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Understanding the Physical Processes Driving Galaxy Evolution in Clusters: A Case Study of Two z ~ 0.5 Galaxy Clusters


Moran, Sean Michael (2008) Understanding the Physical Processes Driving Galaxy Evolution in Clusters: A Case Study of Two z ~ 0.5 Galaxy Clusters. Dissertation (Ph.D.), California Institute of Technology. doi:10.7907/C7Q1-DF25.


Clusters of galaxies represent the largest laboratories in the universe for testing the incredibly chaotic physics governing the collapse of baryons into the stars, galaxies, groups, and diffuse clouds that we see today. Within the cluster environment, there are a wide variety of physical processes that may be acting to transform galaxies.

In this thesis, we combine extensive Keck spectroscopy with wide-field HST imaging to perform a detailed case study of two intermediate redshift galaxy clusters, Cl 0024+1654 (z=0.395) and MS 0451-03 (z=0.540). Leveraging a comprehensive multiwavelength data set that spans the X-ray to infrared, and with spectral-line measurements serving as the key to revealing both the recent star-formation histories and kinematics of infalling galaxies, we aim to shed light on the environmental processes that could be acting to transform galaxies in clusters.

We adopt a strategy to make maximal use of our HST-based morphologies by splitting our sample of cluster galaxies according to morphological type, characterizing signs of recent evolution in spirals and early types separately. This approach proves to be powerful in identifying galaxies that are currently being altered by an environmental interaction: early-type galaxies that have either been newly transformed or prodded back into an active phase, and spiral galaxies where star formation is being suppressed or enhanced all stand out in our sample.

We begin by using variations in the early-type galaxy population as indicators of recent activity. Because ellipticals and S0s form such a homogeneous class in the local universe, we are sensitive to even very subtle signatures of recent and current environmental interactions. This study has yielded two key results: By constructing the Fundamental Plane (FP) of Cl 0024, we observe that elliptical and S0 galaxies exhibit a high scatter in their FP residuals, which occurs only among galaxies in the cluster core, suggesting a turbulent assembly history for Cl 0024 early types. Near the Virial radius of Cl 0024, we observe a number of compact, intermediate-mass ellipticals undergoing a burst of star formation or weak AGN activity, indicated by strong [O II] emission; their locations may mark the minimum radius at which merging is effective in each cluster.

While E+S0 galaxies do prove to be sensitive indicators of environmental interaction, it is the spiral galaxies that, of course, host the bulk of star formation within and around these clusters. We therefore probe for kinematic disturbances in spiral disks by measuring resolved rotation curves from optical emission lines, and constructing the Tully-Fisher relation for spirals across Cl 0024 and MS 0451. We find that the cluster Tully-Fisher relation exhibits significantly higher scatter than the field relation. In probing for the origin of this difference, we find that the central mass densities of star-forming spirals exhibit a sharp break near the cluster Virial radius, with spirals in the cluster outskirts exhibiting significantly lower densities. We argue that these results considered together demonstrate that cluster spirals are kinematically disturbed by their environment, likely due to galaxy-galaxy interactions (harassment).

We then discuss our most powerful method of tracking galaxy evolution across Cl 0024 and MS 0451: identifying and studying "transition galaxies"-galaxies whose stellar populations or dynamical states indicate a recent or ongoing change in morphology or star formation rate. Such galaxies are often revealed by star formation histories that seem to be at odds with the galaxy morphologies: for example, spiral galaxies with no signs of star formation, or elliptical galaxies that do show signs of star formation.

We identify and study one such class of objects, the "passive spirals" in Cl 0024. These objects exhibit no emission lines in their spectra, suggesting a lack of star formation, yet are surprisingly detected in the UV, revealing the presence of young stars. By modeling the different temporal sensitivities of UV and spectroscopic data to recent activity, we show that star formation in Cl 0024 passive spirals has decayed on timescales of less than 1 Gyr, consistent with the action of "gas starvation".

We then build on and link together our previous indications of galaxy evolution at work, aiming to piece together a more comprehensive picture of how cluster galaxies are affected by their environment at intermediate redshift. To accomplish this, we document what we believe to be the first direct evidence for the transformation of spirals into S0s: through an analysis of their stellar populations and recent star formation rates, we link the passive spiral galaxies in both clusters to their eventual end states as newly generated cluster S0 galaxies. Differences between the two clusters in both the timescales and spatial location of this conversion process allow us to evaluate the relative importance of several proposed physical mechanisms that could be responsible for the transformation. Combined with other diagnostics that are sensitive to either ICM-driven galaxy evolution or galaxy-galaxy interactions, we describe a self-consistent picture of galaxy evolution in clusters.

We find that spiral galaxies within infalling groups have already begun a slow process of conversion into S0s primarily via gentle galaxy-galaxy interactions that act to quench star formation. The fates of spirals upon reaching the core of the cluster depend heavily on the cluster ICM, with rapid conversion of all remaining spirals into S0s via ram-pressure stripping in clusters where the ICM is dense. In the presence of a less-dense ICM, the conversion continues at a slower pace, with galaxy-galaxy interactions continuing to play a role along with "starvation" by the ICM. We conclude that the buildup of the local S0 population through the transformation of spiral galaxies is a heterogeneous process that nevertheless proceeds robustly across a variety of different environments from cluster outskirts to cores.

Item Type:Thesis (Dissertation (Ph.D.))
Subject Keywords:GALEX
Degree Grantor:California Institute of Technology
Division:Physics, Mathematics and Astronomy
Major Option:Astrophysics
Thesis Availability:Public (worldwide access)
Research Advisor(s):
  • Ellis, Richard S.
Group:Astronomy Department
Thesis Committee:
  • Djorgovski, George (chair)
  • Blain, Andrew W.
  • Blake, Geoffrey A.
  • Kamionkowski, Marc P.
  • Ellis, Richard S.
Defense Date:1 August 2007
Non-Caltech Author Email:smoran (AT)
Record Number:CaltechETD:etd-08212007-151300
Persistent URL:
Moran, Sean Michael0000-0002-9194-5071
Default Usage Policy:No commercial reproduction, distribution, display or performance rights in this work are provided.
ID Code:3182
Deposited By: Imported from ETD-db
Deposited On:05 Sep 2007
Last Modified:03 Dec 2019 22:30

Thesis Files

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