On the timescale for star formation in galaxies

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The timescale for star formation, a measure of how quickly neutral gas is being converted to stars, is considerably longer than typical dynamical timescales associated with a galactic disk. For purposes of modeling galaxy evolution, however, it would be extremely attractive if the star formation timescale was proportional to an easily derived dynamical timescale. We compare estimates of the star formation timescale within nearby galaxies, based on the work of Leroy et al. and existing BIMA Survey of Nearby Galaxies CO data, with three simple forms of the dynamical time: the orbital time; the free-fall time at the midplane density; and the disk Jeans time (the growth time for gravitational instabilities in a disk). When taking into account the gravity of the stellar disk in an approximate way, all three timescales show correlations with the star formation timescale, though none of the correlations can be accurately described as linear. Systematic errors in estimating appropriate gas masses and the stellar velocity dispersion may obscure an underlying correlation, but we focus instead on a model where the timescale for H 2 formation from H I is decoupled from the timescale for star formation from H2. The Jeans time correlates well with the first of these timescales, but the relationship is still non-linear and requires a characteristic giant molecular cloud lifetime that increases toward galaxy centers.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)650-658
Number of pages9
JournalAstrophysical Journal
Issue number1
StatePublished - 2009


  • Galaxies: ISM
  • Galaxies: evolution
  • Stars: formation

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Astronomy and Astrophysics
  • Space and Planetary Science


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