When galaxies eat galaxies: Gravity lenses suggest big collisions make galaxies denser

Using gravitational “lenses” in space, University of Utah astronomers discovered that the centers of the biggest galaxies are growing denser – evidence of repeated collisions and mergers by massive galaxies with 100 billion stars. “We found that during the last…

Using gravitational “lenses” in space, University of Utah astronomers discovered that the centers of the biggest galaxies are growing denser – evidence of repeated collisions and mergers by massive galaxies with 100 billion stars.

“We found that during the last 6 billion years, the matter that makes up massive elliptical galaxies is getting more concentrated toward the centers of those galaxies. This is evidence that big galaxies are crashing into other big galaxies to make even bigger galaxies,” says astronomer Adam Bolton, principal author of the new study.

“Most recent studies have indicated that these massive galaxies primarily grow by eating lots of smaller galaxies,” he adds. “We’re suggesting that major collisions between massive galaxies are just as important as those many small snacks.”

The new study – published recently in The Astrophysical Journal – was conducted by Bolton’s team from the Sloan Digital Sky Survey-III using the survey’s 2.5-meter optical telescope at Apache Point, N.M., and the Earth-orbiting Hubble Space Telescope.

The telescopes were used to observe and analyze 79 “gravitational lenses,” which are galaxies between Earth and more distant galaxies. A lens galaxy’s gravity bends light from a more distant galaxy, creating a ring or partial ring of light around the lens galaxy.

The size of the ring was used to determine the mass of each lens galaxy, and the speed of stars was used to calculate the concentration of mass in each lens galaxy.

Bolton conducted the study with three other University of Utah astronomers – postdoctoral researcher Joel Brownstein, graduate student Yiping Shu and undergraduate Ryan Arneson – and with these members of the Sloan Digital Sky Survey: Christopher Kochanek, Ohio State University; David Schlegel, Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory; Daniel Eisenstein, Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics; David Wake, Yale University; Natalia Connolly, Hamilton College, Clinton, N.Y.; Claudia Maraston, University of Portsmouth, U.K.; and Benjamin Weaver, New York University.