The bottom panel of Figure 1 shows, as a function of projected distance, the mean SFR of all the paired galaxies (blue) and of their statistical control samples (red). The ratio of these two quantities, which is defined as the “enhancement in star formation” is plotted in the top panel, where the inset plot shows its behaviour at even larger values of the projected separation. This figure nicely shows that star formation is enhanced in interacting galaxies, that such enhancement is stronger at the smallest separations, especially less than 20 kpc, and finally that the enhancement in SFR extends to larger separations than what was previously thought, being visible out to projected separations of ~ 150 kpc. In particular, it is found that the 66% of the enhanced star formation in galaxy pairs occurs at separations greater than 30 kpc.Takeaway message: an enhancement in star formation is not only limited to strongly interacting galaxies with a very close companion, but also to wide galaxy pairs.Now, are these findings consistent with the predictions from numerical simulations of interacting galaxies? In order to answer to this question, the authors investigate a suite of ad-hoc simulations of galaxy mergers run with the N-body/SPH code GADGET.The simulated galaxy pairs are simple binary systems, where the stellar masses of the two initial galaxies is set to match the median stellar mass and mass-ratio of the observed SDSS sample. The simulated mergers span a significant set of five values of orbital eccentricities, five values of impact parameters, and three values of merger disc orientation, not limiting the galaxy orbits to low values of eccentricities and to small values of impact parameters. In total, 75 (5 x 5 x 3) orbital configurations for galaxy mergers are explored, and each one can be observed from a random set of viewing angles and at random times during the orbital evolution.The authors compute the mean SFR over the 75 orbital configurations, observing each orbit from random orientations and at random moments during the merging history. Of course, these random times imply many different values of projected separations. This measurement of SFR is then translated into a measurement of SFR enhancement by normalizing by the SFR of the same galaxy evolved in isolation.
Figure 2 shows the mean enhancement in star formation rate computed from galaxy merger simulations (black), and the extremely small error bars are due to the average over many orbit orientations. The curve showing the same data derived from galaxy pairs in SDSS is overlaid in blue. Remarkably, the two curves, hence the two different approaches, yield a similar result: an enhancement in SFR is observed out to large projected distances ~150 kpc, though stronger in the SDSS data. In the simulations, the enhancement is a result of starburst activity triggered at the first pericentre passage, which persists as the galaxies move to wider separations.Hence, the authors can safely conclude that interaction-induced star formation is not only limited to those galaxies which have a close companion, but rather it affects a larger variety of galaxies.