How the Milky Way Killed Off Its Satellites

Two researchers from Observatoire Astronomique de Strasbourg have revealed for the first time the existence of a new signature of the birth of the first stars in our galaxy, the Milky Way. More than 12 billion years ago, the intense ultraviolet light from these stars dispersed the gas of our galaxy's nearest companions, virtually putting a halt to their ability to form stars and consigning them to a dim future. Now Pierre Ocvirk and Dominique Aubert, members of the Light in the Dark Ages of the Universe (LIDAU) collaboration, have explained why some galaxies were killed off, while stars continued to form in more distant objects. The two scientists publish their results in the October issue of the letters of the journal Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society.

The first stars of the Universe appeared about 150 million years after the Big Bang. Back then, the hydrogen and helium gas filling the universe was cold enough for its atoms to be electrically neutral. As the ultraviolet (UV) light of the first stars propagated through this gas, it broke apart the proton-electron pairs that make up hydrogen atoms, returning them to the so-called plasma state they experienced in the first moments of the Universe. This process, known as reionization, also resulted in significant heating, which had dramatic consequences: the gas became so hot that it escaped the weak gravity of the lowest mass galaxies, thereby depriving them of the material needed to form stars.

It is now widely accepted that this process can explain the small number and large ages of the stars seen in the faintest dwarf galaxy satellites of the Milky Way. It also helps scientists understand why galaxies like the Milky Way have so few satellites around them -- the 'missing satellites' problem. The stripping out of gas from these galaxies makes them sensitive probes of the UV radiation in the reionization epoch.

The satellite galaxies are also relatively close, from 30,000 to 900,000 light-years away, which allows us to study them in great detail, something that will be enhanced by the coming generation of larger telescopes. Comparing the population of their stars in each galaxy with its position could give us a unique insight into the structure of the UV radiation emitted from the earliest stars in the Milky Way.

Until now, models for this process assumed that the radiation leading to the removal of gas from galaxy satellites was produced collectively by all the large galaxies nearby, resulting in a uniform background of UV light. The new model put together by the two French researchers proves this assumption wrong.

Ocvirk and Aubert looked at the way the invisible 'dark matter' that makes up about 23% of the Universe structured itself with the stars in our galaxy and its environs from shortly after the Big Bang to the present day. They used the high resolution numerical simulation Via Lactea II to model the formation of stars in gas trapped in the dark matter haloes that envelop galaxies, and then to describe how this gas reacted to UV radiation.

Pierre Ocvirk comments, "This is the first time that a model accounts for the effect of the radiation emitted by the first stars formed at the center of the Milky Way on its satellite galaxies.

"In contrast to previous models, the radiation field produced is not uniform, but decreases in intensity as one moves away from the center of the Milky Way.

"The satellite galaxies close to the galactic center see their gas evaporate very quickly. They form so few stars that they can be undetectable with current telescopes. At the same time, the more remote satellite galaxies experience on average a weaker irradiation. Therefore they manage to keep their gas longer, and form more stars. As a consequence they are easier to detect and appear more numerous."

The new model appears to be a close match to observations of our galaxy and its neighborhood and suggests that the first stars of our galaxy played a major role in the photo-evaporation of the satellite galaxies' gas, adds Dr. Ocvirk. "It is not large nearby galaxies but our own that caused the demise of its tiny neighbors, asphyxiating them through its intense radiation."

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The results appear in the paper "A signature of the internal reionization of the Milky Way?", Pierre Ocvirk and Dominique Aubert, Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society, Volume 417, Issue 1, pages L93-L97, October 2011:

Preprint of the paper:

Missing Satellites Problem

The missing satellites problem was formulated about 10 years ago, as a disagreement between the expected and observed numbers of satellite galaxies of the Milky Way. While standard numerical simulations predicted as many as 500, only 10 of them were known, and still only about 20 at present. This means that, either these galaxies do not exist, thereby ruling out the standard cosmological model, or they do exist, but are rendered undetectable for some unknown reason. This problem finds a credible solution in the processes resulting from the UV background pervading the Universe during reionization. Its intensity may be sufficient to photo-evaporate the gas of low mass satellite galaxies and stop their star formation very early on. The paucity of their stars eventually makes them difficult to detect today, and explains why we see so few of them.


The Light In the Dark Ages of the Universe (LIDAU) project is funded by the French Agence Nationale pour la Recherche (ANR):

The collaboration comprises the two researchers from Observatoire Astronomique de Strasbourg, as well as Benoit Semelin, Patrick Vonlanthen and Kenji Hasegawa, who belong to LERMA (Observatoire de Paris).

The Royal Astronomical Society

The Royal Astronomical Society (RAS,, founded in 1820, encourages and promotes the study of astronomy, solar-system science, geophysics and closely related branches of science. The RAS organizes scientific meetings, publishes international research and review journals, recognizes outstanding achievements by the award of medals and prizes, maintains an extensive library, supports education through grants and outreach activities and represents UK astronomy nationally and internationally. Its more than 3500 members (Fellows), a third based overseas, include scientific researchers in universities, observatories and laboratories as well as historians of astronomy and others.

Follow the RAS on Twitter via @royalastrosoc

Press Contact:
Dr. Robert Massey
Royal Astronomical Society
+44 (0)20 7734 3307 x214; cell: +44 (0)794 124 8035

Science Contact:
Dr. Pierre Ocvirk
Observatoire Astronomique de Strasbourg
+33 (0)3 68 85 24 40; cell: +33(0) 608755639

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