The dwarf galaxy NGC1052-DF2

Galaxy By Louis Spencer JR |

A recently discovered dwarf galaxy designated NGC1052-DF2 has been in the news lately. Apparently a satellite of the giant elliptical NGC 1052, DF2 (as I’ll call it from here on out) is remarkable for having a surprisingly low velocity dispersion for a galaxy of its type. These results were reported in Nature last week by van Dokkum et al., and have caused a bit of a stir.

It is common for giant galaxies to have some dwarf satellite galaxies. As can be seen from the image published by van Dokkum et al., there are a number of galaxies in the neighborhood of NGC 1052. Whether these are associated physically into a group of galaxies or are chance projections on the sky depends on the distance to each galaxy.

Image of field containing DF2 from van Dokkum et al.

NGC 1052 is listed by the NASA Extragalactic Database (NED) as having a recession velocity of 1510 km/s and a distance of 20.6 Mpc. The next nearest big beastie is NGC 1042, at 1371 km/s. The difference of 139 km/s is not much different from 115 km/s, which is the velocity that Andromeda is heading towards the Milky Way, so one could imagine that this is a group similar to the Local Group. Except that NED says the distance to NGC 1042 is 7.8 Mpc, so apparently it is a foreground object seen in projection.

Van Dokkum et al. assume DF2 and NGC 1052 are both about 20 Mpc distant. They offer two independent estimates of the distance, one consistent with the distance to NGC 1052 and the other more consistent with the distance to NGC 1042. Rather than wring our hands over this, I will trust their judgement and simply note, as they do, that the nearer distance would change many of their conclusions. The redshift is 1803 km/s, larger than either of the giants. It could still be a satellite of NGC 1052, as ~300 km/s is not unreasonable for an orbital velocity.

So why the big fuss? Unlike most galaxies in the universe, DF2 appears not to require dark matter. This is inferred from the measured velocity dispersion of ten globular clusters, which is 8.4 km/s. That’s fast to you and me, but rather sluggish on the scale of galaxies. Spread over a few kiloparsecs, that adds up to a dynamical mass about equal to what we expect for the stars, leaving little room for the otherwise ubiquitous dark matter.

This is important. If the universe is composed of dark matter, it should on occasion be possible to segregate the dark from the light. Tidal interactions between galaxies can in principle do this, so a galaxy devoid of dark matter would be good evidence that this happened. It would also be evidence against a modified gravity interpretation of the missing mass problem, because the force law is always on: you can’t strip it from the luminous matter the way you can dark matter. So ironically, the occasional galaxy lacking dark matter would constitute evidence that dark matter does indeed exist!

DF2 appears to be such a case. But how weird is it? Morphologically, it resembles the dwarf spheroidal satellite galaxies of the Local Group. I have a handy compilation of those (from Lelli et al.), so we can compute the mass-to-light ratio for all of these beasties in the same fashion, shown in the figure below. It is customary to refer quantities to the radius that contains half of the total light, which is 2.2 kpc for DF2.

dwarfMLdynThe dynamical mass-to-light ratio for Local Group dwarf Spheroidal galaxies measured within their half-light radii, as a function of luminosity (left) and average surface brightness within the half-light radius (right). DF2 is the blue cross with low M/L. The other blue cross is Crater 2, a satellite of the Milky Way discovered after the compilation of Local Group dwarfs was made. The dotted line shows M/L = 2, which is a good guess for the stellar mass-to-light ratio. That DF2 sits on this line implies that stars are the only mass that’s there.

Perhaps the most obvious respect in which DF2 is a bit unusual relative to the dwarfs of the Local Group is that it is big and bright. Most nearby dwarfs have half light radii well below 1 kpc. After DF2, the next most luminous dwarfs is Fornax, which is a factor of 5 lower in luminosity.

DF2 is called an ultradiffuse galaxy (UDG), which is apparently newspeak for low surface brightness (LSB) galaxy. I’ve been working on LSB galaxies my entire career. While DF2 is indeed low surface brightness – the stars are spread thin – I wouldn’t call it ultra diffuse. It is actually one of the higher surface brightness objects of this type. Crater 2 and And XIX (the leftmost points in the right panel) are ultradiffuse.

