The unexpectedly large dust and gas content of quiescent galaxies at z > 1.4

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Early-type galaxies (ETGs) contain most of the stars present in the local Universe and, above a stellar mass content of ~5 × 1010 solar masses, vastly outnumber spiral galaxies such as the Milky Way. These massive spheroidal galaxies have, in the present day, very little gas or dust in proportion to their mass1, and their stellar populations have been evolving passively for over 10 billion years. The physical mechanisms that led to the termination of star formation in these galaxies and depletion of their interstellar medium remain largely conjectural. In particular, there are currently no direct measurements of the amount of residual gas that might still be present in newly quiescent spheroidals at high redshift2. Here we show that quiescent ETGs at redshift z ~ 1.8, close to their epoch of quenching, contained at least two orders of magnitude more dust at a fixed stellar mass compared with local ETGs. This implies the presence of substantial amounts of gas (5–10%), which has been consumed less efficiently than in more active galaxies, probably due to their spheroidal morphology, consistent with our simulations. This lower star formation efficiency, combined with an extended hot gas halo possibly maintained by persistent feedback from an active galactic nucleus, keep ETGs mostly passive throughout cosmic time.

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Fig. 1: Mid-infrared to radio SED of 24 μm-undetected BzK + UVJ-selected passive galaxies.
Fig. 2: Evolution of the molecular gas fraction M mol/M * as a function of redshift for both quiescent and MS galaxies.
Fig. 3: Galactic SFRs.
Fig. 4: SFE as a function of gas fraction in high-resolution hydrodynamic simulations.


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The authors thank S. Lianou for providing models of dust emission in local ETGs and V. Smolčić for the 3 GHz radio data. S.J. acknowledges China Scholarship Council funding. The new simulations presented in this work were performed on GENCI resources (allocations 2016-04-2019 and 2017-04-2192).

Author information

R.G. and E.D. devised the project. R.G. analysed the data and wrote the manuscript. G.M. modelled the FIR emission. F.B. and M.M. carried out and analysed the simulations. M.S. and M.B. provided some of the theoretical framework. S.J. provided the MIR catalogue. A.F. analysed the X-ray observations. G.W.W., I.A. and M.Y. provided submillimetre data. H.S.H., A.R., V.S. and F.V. provided critical feedback that helped shape the manuscript.

Correspondence to R. Gobat.

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