Tag Archives: spiral galaxies

Distant Galaxy Rotation Curves Appear Newtonian

One of the main ways in which dark matter was postulated, primarily in the 1970s, by Vera Rubin (recently deceased) and others, was by looking at the rotation curves for spiral galaxies in their outer regions. Although that was not the first apparent dark matter discovery, which was by Fritz Zwicky from observations of galaxy motion in the Coma cluster of galaxies during the 1930s.

Most investigations of spiral galaxies and star-forming galaxies have been relatively nearby, at low redshift, because of the difficulty in measuring these accurately at high redshift. For what is now a very large sample of hundreds of nearby galaxies, there is a consistent pattern. Galaxy rotation curves flatten out.


M64, image credit: NASA, ESA, and the Hubble Heritage Team (AURA/STScI)

If there were only ordinary matter one would expect the velocities to drop off as one observes the curve far from a galaxy’s center. This is virtually never seen at low redshifts, the rotation curves consistently flatten out. There are only two possible explanations: dark matter, or modification to the law of gravity at very low accelerations (dark gravity).

Dark matter, unseen matter, would case rotational velocities to be higher than otherwise expected. Dark, or modified gravity, additional gravity beyond Newtonian (or general relativity) would do the same.

Now a team of astronomers (Genzel et al. 2017) have measured the rotation curves of six individual galaxies at moderately high redshifts ranging from about 0.9 to 2.4.

Furthermore, as presented in a companion paper, they have stacked a sample of 97 galaxies with redshifts from 0.6 to 2.6  to derive an average high-redshift rotation curve (P. Lang et al. 2017). While individually they cannot produce sufficiently high quality rotation curves, they are able to produce a mean normalized curve for the sample as a whole with sufficiently good statistics.

In both cases the results show rotation curves that fall off with increasing distance from the galaxy center, and in a manner consistent with little or no dark matter contribution (Keplerian or Newtonian style behavior).

In the paper with rotation curves of 6 galaxies they go on to explain their falling rotation curves as due to “first, a large fraction of the massive high-redshift galaxy population was strongly baryon-dominated, with dark matter playing a smaller part than in the local Universe; and second, the large velocity dispersion in high-redshift disks introduces a substantial pressure term that leads to a decrease in rotation velocity with increasing radius.” 

So in essence they are saying that the central regions of galaxies were relatively more dominated in the past by baryons (ordinary matter), and that since they are measuring Hydrogen alpha emission from gas clouds in this study that they must also take into account the turbulent gas cloud behavior, and this is generally seen to be larger at higher redshifts.

Stacy McGaugh, a Modified Newtonian Dynamics (MOND) proponent, criticizes their work saying that their rotation curves just don’t go far enough out from the galaxy centers to be meaningful. But his criticism of their submission of their first paper to Nature (sometimes considered ‘lightweight’ for astronomy research results) is unfounded since the second paper with the sample of 97 galaxies has been sent to the Astrophysical Journal and is highly detailed in its observational analysis.

The father of MOND, Mordehai Milgrom, takes a more pragmatic view in his commentary. Milgrom calculates that the observed accelerations at the edge of these galaxies are several times higher than the value at which rotation curves should flatten. In addition to this criticism he notes that half of the galaxies have low inclinations, which make the observations less certain, and that the velocity dispersion of gas in galaxies that provides pressure support and allows for lower rotational velocities, is difficult to correct for.

As in MOND, in Erik Verlinde’s emergent gravity there is an extra acceleration (only apparent when the ordinary Newtonian acceleration is very low) of order. This spoofs the behavior of dark matter, but there is no dark matter. The extra ‘dark gravity’ is given by:

g _D = sqrt  {(a_0 \cdot g_B / 6 )}

In this equation a0 = c*H, where H is the Hubble parameter and gB is the usual Newtonian acceleration from the ordinary matter (baryons). Fundamentally, though, Verlinde derives this as the interaction between dark energy, which is an elastic, unequilibrated medium, and baryonic matter.

One could consider that this dark gravity effect might be weaker at high redshifts. One possibility is that density of dark energy evolves with time, although at present no such evolution is observed.

Verlinde assumes a dark energy dominated de Sitter model universe for which the cosmological constant is much larger than the matter contribution and approaches unity, Λ = 1 in units of the critical density. Our universe does not yet fully meet that criteria, but has Λ about 0.68, so it is a reasonable approximation.

At redshifts around z = 1 and 2 this approximation would be much less appropriate. We do not yet have a Verlindean cosmology, so it is not clear how to compute the expected dark gravity in such a case, but it may be less than today, or greater than today. Verlinde’s extra acceleration goes as the square root of the Hubble parameter. That was greater in the past and would imply more dark gravity. But  in reality the effect is due to dark energy, so it may go with the one-fourth power  of an unvarying cosmological constant and not change with time (there is a relationship that goes as H² ∝ Λ in the de Sitter model) or change very slowly.

At very large redshifts matter would completely dominate over the dark energy and the dark gravity effect might be of no consequence, unlike today. As usual we await more observations, both at higher redshifts, and further out from the galaxy centers at moderate redshifts.


R. Genzel et al. 2017, “Strongly baryon-dominated disk galaxies at the peak of galaxy formation ten billion years ago”, Nature 543, 397–401,

P. Lang et al. 2017, “Falling outer rotation curves of star-forming galaxies at 0.6 < z < 2.6 probed with KMOS^3D and SINS/ZC-SINF”

Stacy McGaugh 2017,

Mordehai Milgrom 2017, “High redshift rotation curves and MOND”

Erik Verlinde 2016, “Emergent Gravity and the Dark Universe” https;//


Blue Tides and the Milky Way

I recently wrote about the  largest high-redshift cosmological simulation of galaxy formation ever, which has been recently completed by a group of astrophysicists in the U.S. and the U.K. This tour-de-force simulation, named BlueTides, was performed on the Blue Waters Cray XE supercomputer at NCSA and employed 648,000 cores. The researchers utilized approximately 700 billion particles (!) to represent dark matter and ordinary matter and to create galaxies inside the supercomputer.

You can find the full article describing the simulation at

Galaxies are the fundamental building blocks of the large scale structure of the universe. Very early on, before the first galaxies formed, the universe was a highly uniform mix of dark matter and ordinary matter, but with about 5 times as much dark matter by mass relative to the ordinary matter (protons, neutrons, electrons) that makes up the visible parts of galaxies, including stars, gas and dust. Ares of higher dark matter density play a key role in gravitationally attracting ordinary matter that forms galaxies and stars.

When we think of the word galaxy we typically think of beautiful modern day spiral galaxies, such as the Andromeda Galaxy. Spiral galaxies are flattened, rotating disks; the spiral arms represent concentrations of matter and of star-forming regions. The most distant disk-shaped galaxies that have been detected are at redshifts of 2 to 3, so we are seeing them as they were when the universe was around 2 to 3 billion years old. (The higher the redshift the more distant the galaxy and also the farther back in time we are looking, toward the universe’s origin some 13.8 billion years ago).


Two spiral galaxies starting to collide. Image Credit: Debra Meloy Elmegreen (Vassar College) et al.,
& the Hubble Heritage Team (AURA/STScI/NASA)

The BlueTides simulation provides insight into what was going on when the universe was only around 1/2 a billion years old, with galaxy redshifts around 8 to 10. It does a good job of matching the limited observational data we have at such highredshifts, in particular the rest frame (before redshift) ultraviolet luminosities of the earliest detected galaxies from the Hubble Space Telescope surveys.

Their simulation finds that, among the most massive galaxies in their simulation, “a significant fraction are visually disk-like, and surprisingly regular in shape”. In other words, they appear to be the progenitors of present-day spiral galaxies. They find that, at a redshift of 8, a full 70% of their virtual galaxies with masses above 10 billion solar masses are classifiable as disks, since a majority of stellar orbits lie in the plane of the disk.


Simulated high-redshift galaxies from BlueTides – Figure 1 from Feng et al.

They also find that mergers are not of major significance in the build-up of these early massive galaxies. Rather it appears that they grew primarily by cold gas arriving from preferred directions, namely along filaments in the density distribution of the background gas. It is well known that the universe has a web-like or filamentary structure of high density regions interspersed with voids (relatively empty regions). This filamentary structure is believed on the basis of many simulations of the large-scale universe to have begun at an early date.

A future infrared satellite known as WFIRST will have a field of view 200 times larger than the Wide Field Camera on the Hubble. Also, its design for infrared radiation detection makes it appropriate for studying the light from high-redshift galaxies. The authors predict that a survey of 2000 square degrees with WFIRST should find roughly 8000 massive disk-type galaxies at redshifts above 8. Future very large ground-based telescopes will be able to make follow-up observations of galaxies discovered by WFIRST. Such observations will provide further insight into the nature of galaxy formation, including accretion of material from the background and the details of dark matter’s role in the process.


Feng et al. 2015, “The Formation of Milky Way-Mass Disk Galaxies in the First 500 Million Years of a Cold Dark Matter Universe”