Authors: Enrique Lopez-Rodriguez, Rainer Beck, Susan E. Clark, Annie Hughes, Alejandro S. Borlaff, Eva Ntormousi, Lucas Grosset, Konstantinos Tassis, John E. Beckman, Kandaswamy Subramanian, Daniel Dale, Tanio Díaz-Santos, Legacy Team
First Author Institution: Kavli Institute for Particle Astrophysics & Cosmology (KIPAC), Stanford University, Stanford, CA 94305, USA
Status: Submitted to ApJ
Galaxies throughout the cosmos display a delightful diversity of morphologies, from elegant and complex spirals to bizarre, irregular galaxies. More and more, it seems that the structure and evolution of galaxies is strongly influenced by magnetic fields. The invisible magnetic fields that permeate interstellar space have long been suspected to play a critical role in the formation of stars, buoying clouds against gravitational collapse, steering gas flows throughout galaxies, as well as feeding supermassive black holes in galactic centers. Despite their importance, these magnetic fields are notoriously difficult to measure and map. State-of-the-art instruments and techniques have opened a window into a golden age of magnetic field measurements from local molecular clouds within our Milky Way to the distant maelstroms of gas swirling around galactic nuclei.
How do we measure magnetic fields?
These magnetic fields cannot be directly detected, so we have to rely on measuring their effects on gas and dust within the environments we aim to study. One way to reveal the magnetic field in the interstellar medium is dust polarimetry. Individual grains of dust amidst the gas in molecular clouds tend to orient themselves relative to the magnetic field that is present, and these organized dust grains emit light with a certain polarization. One can measure the polarization of that light, and then infer the orientation of the glowing dust grains to map out the magnetic field lines influencing the dust (Figure 1). This process requires sensitive measurements, but it is very possible using instruments like those aboard SOFIA (the Stratospheric Observatory For Infrared Astronomy).
The Magnetic Heart of NGC 1097
Today’s paper explores the magnetic field structure of the center of NGC 1097, a barred spiral galaxy with an active galactic nucleus and a brilliant starburst ring fed by a pair of linear gas structures, aligned with the bar, known as dust lanes. The ring of dense gas orbiting about a kiloparsec from the galaxy’s nucleus is forming stars at more than twice the rate of the entire Milky Way! In addition to its spectacular spiral arms, prominent dust lanes, and glowing core, NGC 1097 is also known to host one of the strongest interstellar magnetic fields in a nuclear starburst ring. This galaxy provides an excellent testbed for studying the interactions of star formation, galactic scale flows and structures, and powerful magnetic fields.
The authors use a combination of far infrared (89um) polarimetry from SOFIA’s HAWC+ instrument and radio (3.5 and 6 cm) polarimetry from the Very Large Array (VLA) to trace the orientation of dust grains shifted by the magnetic field, while exploring the velocity structure of the gas using molecular line emission from carbon monoxide. Understanding both the gas motions and the magnetic field properties, they can see how the gas flows and magnetic structure of the galaxy might be related. The magnetic field traced by the far infrared emission appears to have a different structure from the field revealed by the radio observations -the two methods seeming to uncover separate modes of the total magnetic field that resemble different components of the gas flows. The 89um dust emission seems to indicate a compressed field, while the radio observations clearly suggest a spiral structure to the field (Figure 2).
The authors interpret this apparent difference in magnetic field morphology as the two observations tracing separate modes of the magnetic field associated with different phases of the gas: the far infrared polarization reveals the magnetic field compressed by a shock wave crashing through the dense gas in the starburst ring, while the radio polarization shows the the magnetic field being twisted in a spiral by shearing motions in the more diffuse gas. This suggests that the gas motions, whether diffuse or dense, may be guided by the strong magnetic fields. Unraveling the intricate dance of magnetic fields, kinematics and gravity is no easy task, but multi-wavelength polarization studies like this provide an exciting window into the diversity of the magnetic structures of galaxies, and when it comes to magnetic fields, it seem like there is always more than meets the eye.
Astrobite edited by Sasha Warren
Featured image credit: The galaxy NGC 1097, ESA/Hubble & NASA