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The ecosystem that controls a galaxy’s future is coming into focus

The circumgalactic medium has been hard to observe, but new tools now make it possible.

COSMIC CLOAK Whirls of cold and hot gas billow in this simulation of a circumgalactic medium surrounding a galaxy. With new tools and simulations, researchers have learned that the CGM helps a galaxy recycle its materials.

There’s more to a galaxy than meets the eye. Galaxies’ bright stars seem to spiral serenely against the dark backdrop of space. But a more careful look reveals a whole lot of mayhem.

“Galaxies are just like you and me,” Jessica Werk, an astronomer at the University of Washington in Seattle, said in January at a meeting of the American Astronomical Society. “They live their lives in a constant state of turmoil.”

Much of that turmoil takes place in a huge, complicated setting called the circumgalactic medium, or CGM. This vast, roiling cloud of dust and gas is a galaxy’s fuel source, waste dump and recycling center all in one. Astronomers think the answers to some of the most pressing galactic mysteries — how galaxies keep forming new stars for billions of years, why star formation abruptly stops — are hidden in a galaxy’s enveloping CGM.

“To understand the galaxies, you have to understand the ecosystem that they’re in,” says astronomer Molly Peeples of the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore.

“Only recently have we been able to really, truly, observationally characterize the relationship between this gaseous cycle and the properties of the galaxy itself,” Werk says.

Armed with the first extragalactic census, astronomers are now piecing together how a CGM controls its galaxy’s life and death. And new theoretical studies hint that galaxies’ stars would be arranged very differently without a medium’s frenetic flows. Plus, new observations show that some CGMs are surprisingly lumpy. A better understanding of CGMs, enabled by new telescopes and computer simulations, could change how scientists think about everything from galaxy collisions to the origins of our own atoms.

“The CGM is the part of the iceberg that’s under the water,” says astrophysicist Kevin Schawinski of ETH Zurich, who studies the more conventional parts of galaxies. “We now have good measurements where we’re sure it’s important.”

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