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    As they grow, galaxies can transition from irregular/spheroidal with ‘bursty’ star formation histories (SFHs), to discy with smooth SFHs. But even in simulations, the direct physical cause of such transitions remains unclear. We therefore explore this in a large suite of numerical experiments re-running portions of cosmological simulations with widely varied physics, further validated with existing FIRE simulations. We show that gas supply, cooling/thermodynamics, star formation model, Toomre scale, galaxy dynamical times, and feedback properties do not have a direct causal effect on these transitions. Rather, both the formation of discs and cessation of bursty star formation are driven by the gravitational potential, but in different ways. Disc formation is promoted when the mass profile becomes sufficiently centrally concentrated in shape (relative to circularization radii): we show that this provides a well-defined dynamical centre, ceases to support the global ‘breathing modes’ that can persist indefinitely in less-concentrated profiles and efficiently destroy discs, promotes orbit mixing to form a coherent angular momentum, and stabilizes the disc. Smooth SF is promoted by the potential or escape velocity Vesc (not circular velocity Vc) becoming sufficiently large at the radii of star formation that cool, mass-loaded (momentum-conserving) outflows are trapped/confined near the galaxy, as opposed to escaping after bursts. We discuss the detailed physics, how these conditions arise in cosmological contexts, their relation to other correlated phenomena (e.g. inner halo virialization, vertical disc ‘settling’), and observations.

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    We investigate the formation of Milky Way–mass galaxies using FIRE-2 ΛCDM cosmological zoom-in simulations by studying the orbital evolution of stars formed in the main progenitor of the galaxy, from birth to the present day. We classify in situ stars as isotropic spheroid, thick-disc, and thin-disc according to their orbital circularities and show that these components are assembled in a time-ordered sequence from early to late times, respectively. All simulated galaxies experience an early phase of bursty star formation that transitions to a late-time steady phase. This transition coincides with the time that the inner CGM virializes. During the early bursty phase, galaxies have irregular morphologies and new stars are born on radial orbits; these stars evolve into an isotropic spheroidal population today. The bulk of thick-disc stars form at intermediate times, during a clumpy-disc ‘spin-up’ phase, slightly later than the peak of spheroid formation. At late times, once the CGM virializes and star formation ‘cools down,’ stars are born on circular orbits within a narrow plane. Those stars mostly inhabit thin discs today. Broadly speaking, stars with disc-like or spheroid-like orbits today were born that way. Mergers on to discs and secular processes do affect kinematics in our simulations, but play only secondary roles in populating thick-disc and in situ spheroid populations at z = 0. The age distributions of spheroid, thick disc, and thin disc populations scale self-similarly with the steady-phase transition time, which suggests that morphological age dating can be linked to the CGM virialization time in galaxies.

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    We examine the azimuthal variations in gas-phase metallicity profiles in simulated Milky Way-mass disc galaxies from the Feedback in Realistic Environments (FIRE-2) cosmological zoom-in simulation suite, which includes a sub-grid turbulent metal mixing model. We produce spatially resolved maps of the discs at z ≈ 0 with pixel sizes ranging from 250 to 750 pc, analogous to modern integral field unit galaxy surveys, mapping the gas-phase metallicities in both the cold and dense gas and the ionized gas correlated with H ii regions. We report that the spiral arms alternate in a pattern of metal rich and metal poor relative to the median metallicity of the order of ≲0.1 dex, appearing generally in this sample of flocculent spirals. The pattern persists even in a simulation with different strengths of metal mixing, indicating that the pattern emerges from physics above the sub-grid scale. Local enrichment does not appear to be the dominant source of the azimuthal metallicity variations at z ≈ 0: there is no correlation with local star formation on these spatial scales. Rather, the arms are moving radially inwards and outwards relative to each other, carrying their local metallicity gradients with them radially before mixing into the larger-scale interstellar medium. We propose that the arms act as freeways channeling relatively metal poor gas radially inwards, and relatively enriched gas radially outwards.

