the way of cold gas. So that’s simple: star forming galaxies have the fuel to make stars, dead galaxies don’t. But why that difference? That’s a more complicated question I’m not going to begin to touch in this post.
One can see current star formation in galaxies in a variety of ways. These usually relate to the ultraviolet (UV) photons produced by short-lived stars. Only O stars are hot enough to produce the ionizing radiation that powers the emission of HII (pronounced `H-two’) regions – regions of ionized gas that are like cosmic neon lights. O stars power HII regions but live less than 10 million years. That’s a blink of the eye on the cosmic timescale, so if you see HII regions, you know stars have formed recently enough that the short-lived O stars are still around.
Measuring the intensity of the Hα Balmer line emission provides a proxy for the number of UV photons that ionize the gas, which in turn basically counts the number of O stars that produce the ionizing radiation. This number, divided by the short life-spans of O stars, measures the current star formation rate (SFR).
There are many uncertainties in the calibration of this SFR: how many UV photons do O stars emit? Over what time span? How many of these ionizing photons are converted into Hα, and how many are absorbed by dust or manage to escape into intergalactic space? For every O star that comes and goes, how many smaller stars are born along with it? This latter question is especially pernicious, as most stellar mass resides in small stars. The O stars are only the tip of the iceberg; we are using the tip to extrapolate the size of the entire iceberg.
Astronomers have obsessed over these and related questions for a long time. See, for example, the review by Kennicutt & Evans. Suffice it to say we have a surprisingly decent handle on it, and yet the systematic uncertainties remain substantial. Different methods give the same answer to within an order of magnitude, but often differ by a factor of a few. The difference is often in the mass spectrum of stars that is assumed, but even rationalizing that to the same scale, the same data can be interpreted to give different answers, based on how much UV we estimate to be absorbed by dust.
In addition to the current SFR, one can also measure the stellar mass. This follows from the total luminosity measured from starlight. Many of the same concerns apply, but are somewhat less severe because more of the iceberg is being measured. For a long time we weren’t sure we could do better than a factor of two, but this work has advanced to the point where the integrated stellar masses of galaxies can be estimated to ~20% accuracy.
A diagram that has become popular in the last decade or so is the so-called star forming main sequence. This name is made in analogy with the main sequence of stars, the physics of which is well understood. Whether this is an appropriate analogy is debatable, but the terminology seems to have stuck. In the case of galaxies, the main sequence of star forming galaxies is a plot of star formation rate against stellar mass.
The star forming main sequence is shown in the graph below. It is constructed from data from the SINGS survey (red points) and our own work on dwarf low surface brightness (LSB) galaxies (blue points). Each point represents one galaxy. Its stellar mass is determined by adding up the light emitted by all the stars, while the SFR is estimated from the Hα emission that traces the ionizing UV radiation of the O stars.
The data show a nice correlation, albeit with plenty of intrinsic scatter. This is hardly surprising, as the two axes are not physically independent. They are measuring different quantities that trace the same underlying property: star formation over different time scales. The y-axis is a measure of the quasi-instantaneous star formation rate; the x-axis is the SFR integrated over the age of the galaxy.
Since the stellar mass is the time integral of the SFR, one expects the slope of the star forming main sequence (SFMS) to be one. This is illustrated by the diagonal line marked “Hubble time.” A galaxy forming stars at a constant rate for the age of the universe will fall on this line.
The data for LSB galaxies scatter about a line with slope unity. The best-fit line has a normalization a bit less than that of a constant SFR for a Hubble time. This might mean that the galaxies are somewhat younger than the universe (a little must be true, but need not be much), have a slowly declining SFR (an exponential decline with an e-folding time of a Hubble time works well), or it could just be an error in the calibration of one or both axes. The systematic errors discussed above are easily large enough to account for the difference.
To first order, the SFR in LSB galaxies is constant when averaged over billions of years. On the millions of years timescale appropriate to O stars, the instantaneous SFR bounces up and down. Looks pretty stochastic: galaxies form stars at a steady average rate that varies up and down on short timescales.
Short-term fluctuations in the SFR explain the data with current SFR higher than the past average. These are the points that stray into the gray region of the plot, which becomes increasingly forbidden towards the top left. This is because galaxies that form stars so fast for too long will build up their entire stellar mass in the blink of a cosmic eye. This is illustrated by the lines marked as 0.1 and 0.01 of a Hubble time. A galaxy above these lines would make all their stars in < 2 Gyr; it would have had to be born yesterday. No galaxies reside in this part of the diagram. Those that approach it are called “starbursts:” they’re forming stars at a high specific rate (relative to their mass) but this is presumably a brief-lived phenomenon.
Note that the most massive of the SINGS galaxies all fall below the extrapolation of the line fit to the LSB galaxies (dotted line). The are forming a lot of stars in an absolute sense, simply because they are giant galaxies. But the current SFR is lower than the past average, as if they were winding down. This “quenching” seems to be a mass-dependent phenomenon: more massive galaxies evolve faster, burning through their gas supply before dwarfs do. Red and dead galaxies have already completed this process; the massive spirals of today are weary giants that may join the red and dead galaxy population in the future.
One consequence of mass-dependent quenching is that it skews attempts to fit relations to the SFMS. There are very many such attempts in the literature; these usually have a slope less than one. The dashed line in the plot above gives one specific example. There are many others.
If one looks only at the most massive SINGS galaxies, the slope is indeed shallower than one. Selection effects bias galaxy catalogs strongly in favor of the biggest and brightest, so most work has been done on massive galaxies with M* > 1010 M☉. That only covers the top one tenth of the area of this graph. If that’s what you’ve got to work with, you get a shallow slope like the dashed line.
The dashed line does a lousy job of extrapolating to low mass. This is obvious from the dwarf galaxy data. It is also obvious from the simple mathematical considerations outlined above. Low mass galaxies could only fall on the dashed line if they were born yesterday. Otherwise, their high specific star formation rates would over-produce their observed stellar mass.
Despite this simple physical limit, fits to the SFMS that stray into the forbidden zone are ubiquitous in the literature. In addition to selection effects, I suspect the calibrations of both SFR and stellar mass are in part to blame. Galaxies will stray into the forbidden zone if the stellar mass is underestimated or the SFR is overestimated, or some combination of the two. Probably both are going on at some level. I suspect the larger problem is in the SFR. In particular, it appears that many measurements of the SFR have been over-corrected for the effects of dust. Such a correction certainly has to be made, but since extinction corrections are exponential, it is easy to over-do. Indeed, I suspect this is why the dashed line overshoots even the bright galaxies from SINGS.
This brings us back to the terminology of the main sequence. Among stars, the main sequence is defined by low mass stars that evolve slowly. There is a turn-off point, and an associated mass, where stars transition from the main sequence to the sub giant branch. They then ascend the red giant branch as they evolve.
If we project this terminology onto galaxies, the main sequence should be defined by the low mass dwarfs. These are nowhere near to exhausting their gas supplies, so can continue to form stars far into the future. They establish a star forming main sequence of slope unity because that’s what the math says they must do.
Most of the literature on this subject refers to massive star forming galaxies. These are not the main sequence. They are the turn-off population. Massive spirals are near to exhausting their gas supply. Star formation is winding down as the fuel runs out.
Red and dead galaxies are the next stage, once star formation has stopped entirely. I suppose these are the red giants in this strained analogy to individual stars. That is appropriate insofar as most of the light from red and dead galaxies is produced by red giant stars. But is this really they right way to think about it? Or are we letting our terminology get the best of us?