The bursty origin of the Milky Way thick disc
ABSTRACT We investigate thin and thick stellar disc formation in Milky Way-mass galaxies using 12 FIRE-2 cosmological zoom-in simulations. All simulated galaxies experience an early period of bursty star formation that transitions to a late-time steady phase of near-constant star formation. Stars formed during the late-time steady phase have more circular orbits and thin-disc-like morphology at z = 0, while stars born during the bursty phase have more radial orbits and thick-disc structure. The median age of thick-disc stars at z = 0 correlates strongly with this transition time. We also find that galaxies with an earlier transition from bursty to steady star formation have a higher thin-disc fractions at z = 0. Three of our systems have minor mergers with Large Magellanic Cloud-size satellites during the thin-disc phase. These mergers trigger short starbursts but do not destroy the thin disc nor alter broad trends between the star formation transition time and thin/thick-disc properties. If our simulations are representative of the Universe, then stellar archaeological studies of the Milky Way (or M31) provide a window into past star formation modes in the Galaxy. Current age estimates of the Galactic thick disc would suggest that the Milky Way transitioned from bursty to steady phase more »
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Award ID(s):
Publication Date:
NSF-PAR ID:
10278875
Journal Name:
Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society
Volume:
505
Issue:
1
Page Range or eLocation-ID:
889 to 902
ISSN:
0035-8711
1. ABSTRACT We study the growth of stellar discs of Milky Way-sized galaxies using a suite of cosmological simulations. We calculate the half-mass axis lengths and axis ratios of stellar populations split by age in galaxies with stellar mass $M_{*}=10^7\!-\!10^{10}\, \mathrm{M}_{\odot }$ at redshifts z > 1.5. We find that in our simulations stars always form in relatively thin discs, and at ages below 100 Myr are contained within half-mass height z1/2 ∼ 0.1 kpc and short-to-long axial ratio z1/2/x1/2 ∼ 0.15. Disc thickness increases with the age of stellar population, reaching median z1/2 ∼ 0.8 kpc and z1/2/x1/2 ∼ 0.6 for stars older than 500 Myr. We trace the same group of stars over the simulation snapshots and show explicitly that their intrinsic shape grows more spheroidal over time. We identify a new mechanism that contributes to the observed disc thickness: rapid changes in the orientation of the galactic plane mix the configuration of young stars. The frequently mentioned ‘upside-down’ formation scenario of galactic discs, which posits that young stars form in already thick discs at high redshift, may be missing this additional mechanism of quick disc inflation. The actual formation of stars within a fairly thin plane is consistent with the correspondingly flatmore »
We use FIRE simulations to study disc formation in z ∼ 0, Milky Way-mass galaxies, and conclude that a key ingredient for the formation of thin stellar discs is the ability for accreting gas to develop an aligned angular momentum distribution via internal cancellation prior to joining the galaxy. Among galaxies with a high fraction ($\gt 70{{\ \rm per\ cent}}$) of their young stars in a thin disc (h/R ∼ 0.1), we find that: (i) hot, virial-temperature gas dominates the inflowing gas mass on halo scales (≳20 kpc), with radiative losses offset by compression heating; (ii) this hot accretion proceeds until angular momentum support slows inward motion, at which point the gas cools to $\lesssim 10^4\, {\rm K}$; (iii) prior to cooling, the accreting gas develops an angular momentum distribution that is aligned with the galaxy disc, and while cooling transitions from a quasi-spherical spatial configuration to a more-flattened, disc-like configuration. We show that the existence of this ‘rotating cooling flow’ accretion mode is strongly correlated with the fraction of stars forming in a thin disc, using a sample of 17 z ∼ 0 galaxies spanning a halo mass range of 1010.5 M⊙ ≲ Mh ≲ 1012 M⊙ and stellarmore »
3. ABSTRACT In hierarchical structure formation, metal-poor stars in and around the Milky Way (MW) originate primarily from mergers of lower mass galaxies. A common expectation is therefore that metal-poor stars should have isotropic, dispersion-dominated orbits that do not correlate strongly with the MW disc. However, recent observations of stars in the MW show that metal-poor ($\rm {[Fe/H]}\lesssim -2$) stars are preferentially on prograde orbits with respect to the disc. Using the Feedback In Realistic Environments 2 (FIRE-2) suite of cosmological zoom-in simulations of MW/M31-mass galaxies, we investigate the prevalence and origin of prograde metal-poor stars. Almost all (11 of 12) of our simulations have metal-poor stars on preferentially prograde orbits today and throughout most of their history: we thus predict that this is a generic feature of MW/M31-mass galaxies. The typical prograde-to-retrograde ratio is ∼2:1, which depends weakly on stellar metallicity at $\rm {[Fe/H]}\lesssim -1$. These trends predicted by our simulations agree well with MW observations. Prograde metal-poor stars originate largely from a single Large/Small Magellanic Cloud (LMC/SMC)-mass gas-rich merger $7\!-\!12.5\, \rm {Gyr}$ ago, which deposited existing metal-poor stars and significant gas on an orbital vector that sparked the formation of and/or shaped the orientation of a long-lived stellar disc, givingmore »