A massive, dead disk galaxy in the early Universe


At redshift z = 2, when the Universe was just three billion years old, half of the most massive galaxies were extremely compact and had already exhausted their fuel for star formation1,2,3,4. It is believed that they were formed in intense nuclear starbursts and that they ultimately grew into the most massive local elliptical galaxies seen today, through mergers with minor companions5,6, but validating this picture requires higher-resolution observations of their centres than is currently possible. Magnification from gravitational lensing offers an opportunity to resolve the inner regions of galaxies7. Here we report an analysis of the stellar populations and kinematics of a lensed z = 2.1478 compact galaxy, which—surprisingly—turns out to be a fast-spinning, rotationally supported disk galaxy. Its stars must have formed in a disk, rather than in a merger-driven nuclear starburst8. The galaxy was probably fed by streams of cold gas, which were able to penetrate the hot halo gas until they were cut off by shock heating from the dark matter halo9. This result confirms previous indirect indications10,11,12,13 that the first galaxies to cease star formation must have gone through major changes not just in their structure, but also in their kinematics, to evolve into present-day elliptical galaxies.

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Figure 1: Spectrum of MACS2129−1.
Figure 2: Rotation and dispersion curve for MACS2129−1.
Figure 3: Stellar population maps on the reconstructed source plane.
Figure 4: Surface brightness and stellar mass surface density profiles for MACS2129−1.


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S.T., J.Z., G.M., N.Y.L., C.L.S., C.G.-G. and M.S. acknowledge support from the ERC Consolidator Grant funding scheme (project ConTExt, grant number 648179). C.G. acknowledges support from the VILLUM FONDEN Young Investigator Programme (grant number 10123). G.M. acknowledges support from the Carlsberg Foundation and from the VILLUM FONDEN Young Investigator Programme (grant number 13160). S.Z. and A.G. acknowledge support by the EU Marie Curie Career Integration Grant “SteMaGE” number PCIG12-GA-2012-326466 (call identifier FP7-PEOPLE-2012 CIG). J.Z. acknowledges support of the OCEVU Labex (ANR-11-LABX-0060) and the A*MIDEX project (ANR-11-IDEX-0001-02) funded by the ‘Investissements d’Avenir’ French government programme managed by the French National Research Agency (ANR). We thank M. Yun and R. Cybalski for providing the deep Spitzer data, and D. Watson and F. Valentino for discussions.

Author information




S.T. conceived the study, was the Principal Investigator of the XSHOOTER programme, performed the Galfit analysis and produced Figs 2, 3, 4 and Extended Data Figs 3, 4 and 6. S.T. and J.Z. wrote the paper. J.Z. reduced the XSHOOTER data, performed the pPXF analysis and lensing model systematic error analysis. J.Z. also produced Fig. 1 and Extended Data Figs 5 and 7. A.G. performed the stellar population synthesis modelling of the spectrum and photometry. S.Z. performed the emission line analysis, produced the resolved stellar population maps and Extended Data Fig. 2. J.R. performed the lensing analysis, and source plane reconstruction. M.P. performed the Markov chain Monte Carlo dynamical modelling and produced Extended Data Fig. 8. C.G. produced the colour composite HST images in Fig. 1 and Extended Data Fig. 1. A.W.S.M. performed the Galfit Markov chain Monte Carlo analysis. G.M. derived the SFR limit from the MIPS data. All authors discussed the results and commented on the manuscript.

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Sune Toft.

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Extended data figures and tables

Extended Data Figure 1 HST colour-composite image of the lensing cluster MACS2129−1.

Indicated is the position of the XSHOOTER slit on the target, which has been magnified and stretched by an average factor of about 4.6 by the foreground cluster. The image is a colour composite (B = F435W + F475W; G = F555W + F606W + F775W + F814W + F850LP; R = F105W + F110W + F125W + F140W + F160W) constructed from CLASH data63.

Extended Data Figure 2 Emission line characterization in three spatial extractions of the XSHOOTER spectrum.

The top, middle and bottom panels show the full (|r| < 1.36″), central (|r| < 0.5″) and outer (0.5″ < |r| < 1.36″) extractions, respectively, where |r| is the absolute spatial distance to the center of the galaxy. Plotted is the flux-density (fλ) versus the observed wavelength (λobs) and the rest-frame wavelength (λrest). As described in the legend, the coloured lines represent spectral decomposition into nebular emission lines and stellar continuum, obtained with pPXF/GANDALF50: the pink line displays the best-fitting composite model; the green line is the best-fitting stellar continuum; the blue and dark red lines represent the best-fitting emission lines with and without a statistically significant detection, respectively. Shaded regions indicate spectral regions of low atmospheric transmission or high background that have been excluded from the fit. On each panel the best-fitting (B.F.) systematic velocity shift Vel and dispersion σel of the detected emission (em) lines are indicated.

