The Dynamics and Cold Gas Content of Luminous Infrared Galaxy Mergers in the Local Universe

  1. author Privon, George, Department of Astronomy, University of Virginia
  1. advisor Advisor: Evans, Aaron, Department of Astronomy, University of Virginia
Degree Information
Degree Type: Doctoral dissertation
Degree: PHD
Discipline: Astronomy
galaxy interactions, kinematics, molecular gas, star formation, neutral hydrogen,, active galactic nuclei

Luminous Infrared Galaxies (LIRGs; 10^11 ≤ L_IR [8 − 1000 μm]/L_sun < 10^12) and Ultraluminous Infrared Galaxies (ULIRGS; L_IR [8 − 1000 μm]/L_sun ≥ 10^12) are the most extreme star forming systems in the local universe, both in terms of their absolute star formation rates—ten to several hundred times that of ``normal’’ galaxies—and their star formation rate densities. Many U/LIRGs are interacting or merging disk galaxies undergoing enhanced star formation and/or nuclear activity, likely triggered as the objects transform into massive S0 and elliptical merger remnants. The LIRG population also contains a significant number of apparently isolated disk galaxies which are undergoing enhanced star formation, providing a window on secular galaxy evolution.

This work examines nearby U/LIRGs chosen from the Great Observatories All-sky LIRG Survey (GOALS), an infrared flux and luminosity selected sample. The proximity of these systems enables high spatial resolution study of active galactic nuclei (AGN) and extreme star formation in these objects. New maps of the neutral hydrogen (HI) emission are presented for systems morphologically classified in the optical and mid-infrared as non-merging or pre-merger systems. The results of this study suggests that some infrared-selected galaxies may be minor mergers or interactions which are being viewed so soon after first pass that the stellar disk has not yet been significantly disturbed.

Galaxy mergers appear to drive much of the enhanced activity observed in U/LIRGs; understanding the merger state of these systems provides a context for observations of star formation and AGN properties. In order to constrain the merger stage, dynamical models for a sample of nine systems were matched to the observed kinematics and morphology as obtained from optical imaging and interferometric \HI maps. The resulting models are used not only to constrain the merger stage, but also the encounter geometry of the precursor. Based on these dynamical models a new merger stage classification is presented, which re-scales objects to a common timeline is used to place the observations in context. Applications of this dynamical merger stage to the study of star formation rates and indicators of AGN activity are presented.

Finally, newly obtained measurements of the galaxy-integrated 1–0 rotational transitions of hydrogen cyanide (HCN) and formylium (HCO^+) in a sample of U/LIRGs are used to investigate the ratio of HCN (1–0) to HCO (1–0) and its dependence on mid-infrared indicators of AGN strength. In contrast to previous claims, it is demonstrated that high values of this ratio are not uniquely linked to the presence of an AGN, but can be achieved in systems dominated by star formation. This suggests the excitation of these high critical density molecular gas tracers is determined by the complex interplay of radiation field, gas density, and gas column.