The Unexpected Past of a Dwarf Galaxy

New Light on Cannibalism in the Local Group of Galaxies

1 augustus 1996

The Local Group of Galaxies consists of a few large spiral galaxies - for instance the Milky Way galaxy in which we live, and the Andromeda galaxy that is visible to the unaided eye in the northern constellation of the same name - as well as two dozen much smaller galaxies of mostly irregular shape. Whereas the larger galaxies have extended halos of very old stars, no such halos have ever been seen around the smaller ones. Now, however, Dante Minniti and Albert Zijlstra [1], working at the ESO 3.5-metre New Technology Telescope (NTT), have found a large halo of old and metal-poor stars around one of the dwarf galaxies in the Local Group. This finding is quite unexpected. It revises our understanding of star formation in these galaxies and provides important information about the past evolution of galaxies [2].

Galaxy halos

The Milky Way galaxy is surrounded by a large, roughly spherical halo of old stars. The diameter is about 100,000 light years and the stars therein, known as Population II stars, are among the oldest known, with ages of 10 billion years or even more. They also differ from the younger stars nearer to the main plane of the Milky Way (in which our 4.7 billion year old Sun is located) by being very metal-poor. Many of the halo stars consist almost solely of hydrogen and helium, reflecting the composition of matter in the young Universe.

This halo is important for our understanding of the processes that led to the formation of the Milky Way galaxy. It is believed that many of the halo stars and those of the same type found in globular clusters existed already before the Milky Way had fully formed.

Galaxy cannibalism

Many astronomers suspect that galaxies evolve and gradually grow larger and heavier by practising cannibalism on their own kind. In this picture, when two galaxies collide in space, the stars and nebulae in the smaller one will disperse and soon be taken over by the larger one, which in this way effectively `eats' the smaller one. Thus the Milky Way may contain the remains of many smaller galaxies it has met and consumed in the past.

A natural consequence of this theory is that the Milky Way halo may at least partially consist of stars which originally belonged to these smaller galaxies. However, it is also possible that some of the halo stars formed during the early collapse of the gas cloud from which the Milky Way formed.

Like the Milky Way, the two nearest, large spiral galaxies (the Andromeda nebula and M33 in the neighbouring Triangulum constellation) are also surrounded by halos of old stars. Contrarily, investigations of the smaller galaxies in the Local Group have until now not shown that they possess such halos. These dwarf galaxies greatly outnumber the large spiral galaxies - to date about two dozen are known - and they are considered to be the last survivors of the earlier cannibalism phase.

The nearest are the well-known Magellanic Clouds, about 170,000 (Large Cloud) and 250,000 light years distant (Small Cloud). They can be seen with the unaided eye from the Southern hemisphere. Recent studies indicate that they orbit the Milky Way and that they may eventually fall prey to our galaxy in a future round of cannibalism.

So far, no evidence has been found of an old halo around the Magellanic Clouds. This does not necessarily imply that all dwarf galaxies must likewise lack halos: it is also possible that the halos of the Magellanic Clouds were stripped away when they came too close to the Milky Way sometime in the past.

The isolated WLM dwarf galaxy

Down in the southern sky, in the constellation of Cetus (the Whale or the Sea Monster), lies a relative faint and distant, small galaxy which astronomers normally refer to as the WLM dwarf galaxy . It was first seen in 1909 by the famous astrophotographer Max Wolf on photographic plates obtained at the Heidelberg Observatory (Germany), but it was only in 1926 that its true nature was understood by Knut Lundmark and P.J. Melotte.

The designation WLM is shorthand of Wolf-Lundmark-Melotte. More recent investigations have fixed its distance at about 2.9 million light years, somewhat farther away than the Andromeda galaxy (2 million light years) and placing it at the very edge of the region occupied by the Local Group. WLM is one of the most isolated members; its nearest neighbour dwarf galaxy, IC 1613, is more 1 million light years away.

A halo around WLM

The ESO astronomers recently obtained deep CCD images of WLM with the 3.5-m ESO New Technology Telescope (NTT) and the ESO Multi-Mode Instrument (EMMI). With the excellent imaging capabilities of this facility, they were able to see large numbers of individual stars in this galaxy.

A mosaic of two of these images is reproduced as eso9633a that accompanies this Press Release. WLM appears to be quite elongated, and surprisingly, its largest extension is about 8000 light years or more than twice as large as thought before. Nevertheless, this is still 12 times smaller than the Milky Way galaxy.

There is a clear excess of very faint stars that extends to the edge of the sky field covered by the NTT exposures. Some of these are probably foreground stars inside the Milky Way, but there are many more than expected, and their numbers increase closer to WLM . These stars look quite different from the ones in the central region of that galaxy: they are much redder and relatively faint; this is a strong indication that they are much older.

The distant stars thus appear to belong to an old halo around this dwarf galaxy. This shows that WLM must be very old, perhaps as old as the Milky Way, and in any case much older than indicated by the ages of the stars near its centre. The present discovery furthermore proves that a halo may also form around a dwarf galaxy, and it is not a feature exclusively reserved for large spiral galaxies.

Implications of this discovery

WLM is so isolated that it has most probably never been disturbed by the other galaxies in the Local Group. It is also very small, and it is improbable that it has ever itself cannibalized an even smaller galaxy. It thus is quite likely that the newly discovered halo of WLM dates back to the formation of this galaxy and has remained undisturbed since that time.

It is now desirable to search for signs of similar old stellar halos in other isolated dwarf galaxies, to see whether such halos are common features or if the halo around WLM is a unique case. But this discovery of a halo in at least one dwarf galaxy already indicates that some halos are as old as the galaxy they surround and moreover, that the early formation process is similar for small and large disk galaxies.

This is a very important finding which will also be most useful for the interpretation of the very deep images of the Universe recently obtained with the Hubble Space Telescope, and which demonstrate how different galaxies looked in the distant past.


[1] Albert Zijlstra is a staff astronomer at the European Observatory and Dante Minniti, who also worked at ESO until recently, is now with the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, California, USA.

[2] A scientific article describing these results will soon appear in the Astrophysical Journal Letters ; it is also available as ESO Scientific Preprint no. 1145 .

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Over dit bericht

Persberichten nr.:eso9633
Legacy ID:PR 11/96
Type:Local Universe : Galaxy : Size : Dwarf
Local Universe : Galaxy : Component : Halo
Facility:New Technology Telescope


A dwarf galaxy with a halo
A dwarf galaxy with a halo