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    Milky Way-mass galaxies in the FIRE-2 simulations demonstrate two main modes of star formation. At high redshifts star formation occurs in a series of short and intense bursts, while at low redshifts star formation proceeds at a steady rate with a transition from one mode to another at times ranging from 3 to 7 Gyr ago for different galaxies. We analyse how the mode of star formation affects iron and alpha-element abundance. We find that the early bursty regime imprints a measurable pattern in stellar elemental abundances in the form of a ‘sideways chevron’ shape on the [Fe/H] – [O/Fe] plane and the scatter in [O/Fe] at a given stellar age is higher than when a galaxy is in the steady regime. That suggests that the evolution of [O/Fe] scatter with age provides an estimate of the end of the bursty phase. We investigate the feasibility of observing of this effect by adding mock observational errors to a simulated stellar survey and find that the transition between the bursty and steady phase should be detectable in the Milky Way, although larger observational uncertainties make the transition shallower. We apply our method to observations of the Milky Way from the Second APOKASC Catalogue and estimate that the transition to steady star formation in the Milky Way happened 7 – 8 Gyrs ago, earlier than transition times measured in the simulations.

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    The current generation of galaxy simulations can resolve individual giant molecular clouds, the progenitors of dense star clusters. But the evolutionary fate of these young massive clusters, and whether they can become the old globular clusters (GCs) observed in many galaxies, is determined by a complex interplay of internal dynamical processes and external galactic effects. We present the first star-by-star N-body models of massive (N ∼ 105–107) star clusters formed in a FIRE-2 MHD simulation of a Milky Way-mass galaxy, with the relevant initial conditions and tidal forces extracted from the cosmological simulation. We select 895 (∼30 per cent) of the YMCs with >6 × 104 M⊙ from Grudić et al. 2022 and integrate them to z = 0 using the cluster Monte Carlo code, CMC. This procedure predicts a MW-like system with 148 GCs, predominantly formed during the early, bursty mode of star formation. Our GCs are younger, less massive, and more core-collapsed than clusters in the Milky Way or M31. This results from the assembly history and age-metallicity relationship of the host galaxy: Younger clusters are preferentially born in stronger tidal fields and initially retain fewer stellar-mass black holes, causing them to lose mass faster and reach core collapse sooner than older GCs. Our results suggest that the masses and core/half-light radii of GCs are shaped not only by internal dynamical processes, but also by the specific evolutionary history of their host galaxies. These results emphasize that N-body studies with realistic stellar physics are crucial to understanding the evolution and present-day properties of GC systems.

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  6. Abstract

    In the Gaia era it is increasingly apparent that traditional static, parameterized models are insufficient to describe the mass distribution of our complex, dynamically evolving Milky Way (MW). In this work, we compare different time-evolving and time-independent representations of the gravitational potentials of simulated MW-mass galaxies from the FIRE-2 suite of cosmological-baryonic simulations. Using these potentials, we calculate actions for star particles in tidal streams around three galaxies with varying merger histories at each snapshot from 7 Gyr ago to the present day. We determine the action-space coherence preserved by each model using the Kullback–Leibler divergence to gauge the degree of clustering in actions and the relative stability of the clusters over time. We find that all models produce a clustered action space for simulations with no significant mergers. However, a massive (mass ratio prior to infall more similar than 1:8) interacting galaxy not present in the model will result in mischaracterized orbits for stars most affected by the interaction. The locations of the action space clusters (i.e., the orbits of the stream stars) are only preserved by the time-evolving model, while the time-independent models can lose significant amounts of information as soon as 0.5–1 Gyr ago, even if the system does not undergo a significant merger. Our results imply that reverse-integration of stream orbits in the MW using a fixed potential is likely to give incorrect results if integrated longer than 0.5 Gyr into the past.

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    Accurately reproducing the thin cold gas discs observed in nearby spiral galaxies has been a long standing issue in cosmological simulations. Here, we present measurements of the radially resolved H i scale height in 22 non-interacting Milky Way-mass galaxies from the FIREbox cosmological volume. We measure the H i scale heights using five different approaches commonly used in the literature: fitting the vertical volume density distribution with a Gaussian, the distance between maximum and half-maximum of the vertical volume density distribution, a semi-empirical description using the velocity dispersion and the galactic gravitational potential, the analytic assumption of hydrostatic equilibrium, and the distance from the midplane which encloses ≳60 per cent of the H i mass. We find median H i scale heights, measured using the vertical volume distribution, that range from ∼100 pc in the galactic centres to ∼800 pc in the outskirts and are in excellent agreement with recent observational results. We speculate that the presence of a realistic multiphase interstellar medium, including cold gas, and realistic stellar feedback are the drivers behind the realistic H i scale heights.