Extended Data Figure 3 Radial stellar population gradients.

The full lines show azimuthally averaged radial profiles of median-likelihood stellar population synthesis parameters, derived from the maps in Fig. 3 in elliptical apertures following the best-fitting two-dimensional surface brightness fit. The shaded areas represent the pixel-to-pixel scatter in the median values in the elliptical apertures, not the uncertainties on the individual estimates (see main text). The filled circles with error bars show the median-likelihood parameters and their 68% confidence range from the spectral fits to the central and outer extractions. The dotted line shows the average specific SFR (sSFR) profile from a sample of star-forming (SF) galaxies22 of mass and redshift similar to that of MACS2129−1.

Extended Data Figure 4 Properties of MACS2129−1 compared to different galaxy populations.

a, Stellar masses and sizes (major-axis effective radii, re,maj) of 2 < z < 2.5 galaxies in the CANDELS survey2. MACS2129−1 falls on the relation for quiescent galaxies. The error bars include both statistical and systematic errors associated with the fitting added in quadrature. b, Vmax/σint versus ellipticity for the two lensed z > 2 compact quiescent galaxies MACS2129−1 and RG1M0150 (ref. 7) compared to similar-mass local galaxies. The grey histogram shows the V/σ posterior distribution from our modelling. MACS2129−1 is thus similar to local late types61,64 (blue), while RG1M0150 is similar to local early types (red). c, The dynamical to stellar mass ratio (within re) of MACS2129−1 is similar to previously observed z > 2 compact quiescent galaxies, including the strongly lensed RG1M0150, and to z ≈ 2 star-forming galaxies of similar age49.

Extended Data Figure 5 Correlations between lensing model parameters and derived structural parameters for MACS2129−1.

Shown are the average light-weighted (‘l.w.’) magnification, the orientation of maximum magnification at the position of MACS2129−1 (‘magni. orient.’), the magnification along this axis (‘major magni.’) and perpendicular to it (‘minor magni.’). These were obtained from 1,979 lensing model realizations (black) sampling the full probability distribution. Also shown are correlations with the galaxy (‘gal’) axis ratios (a/b) and position angles (PA) of MACS2129−1 derived from Galfit analysis of reconstructed source-plane images for a subsample of 98 representative realizations (red).

Extended Data Figure 6 Structural parameters.

Distributions of the Sersic model parameter n, the effective radius re, the axis ratio a/b and the position angle PA, derived from two-dimensional surface brightness fits with Galfit, of the source-plane images generated from 98 representative realizations of the lensing model. We adopt the median values of these distributions and their standard deviations as our best-fitting parameters.

Extended Data Figure 7 Variations of the magnification over MACS2129−1.

Results are shown for a typical realization (middle row), and for the realizations with the maximum (top row) and minimum (bottom row) magnifications for different positions (pos.) within the galaxy. The columns (from left to right) show the observed F160W image, the magnification map, the seeing convolved (FWHM = 0.5″) F160W image, the seeing convolved light (F160W)-weighted magnification map, the source-plane image (crosses at same position) and the average light-weighted magnification contributing to each spatial bin in the XSHOOTER slit (shown in the bottom row). The minor variations are caused by the galaxy 3.5″ west of MACS2129−1 (see middle row).

Extended Data Figure 8 Posterior distributions for the parameters in our dynamical modelling of the rotation and dispersion curves.

Distributions are shown for the seven free parameters of the model: the offset angle between the slit and the major axis of the disk Θoff, the disk inclination i, the maximum velocity of the disk Vmax, the radius at which the disk reaches Vmax (Rmax), the position of the centre of the slit relative to the disk centre (Xc, Yc), and the intrinsic velocity dispersion σint, which is assumed to be constant across the disk. Also shown are inferred distributions for Vmax/σint and the dynamical mass Mdyn. The open histograms show the distributions with priors Θoff = 22° ± 10° and  < 0.4 kpc. Filled histograms with the additional prior inclination i = 53.8° ± 2.13°, all derived from Galfit modelling.

Extended Data Table 1 Stellar population parameters and emission line fluxes
Extended Data Table 2 Dynamical modelling results

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Toft, S., Zabl, J., Richard, J. et al. A massive, dead disk galaxy in the early Universe. Nature 546, 510–513 (2017). https://doi.org/10.1038/nature22388

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