Last updated September 30, 2019 at 2:53 pm
Astronomers studying the outskirts of a distant galaxy have discovered that the galaxy sits in a serene ocean of gas.
Why This Matters: In a weird universe, this is an area of quiet calm.
A massive galaxy, which is about four billion light-years from Earth, is surrounded by a halo of gas that is much less dense and less magnetised than expected.
Previously, halos of gas surrounding galaxies were thought to be turbulent and stormy. However, this finding, suggests that the halo of gas is serene.
Jean-Pierre Macquart, from the Curtin University node of the International Centre for Radio Astronomy Research (ICRAR), says gas on the outskirts of galaxies has traditionally been hard to study.
“The halo of gas can actually extend out 10 times further than the stars in a galaxy and can contain a substantial amount of the matter that’s in a galaxy,” he says. “But it’s very difficult to see the gas directly with a telescope.”
Macquart says this discovery was made using a new technique involving fast radio bursts – powerful flashes of energy from deep space.
“Fast radio bursts come from all over the sky and last for just milliseconds,” he says.
“They involve incredible energy — equivalent to the amount released by the Sun in 80 years. We’re not sure what causes them, and have only recently been able to pinpoint the galaxies they come from.”
Galaxy halos are much more serene than previously thought
Macquart says the research team looked at how a single fast radio burst distorted as it travelled five billion light-years through the universe. Along the way, the burst shot through a galaxy’s halo of gas, like a lighthouse’s beam cutting through the fog. What they expected was the signal from the fast radio burst to be distorted by the galaxy.
“If you go out on a hot summer’s day, you see the air shimmering, and the trees in the background look distorted because of the temperature and density fluctuations in the air,” he says.
“That’s what we thought would happen, that the signal from the fast radio burst would be completely distorted after passing through the hot atmosphere of the galaxy. But instead of the stormy galactic ‘weather’ we were expecting, the pulse we observed had travelled through a calm sea of unperturbed gas.”
Galaxy halos lend clues as to why material is ejected from galaxies
One reason astronomers are so interested in galaxy halos is because they can help us understand why material is ejected from galaxies, causing them to stop growing.
University of California Professor of Astronomy and Astrophysics J. Xavier Prochaska, who led the research, says halo gas provides a fossil record of these ejection processes.
“So, our observations can inform theories about how matter is ejected and how magnetic fields are transported from the galaxy.”
Prochaska says the team now plans to test other galaxies.
“Our research appears to reveal something entirely new about galactic halos,” he says. “Unless of course, this galaxy happens to be just some weird exception — and with only one object you can’t be sure about that.”
The research used a fast radio burst that was detected in November by the Australian Square Kilometre Array Pathfinder (ASKAP), in outback Western Australia.
The study was led by Xavier Prochaska from the University of California and involved 19 researchers from around the world.
The finding was published in the journal Science.