Astronomers love vague terminology, and as a result often reinvent terms that already exist. Dwarf, LSB, UDG, have all been used interchangeably and with considerable slop. I was sufficiently put out by this that I tried to define some categories is the mid-90s. This didn’t catch on, but by my definition, DF2 is VLSB – very LSB, but only by a little – it is much closer to regular LSB than to extremely (ELSB). Crater 2 and And XIX, now they’re ELSB, being more diffuse than DF2 by 2 orders of magnitude.

SBdefinitiontableSurface brightness categories from McGaugh (1996).

Whatever you call it, DF2 is low surface brightness, and LSB galaxies are always dark matter dominated. Always, at least among disk galaxies: here is the analogous figure for galaxies that rotate:

MLdynDiskDynamical mass-to-light ratios for rotationally supported disk galaxies, analogous to the plot above for pressure supported disks. The lower the surface brightness, the higher the mass discrepancy. The correlation with luminosity is secondary, as a result of the correlation between luminosity and surface brightness. From McGaugh (2014).

Pressure supported dwarfs generally evince large mass discrepancies as well. So in this regard, DF2 is indeed very unusual. So what gives?

Perhaps DF2 formed that way, without dark matter. This is anathema to everything we know about galaxy formation in ΛCDM cosmology. Dark halos have to form first, with baryons following.

Perhaps DF2 suffered one or more tidal interactions with NGC 1052. Sub-halos in simulations are often seen to be on highly radial orbits; perhaps DF2 has had its dark matter halo stripped away by repeated close passages. Since the stars reside deep in the center of the subhalo, they’re the last thing to be stripped away. So perhaps we’ve caught this one at that special time when the dark matter has been removed but the stars still remain.

This is improbable, but ought to happen once in a while. The bigger problem I see is that one cannot simply remove the dark matter halo like yanking a tablecloth and leaving the plates. The stars must respond to the change in the gravitational potential; they too must diffuse away. That might be a good way to make the galaxy diffuse, ultimately perhaps even ultradiffuse, but the observed motions are then not representative of an equilibrium situation. This is critical to the mass estimate, which must perforce assume an equilibrium in which the gravitational potential well of the galaxy is balanced against the kinetic motion of its contents. Yank away the dark matter halo, and the assumption underlying the mass estimate gets yanked with it. While such a situation may arise, it makes it very difficult to interpret the velocities: all tests are off. This is doubly true in MOND, in which dwarfs are even more susceptible to disruption.

onedoesnotyank

Then there are the data themselves. Blaming the data should be avoided, but it does happen once in a while that some observation is misleading. In this case, I am made queasy by the fact that the velocity dispersion is estimated from only ten tracers. I’ve seen plenty of cases where the velocity dispersion changes in important ways when more data are obtained, even starting from more than 10 tracers. Andromeda II comes to mind as an example. Indeed, several people have pointed out that if we did the same exercise with Fornax, using its globular clusters as the velocity tracers, we’d get a similar answer to what we find in DF2. But we also have measurements of many hundreds of stars in Fornax, so we know that answer is wrong. Perhaps the same thing is happening with DF2? The fact that DF2 is an outlier from everything else we know empirically suggests caution.

Throwing caution and fact-checking to the wind, many people have been predictably eager to cite DF2 as a falsification of MOND. Van Dokkum et al. point out the the velocity dispersion predicted for this object by MOND is 20 km/s, more than a factor of two above their measured value. They make the MOND prediction for the case of an isolated object. DF2 is not isolated, so one must consider the external field effect (EFE).

The criterion by which to judge isolation in MOND is whether the acceleration due to the mutual self-gravity of the stars is less than the acceleration from an external source, in this case the host NGC 1052. Following the method outlined by McGaugh & Milgrom, and based on the stellar mass (adopting M/L=2 as both we and van Dokkum assume), I estimate an internal acceleration of DF2 to be gin = 0.15 a0. Here a0 is the critical acceleration scale in MOND, 1.2 x 10-10 m/s/s. Using this number and treating DF2 as isolated, I get the same 20 km/s van Dokkum et al. estimate.

