A little more than a year ago, while examining a newly made ALFALFA grid, Riccardo noticed a rather bright source in the constellation of Leo, moving away from us with a velocity of only 264 km/sec. It was not (or only barely) resolved by ALFA’s 4 arcminute beam, and its HI line velocity width was very narrow, indicating either a fully face-on and/or a very low mass object. In fact, it met the criteria of a “ultra compact high velocity cloud”, the targets for which Betsey Adams has been hunting. With such a low redshift, it was not clear whether the signal arose from a cloud in the Milky Way’s halo or a previously unidentified, tiny nearby galaxy. Quick checks of the public Sloan Digital Sky Survey (SDSS) and Digital Sky Survey (DSS) images showed no obvious associated stellar population but a suggestion of some faint, blue-ish emission. Could this really be a very faint, very small Milky Way neighbor, a bona fide (almost) optically-invisible (dark) galaxy? We needed to determine its distance and to look for evidence of rotation (which would suggest the presence of dark matter), so the quest to obtain the required additional observations began.

Optical image of the starlight in Leo P.

Optical image of Leo P showing its starlight

Being able to respond quickly to potentially exciting discoveries is one of the reasons ALFALFA is a team effort. So right away, we contacted ALFALFA team members Kathy Rhode and John Salzer at Indiana University, because IU has access to good imaging instruments on the WIYN (Wisconsin-Indiana-Yale-NOAO) 3.5 meter telescope in Arizona, and John Cannon at Macalester College who has been undertaking the SHIELD (Survey of HI in Extremely Low mass Dwarfs) program with the VLA. We made a special plea to the director of the VLA for “director’s discretionary time” to take a quick peek at the HI source to look for rotation. Knowing us not to ask without good reason, the director approved our last minute request. Although we were sure of the reality of the signal, the (awesome) Undergraduate ALFALFA team, during one of the ALFALFA followup runs took a spectrum centered on the optical object to confirm the position and radio characteristics of the ALFALFA signal. Kathy and John S. were able to take some quick images during an already-scheduled observing run. Indeed there were stars, and even more importantly, not very many! And a single HII region, proving that star formation is taking place. The VLA observations were made a few months later and the map that John C. and his student Elijah Bernstein-Cooper (read Elijah’s comments in an earlier post) resolved and localized the HI gas and confirmed that the object is rotating. Rotation signifies the presence of a significant amount of dark matter proving its extragalactic nature. A truly tiny object, Leo P contains only a few hundred thousand stars, in contrast to the Milky Way’s tens of billions, but Kathy and John were able to tease out an H-R diagram of the stars, yielding a distance of about 1.75 Mpc (or 5 million light years). So, while Leo P meets Betsey’s criteria to be an ultra compact high velocity cloud, it is also a bona fide galaxy, discovered because of its hydrogen gas, not its starlight. In fact, it contains more mass in gas than in stars. Most recent spectroscopic observations made by another ALFALFA team member Evan Skillman of the University of Minnesota confirm its pristine nature as an object that has undergone very little enrichment in heavy elements due to nucleosynthesis in stars, earning it the designation “P” for “pristine”. We believe that Leo P has managed to retain its gas without forming stars because, in contrast to most dwarf galaxies which reside near large ones, it lives virtually isolated in the local universe, just outside the Local Group.

Leo P is the first example of the class of gas-bearing tiny galaxy for which ALFALFA was specifically designed to look. Betsey’s thesis has already produced a catalog of similar “dark galaxy” candidates even though the survey data processing is not yet complete. As in the case of Leo P, we are pursuing the required detailed observations of the very best candidates (see her post on her March 2013 observing run at WIYN with its new pODI camera). The ALFALFA hunt for (almost) dark galaxies continues, but now we have shown that they do exist and that we can find them!