Massive spheroids can form in single minor mergers
Jackson, R. A.
Devriendt, J. E. G.
Understanding how rotationally supported discs transform into dispersion-dominated spheroids is central to our comprehension of galaxy evolution. Morphological transformation is largely merger-driven. While major mergers can efficiently create spheroids, recent work has highlighted the significant role of other processes, like minor mergers, in driving morphological change. Given their rich merger histories, spheroids typically exhibit large fractions of ‘ex situ’ stellar mass, i.e. mass that is accreted, via mergers, from external objects. This is particularly true for the most massive galaxies, whose stellar masses typically cannot be attained without a large number of mergers. Here, we explore an unusual population of extremely massive (M ∗ > 10 11M) spheroids, in the Horizon-AGN simulation, which exhibit anomalously low ex situ mass fractions, indicating that they form without recourse to significant merging. These systems form in a single minor-merger event (with typical merger mass ratios of 0.11–0.33), with a specific orbital configuration, where the satellite orbit is virtually co-planar with the disc of the massive galaxy. The merger triggers a catastrophic change in morphology, over only a few hundred Myr, coupled with strong in situ star formation. While this channel produces a minority (∼5 per cent) of such galaxies, our study demonstrates that the formation of at least some of the most massive spheroids need not involve major mergers – or any significant merging at all – contrary to what is classically believed.