When the Milky Way turned-off the lights: APOGEE provides evidence of star formation "quenching" in our Galaxy [GA]


Quenching, the cessation of star formation, is one of the most significant events in the life cycle of galaxies. We show here the first evidence that the Milky Way experienced a generalised quenching of its star formation at the end of its thick disk formation $\sim$9 Gyr ago. Elemental abundances of stars studied as part of the APOGEE survey reveal indeed that in less than $\sim$2 Gyr the star formation rate in our Galaxy dropped by an order-of-magnitude. Because of the tight correlation between age and alpha abundance, this event reflects in the dearth of stars along the inner disk sequence in the [Fe/H]-[$\alpha$/Fe] plane. Before this phase, which lasted about 1.5 Gyr, the Milky Way was actively forming stars. Afterwards, the star formation resumed at a much lower level to form the thin disk. These events are very well matched by the latest observation of MW-type progenitors at high redshifts. In late type galaxies, quenching is believed to be related to a long and secular exhaustion of gas. In our Galaxy, it occurred on a much shorter time scale, while the chemical continuity before and after the quenching indicates that it was not due to the exhaustion of the gas. While quenching is generally associated with spheroids, our results show that it also occurs in galaxies like the Milky Way, possibly when they are undergoing a morphological transition from thick to thin disks. Given the demographics of late type galaxies in the local universe, in which classical bulges are rare, we suggest further that this may hold true generally in galaxies with mass lower than or approximately $M^*$, where quenching could be directly a consequence of thick disk formation. We emphasize that the quenching phase in the Milky Way could be contemporaneous with, and related to, the formation of the bar. We sketch a scenario on how a strong bar may inhibit star formation.

Read this paper on arXiv…

M. Haywood, M. Lehnert, P. Matteo, et. al.
Thu, 14 Jan 16

Comments: 17 pages, 8 figures. Accepted for publication in A&A