Estimating the external field is more challenging. It depends on the mass of NGC 1052, and the separation between it and DF2. The projected separation at the assumed distance is 80 kpc. That is well within the range that the EFE is commonly observed to matter in the Local Group. It could be a bit further granted some distance along the line of sight, but if this becomes too large then the distance by association with NGC 1052 has to be questioned, and all bets are off. The mass of NGC 1052 is also rather uncertain, or at least I have heard wildly different values quoted in discussions about this object. Here I adopt 1011 M☉ as estimated by SLUGGS. To get the acceleration, I estimate the asymptotic rotation velocity we’d expect in MOND, V4 = a0GM. This gives 200 km/s, which is conservative relative to the ~300 km/s quoted by van Dokkum et al. At a distance of 80 kpc, the corresponding external acceleration gex = 0.14 a0. This is very uncertain, but taken at face value is indistinguishable from the internal acceleration. Consequently, it cannot be ignored: the calculation published by van Dokkum et al. is not the correct prediction for MOND.

The velocity dispersion estimator in MOND differs when gex < gin and gex > gin (see equations 2 and 3 of McGaugh & Milgrom). Strictly speaking, these apply in the limits where one or the other field dominates. When they are comparable, the math gets more involved (see equation 59 of Famaey & McGaugh). The input data are too uncertain to warrant an elaborate calculation for a blog, so I note simply that the amplitude of the mass discrepancy in MOND depends on how deep in the MOND regime a system is. That is, how far below the critical acceleration scale it is. The lower the acceleration, the larger the discrepancy. This is why LSB galaxies appear to be dark matter dominated; their low surface densities result in low accelerations.

For DF2, the absolute magnitude of the acceleration is approximately doubled by the presence of the external field. It is not as deep in the MOND regime as assumed in the isolated case, so the mass discrepancy is smaller, decreasing the MOND-predicted velocity dispersion by roughly the square root of 2. For a factor of 2 range in the stellar mass-to-light ratio (as in McGaugh & Milgrom), this crude MOND prediction becomes

σ = 14 ± 4 km/s.

Like any erstwhile theorist, I reserve the right to modify this prediction granted more elaborate calculations, or new input data, especially given the uncertainties in the distance and mass of the host. Indeed, we should consider the possibility of tidal disruption, which can happen in MOND more readily than with dark matter. Indeed, at one point I came very close to declaring MOND dead because the velocity dispersions of the ultrafaint dwarf galaxies were off, only realizing late in the day that MOND actually predicts that these things should be getting tidally disrupted (as is also expected, albeit somewhat differently, in ΛCDM), so that the velocity dispersions might not reflect the equilibrium expectation.

In DF2, the external field almost certainly matters. Barring wild errors of the sort discussed or unforeseen, I find it hard to envision the MONDian velocity dispersion falling outside the range 10 – 18 km/s. This is not as high as the 20 km/s predicted by van Dokkum et al. for an isolated object, nor as small as they measure for DF2 (8.4 km/s). They quote a 90% confidence upper limit of 10 km/s, which is marginally consistent with the lower end of the prediction (corresponding to M/L = 1). So we cannot exclude MOND based on these data.

That said, the agreement is marginal. Still, 90% is not very high confidence by scientific standards. Based on experience with such data, this likely overstates how well we know the velocity dispersion of DF2. Put another way, I am 90% confident that when better data are obtained, the measured velocity dispersion will increase above the 10 km/s threshold.

More generally, experience has taught me three things:

In matters of particle physics, do not bet against the Standard Model. In matters cosmological, do not bet against ΛCDM. In matters of galaxy dynamics, do not bet against MOND.

The astute reader will realize that these three assertions are mutually exclusive. The dark matter of ΛCDM is a bet that there are new particles beyond the Standard Model. MOND is a bet that what we call dark matter is really the manifestation of physics beyond General Relativity, on which cosmology is based. Which is all to say, there is still some interesting physics to be discovered.

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