The Exceptional Soft X-ray Halo of the Galaxy Merger NGC 6240
We report on a recent ~150-ks long Chandra observation of the ultraluminous infrared galaxy merger NGC 6240, which allows a detailed investigation of the diffuse galactic halo. Extended soft X-ray emission is detected at the 3-sigma confidence level over a diamond-shaped region with projected physical size of ~110x80 kpc, and a single-component thermal model provides a reasonably good fit to the observed X-ray spectrum. The hot gas has a temperature of ~7.5 million K, an estimated density of 2.5x10^-3 cm^-3, and a total mass of ~10^10 M_sun, resulting in an intrinsic 0.4-2.5 keV luminosity of 4x10^41 erg s^-1. The average temperature of 0.65 keV is quite high to be obviously related to either the binding energy in the dark-matter gravitational potential of the system or the energy dissipation and shocks following the galactic collision, yet the spatially-resolved spectral analysis reveals limited variations across the halo. The relative abundance of the main alpha-elements with respect to iron is several times the solar value, and nearly constant as well, implying a uniform enrichment by type II supernovae out to the largest scales. Taken as a whole, the observational evidence is not compatible with a superwind originated by a recent, nuclear starburst, but rather hints at widespread, enhanced star formation proceeding at steady rate over the entire dynamical timescale (~200 Myr). The preferred scenario is that of a starburst-processed gas component gently expanding into, and mixing with, a pre-existing halo medium of lower metallicity (Z ~ 0.1 solar) and temperature (kT ~ 0.25 keV). This picture cannot be probed more extensively with the present data, and the ultimate fate of the diffuse, hot gas remains uncertain. Under some favorable conditions, at least a fraction of it might be retained after the merger completion, and evolve into the hot halo of a young elliptical galaxy.