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Published December 30, 2022 | Published
Journal Article Open

Rapid disc settling and the transition from bursty to steady star formation in Milky Way-mass galaxies


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 ≳90 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.

Additional Information

© 2022 The Author(s) Published by Oxford University Press on behalf of Royal Astronomical Society. This article is published and distributed under the terms of the Oxford University Press, Standard Journals Publication Model (https://academic.oup.com/journals/pages/open_access/funder_policies/chorus/standard_publication_model) We thank Vasily Belokurov and Andrey Kravtsov for sharing an advance copy of their paper on the identification of the Aurora stellar component and its interpretation in terms of an early chaotic phase in the Milky Way's evolution. We also thank the anonymous referee whose comments improved the quality of this manuscript. ABG was supported by an NSF-GRFP under grant DGE-1842165 and was additionally supported by NSF grants DGE-0948017and DGE-145000. JS was supported by the Israel Science Foundation (grant no. 2584/21) and by the German Science Foundation via DIP grant STE 1869/2-1 GE625/17-1. CAFG was supported by NSF through grants AST-1715216, AST-2108230, and CAREER award AST-1652522; by NASA through grant 17-ATP17-0067; by STScI through grant HST-AR-16124.001-A; and by the Research Corporation for Science Advancement through a Cottrell Scholar Award. Support for PFH was provided by NSF Research Grants 1911233 & 20009234, NSF CAREER grant 1455342, NASA grants 80NSSC18K0562, HST-AR-15800.001-A. AW received support from: NSF grants CAREER 2045928 and 2107772; NASA ATP grants 80NSSC18K1097 and 80NSSC20K0513; HST grants AR-15809 and GO-15902 from STScI; a Scialog Award from the Heising-Simons Foundation; and a Hellman Fellowship. AJR was supported by a COFUND/Durham Junior Research Fellowship under EU grant 609412; and by the Science and Technology Facilities Council [ST/T000244/1]. Numerical calculations were run on the Caltech computer cluster Wheeler, the Northwestern computer cluster Quest, Frontera allocation FTA-Hopkins/AST20016 supported by the NSF and TACC, XSEDE allocations ACI-1548562, TG-AST140023, and TG-AST140064, and NASA HEC allocations SMD-16-7561, SMD-17-1204, and SMD-16-7592. ZH was supported by a Gary A. McCue postdoctoral fellowship at UC Irvine. The data used in this work were, in part, hosted on facilities supported by the Scientific Computing Core at the Flatiron Institute, a division of the Simons Foundation.

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August 22, 2023
August 22, 2023