An international research group led by Junko Ueda, a Japan Society for the Promotion of Science postdoctoral fellow, has made surprising observations that most galaxy collisions in the nearby Universe — within 40 million light-years from Earth — result in so-called disc galaxies. Disc galaxies — including spiral galaxies like the Milky Way and lenticular galaxies — are defined by pancake-shaped regions of dust and gas, and are distinct from the category of elliptical galaxies.
It has, for some time, been widely accepted that merging disc galaxies would eventually form an elliptically shaped galaxy. During these violent interactions the galaxies do not only gain mass as they merge or cannibalise each-other, but they are also changing their shape throughout cosmic time, and therefore changing type along the way.
Computer simulations from the 1970s predicted that mergers between two comparable disc galaxies would result in an elliptical galaxy. The simulations predict that most galaxies today are elliptical, clashing with observations that over 70% of galaxies are in fact disc galaxies. However, more recent simulations have suggested that collisions could also form disc galaxies.
To identify the final shapes of galaxies after mergers observationally, the group studied the distribution of gas in 37 galaxies that are in their final stages of merging. The Atacama Large Millimeter/sub-millimeter Array, or ALMA and several other radio telescopes  were used to observe emission from carbon monoxide (CO), an indicator of molecular gas.
The team's research is the largest study of molecular gas in galaxies to date and provides unique insight into how the Milky Way might have formed. Their study revealed that almost all of the mergers show pancake-shaped areas of molecular gas, and hence are disc galaxies in the making. Ueda explains: "For the first time there is observational evidence for merging galaxies that could result in disc galaxies. This is a large and unexpected step towards understanding the mystery of the birth of disc galaxies."
Nonetheless, there is a lot more to discover. Ueda added: "We have to start focusing on the formation of stars in these gas discs. Furthermore, we need to look farther out in the more distant Universe. We know that the majority of galaxies in the more distant Universe also have discs. We however do not yet know whether galaxy mergers are also responsible for these, or whether they are formed by cold gas gradually falling into the galaxy. Maybe we have found a general mechanism that applies throughout the history of the Universe."
The data were obtained by ALMA ; the Combined Array for Research in Millimeter-wave Astronomy: a millimeter array consisting of 23 parabola antennas in California; the Submillimeter Array Submillimeter Array a submillimeter array consisting of eight parabola antennas in Mauna Kea, Hawaii; the Plateau de Bure Interferometer; the NAOJ Nobeyama Radio Observatory 45m radio telescope; USA's National Radio Astronomy Observatory Five College Radio Astronomy Observatory 12m telescope; USA's Five College Radio Astronomy Observatory Five College Radio Astronomy Observatory 14m telescope; IRAM's Observatory/ 30m telescope; and the Swedish-ESO Submillimeter Telescope as a supplement.
The Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA), an international astronomy facility, is a partnership of Europe, North America and East Asia in cooperation with the Republic of Chile. ALMA is funded in Europe by the European Southern Observatory (ESO), in North America by the U.S. National Science Foundation (NSF) in cooperation with the National Research Council of Canada (NRC) and the National Science Council of Taiwan (NSC) and in East Asia by the National Institutes of Natural Sciences (NINS) of Japan in cooperation with the Academia Sinica (AS) in Taiwan. ALMA construction and operations are led on behalf of Europe by ESO, on behalf of North America by the National Radio Astronomy Observatory (NRAO), which is managed by Associated Universities, Inc. (AUI) and on behalf of East Asia by the National Astronomical Observatory of Japan (NAOJ). The Joint ALMA Observatory (JAO) provides the unified leadership and management of the construction, commissioning and operation of ALMA.
These observation results were published in The Astrophysical Journal Supplement (August 2014) as Ueda et al. "Cold Molecular Gas in Merger Remnants. I. Formation of Molecular Gas Discs".
The team is composed of Junko Ueda (JSPS postdoctoral fellow/National Astronomical Observatory of Japan [NAOJ]), Daisuke Iono (NAOJ/The Graduate University for Advanced Studies [SOKENDAI]), Min S. Yun (The University of Massachusetts), Alison F. Crocker (The University of Toledo), Desika Narayanan (Haverford College), Shinya Komugi (Kogakuin University/ NAOJ), Daniel Espada (NAOJ/SOKENDAI/Joint ALMA Observatory), Bunyo Hatsukade (NAOJ), Hiroyuki Kaneko (University of Tsukuba), Yoichi Tamura (The University of Tokyo), David J. Wilner (Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics), Ryohei Kawabe (NAOJ/ SOKENDAI/The University of Tokyo) and Hsi-An Pan (Hokkaido University/SOKENDAI/NAOJ)
ESO is the foremost intergovernmental astronomy organisation in Europe and the world's most productive ground-based astronomical observatory by far. It is supported by 15 countries: Austria, Belgium, Brazil, the Czech Republic, Denmark, France, Finland, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Portugal, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland and the United Kingdom. ESO carries out an ambitious programme focused on the design, construction and operation of powerful ground-based observing facilities enabling astronomers to make important scientific discoveries. ESO also plays a leading role in promoting and organising cooperation in astronomical research. ESO operates three unique world-class observing sites in Chile: La Silla, Paranal and Chajnantor. At Paranal, ESO operates the Very Large Telescope, the world's most advanced visible-light astronomical observatory and two survey telescopes. VISTA works in the infrared and is the world's largest survey telescope and the VLT Survey Telescope is the largest telescope designed to exclusively survey the skies in visible light. ESO is the European partner of a revolutionary astronomical telescope ALMA, the largest astronomical project in existence. ESO is currently planning the 39-metre European Extremely Large optical/near-infrared Telescope, the E-ELT, which will become "the world's biggest eye on the sky".
Research paper on Astro-Ph: http://arxiv.org/abs/1407.6873
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