ANN ARBOR—A study of spiral galaxies seen edge-on has revealed that "halos" of cosmic rays and magnetic fields above and below the galaxies' disks are much more common than previously thought, the National Radio Astronomy Observatory has reported.
An international team of astronomers involving a University of Michigan researcher used the Karl G. Jansky Very Large Array (VLA) to study 35 edge-on spiral galaxies at distances from 11 million to 137 million light-years from Earth. The study took advantage of the ability of the VLA, following completion of a decade-long upgrade project, to detect radio emission much fainter than previously possible.
"The study shows that galaxies are very different in low-frequency radio emission and visible light," said Jiangtao Li, a research fellow in astronomy at the U-M College of Literature, Science, and the Arts who was involved in the study. "Our universe and its galaxies are not only comprised of stars, but also galactic magnetic fields and high energy particles. The extended halo of a galaxy is not visible in optical, but could be bright in radio frequencies."
Spiral galaxies, like our own Milky Way, have the vast majority of their stars, gas and dust in a flat, rotating disk with spiral arms. Most of the light and radio waves seen with telescopes come from objects in that disk. Learning about the environment above and below such disks has been difficult.
"We knew before that some halos existed, but, using the full power of the upgraded VLA and the full power of some advanced image-processing techniques, we found that these halos are much more common among spiral galaxies than we had realized," said project leader Judith Irwin of Queen's University in Canada.
To see how extensive a "typical" halo is, the astronomers scaled their images of 30 of the galaxies to the same diameter, then another of the authors, Jayanne English of the University of Manitoba in Canada, combined them into a single image. The result, said Irwin, is "a spectacular image showing that cosmic rays and magnetic fields not only permeate the galaxy disk itself, but extend far above and below the disk."
"Studying these halos with radio telescopes can give us valuable information about a wide range of phenomena, including the rate of star formation within the disk, the winds from exploding stars and the nature and origin of the galaxies' magnetic fields," said Theresa Wiegert, also of Queen's University and lead author of a study in the Astronomical Journal reporting the team's findings. The study provides the first analysis of data from all 35 galaxies in the study.
The combined image, the scientists said, confirms a prediction of such halos made in 1961.
Along with the report on their findings, the astronomers also are making their first batch of specialized VLA images available to other researchers. In previous publications, the team described the details of their project and its goals. The team has completed a series of VLA observations and their latest study is based on analysis of their first set of images. They now are analyzing additional datasets, and also will make those additional images available to other scientists when they publish the results of the later analyses.
"The results from this survey will help answer many unsolved questions in galactic evolution and star formation," said Marita Krause of the Max-Planck Institute for Radioastronomy in Bonn, Germany.
The National Radio Astronomy Observatory is a facility of the National Science Foundation, operated under cooperative agreement by Associated Universities Inc. This work was supported by the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada.