A direct test of density wave theory in a grand-design spiral galaxy

Thomas Peterken, Michael Merrifield, Alfonso Aragón-Salamanca, Niv Drory, Coleman Krawczyk, Karen Masters, Anne-Marie Weijmans, Kyle Westfall

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

26 Citations (Scopus)
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The exact nature of the arms of spiral galaxies is still an open question1. It has been widely assumed that spiral arms in galaxies with two distinct symmetrical arms are the products of density waves that propagate around the disk, with the spiral arms being visibly enhanced by the star formation that is triggered as the passing wave compresses gas in the galaxy disk1,2,3. Such a persistent wave would propagate with an approximately constant angular speed, its pattern speed ΩP. The quasi-stationary density wave theory can be tested by measuring this quantity and showing that it does not vary with radius in the galaxy. Unfortunately, this measurement is difficult because ΩP is only indirectly connected to observables such as the stellar rotation speed4,5,6. Here, we use the detailed information on stellar populations of the grand-design spiral galaxy UGC 3825, extracted from spectral mapping, to measure the offset between young stars of a known age and the spiral arm in which they formed, allowing a direct measurement of ΩP at a range of radii. The offset in this galaxy is found to be as expected for a pattern speed that varies little with radius, indicating consistency with a quasi-stationary density wave, and lending credence to this new method.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)178-182
Number of pages5
JournalNature Astronomy
Early online date12 Nov 2018
Publication statusPublished - Feb 2019


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