Massive molecular outflows and evidence for AGN feedback from CO observations
Journal article, 2014
We study the properties of massive, galactic-scale outflows of molecular gas and investigate their impact on galaxy evolution. We present new IRAMPdBI CO(1-0) observations of local ultra-luminous infrared galaxies (ULIRGs) and quasar-hosts: a clear signature of massive and energetic molecular outflows, extending on kpc scales, is found in the CO(1-0) kinematics of four out of seven sources, with measured outflow rates of several 100M(circle dot)yr(-1). We combine these new observations with data from the literature, and explore the nature and origin of massive molecular outflows within an extended sample of 19 local galaxies. We find that starburst-dominated galaxies have an outflow rate comparable to their star formation rate (SFR), or even higher by a factor of similar to 2-4, implying that starbursts can indeed be effective in removing cold gas from galaxies. Nevertheless, our results suggest that the presence of an active galactic nucleus (AGN) can boost the outflow rate by a large factor, which is found to increase with the L-AGN/L-bol ratio. The gas depletion time scales due to molecular outflows are anti-correlated with the presence and luminosity of an AGN in these galaxies, and range from a few hundred million years in starburst galaxies down to just a few million years in galaxies hosting powerful AGNs. In quasar hosts, the depletion time scales due to the outflow are much shorter than the depletion time scales due to star formation. We estimate the outflow kinetic power and find that, for galaxies hosting powerful AGNs, it corresponds to about 5% of the AGN luminosity, as expected by models of AGN feedback. Moreover, we find that momentum rates of about 20 L-AGN/c are common among the AGN-dominated sources in our sample. For "pure" starburst galaxies, our data tentatively support models in which outflows are mostly momentum-driven by the radiation pressure from young stars onto dusty clouds. Overall, our results indicate that, although starbursts are effective in powering massive molecular outflows, the presence of an AGN may strongly enhance such outflows, and therefore have a profound feedback effect on the evolution of galaxies by efficiently removing fuel for star formation, hence quenching star formation.