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    Recent observations and simulations indicate substantial evolution in the properties of galaxies with time, wherein rotationally supported and steady thin discs (like those frequently observed in the local Universe) emerge from galaxies that are clumpy, irregular, and have bursty star formation rates (SFRs). To better understand the progenitors of local disc galaxies, we carry out an analysis of three FIRE-2 simulated galaxies with a mass similar to the Milky Way at redshift z = 0. We show that all three galaxies transition from bursty to steady SFRs at a redshift between z = 0.5 and z = 0.8, and that this transition coincides with the rapid (≲1 Gyr) emergence of a rotationally supported interstellar medium (ISM). In the late phase with steady SFR, the rotational energy comprises ${\gtrsim }90{{\ \rm per\ cent}}$ of the total kinetic + thermal energy in the ISM, and is roughly half the gravitational energy. By contrast, during the early bursty phase, the ISM initially has a quasi-spheroidal morphology and its energetics are dominated by quasi-isotropic in- and outflows out of virial equilibrium. The subdominance of rotational support and out-of-equilibrium conditions at early times challenge the application of standard equilibrium disc models to high-redshift progenitors of Milky Way-like galaxies. We further find that the formation of a rotationally-supported ISM coincides with the onset of a thermal pressure supported inner circumgalactic medium (CGM). Before this transition, there is no clear boundary between the ISM and the inner CGM.

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    The properties of young star clusters formed within a galaxy are thought to vary in different interstellar medium conditions, but the details of this mapping from galactic to cluster scales are poorly understood due to the large dynamic range involved in galaxy and star cluster formation. We introduce a new method for modelling cluster formation in galaxy simulations: mapping giant molecular clouds (GMCs) formed self-consistently in a FIRE-2 magnetohydrodynamic galaxy simulation on to a cluster population according to a GMC-scale cluster formation model calibrated to higher resolution simulations, obtaining detailed properties of the galaxy’s star clusters in mass, metallicity, space, and time. We find $\sim 10{{\ \rm per\ cent}}$ of all stars formed in the galaxy originate in gravitationally bound clusters overall, and this fraction increases in regions with elevated Σgas and ΣSFR, because such regions host denser GMCs with higher star formation efficiency. These quantities vary systematically over the history of the galaxy, driving variations in cluster formation. The mass function of bound clusters varies – no single Schechter-like or power-law distribution applies at all times. In the most extreme episodes, clusters as massive as 7 × 106 M⊙ form in massive, dense clouds with high star formation efficiency. The initial mass–radius relation of young star clusters is consistent with an environmentally dependent 3D density that increases with Σgas and ΣSFR. The model does not reproduce the age and metallicity statistics of old ($\gt 11\rm Gyr$) globular clusters found in the Milky Way, possibly because it forms stars more slowly at z > 3.

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    The physics of magnetic fields (B) and cosmic rays (CRs) have recently been included in simulations of galaxy formation. However, significant uncertainties remain in how these components affect galaxy evolution. To understand their common observational tracers, we analyse the magnetic fields in a set of high-resolution, magnetohydrodynamic, cosmological simulations of Milky-Way-like galaxies from the FIRE-2 project. We compare mock observables of magnetic field tracers for simulations with and without CRs to observations of Zeeman splitting and rotation/dispersion measures. We find reasonable agreement between simulations and observations in both the neutral and the ionized interstellar medium (ISM). We find that the simulated galaxies with CRs show weaker ISM |B| fields on average compared to their magnetic-field-only counterparts. This is a manifestation of the effects of CRs in the diffuse, low density inner circumgalactic medium (CGM). We find that equipartition between magnetic and cosmic ray energy densities may be valid at large (> 1 kpc) scales for typical ISM densities of Milky-Way-like galaxies, but not in their haloes. Within the ISM, the magnetic fields in our simulated galaxies follow a power-law scaling with gas density. The scaling extends down to neutral hydrogen number densities < 300 cm−3, in contrast to observationally derived models, but consistent with the observational measurements. Finally, we generate synthetic rotation measure (RM) profiles for projections of the simulated galaxies and compare to observational constraints in the CGM. While consistent with upper limits, improved data are needed to detect the predicted CGM RMs at 10–200 kpc and better constrain theoretical predictions.

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