High-velocity clouds: Building blocks of the local group

Leo Blitz, David N. Spergel, Peter J. Teuben, Dap Hartmann, W. Butler Burton

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305 Scopus citations


We suggest that the high-velocity clouds (HVCs) are large clouds, with typical diameters of 25 kpc, containing 3 × 107 M⊙ of neutral gas and 3 × 108 M⊙ of dark matter, falling onto the Local Group; altogether the HVCs contain 1010 M⊙ of neutral gas. Our reexamination of the Local Group hypothesis for the HVCs connects their properties to the hierarchical structure formation scenario and to the gas seen in absorption toward quasars. We show that at least one HVC complex (besides the Magellanic Stream) must be extragalactic at a distance of more than 40 kpc from the Galactic center, with a diameter greater than 20 kpc and a mass of more than 108 M⊙. We discuss a number of other clouds that are positionally associated with the Local Group galaxies, and we show that the entire ensemble of HVCs is inconsistent with a Galactic origin. The observed kinematics imply rather that the HVCs are falling toward the Local Group barycenter. We simulate the dynamical evolution of the Local Group and find that material falling onto the Local Group reproduces the location of two of the three most significant groupings of clouds and the kinematics of the entire cloud ensemble (excluding the Magellanic Stream). We interpret the third grouping (the A, C, and M complexes) as the nearest HVC. It is tidally unstable and is falling onto the Galactic disk. We interpret the more distant HVCs as gas contained within dark matter "minihalos" moving along filaments toward the Local Group. Most poor galaxy groups should contain similar H I clouds bound to the group at large distances from the individual galaxies. We suggest that the HVCs are local analogs of the Lyman limit absorbing clouds observed against distant quasars. Our picture implies that the chemical evolution of the Galactic disk is governed by episodic infall of metal-poor HVC gas that only slowly mixes with the rest of the interstellar medium. We argue that there is a Galactic fountain in the Milky Way, but that the fountain does not explain the origin of the HVCs. Our analysis of the H I data leads to the detection of a vertical infall of low-velocity gas toward the plane and implies that the H I disk is not in hydrostatic equilibrium. We suggest that the fountain is manifested mainly by relatively local neutral gas with characteristic velocities of 6 km s-1 rather than 100 km s-1. The Local Group infall hypothesis makes a number of testable predictions. The HVCs should have subsolar metallicities. Their Hα emission should be less than that seen from the Magellanic Stream. The clouds should not be seen in absorption against nearby stars. The clouds should be detectable in both emission and absorption around other galaxy groups. We show that current observations are consistent with these predictions and discuss future tests.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)818-843
Number of pages26
JournalAstrophysical Journal
Issue number2 PART 1
StatePublished - Apr 1 1999

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Astronomy and Astrophysics
  • Space and Planetary Science


  • Galaxies: kinematics and dynamics
  • Intergalactic medium
  • Local group


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