Exploring the limits of star formation from the extreme environment of galaxy interactions to the Milky Way
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In this thesis, I explore the rate at which molecular gas is converted to stars through detailed studies of a sample of molecular clouds in the Milky Way, IFU spatially resolved observations of gas-rich nearby interacting galaxies, as well as the environmental dependence of star formation and galaxy morphology in a galaxy supercluster. This thesis is composed of three individual projects that investigate nearby star formation within the local 500 pc of our Sun, to neighboring extreme star forming environments of interacting starburst galaxies, and finally studying how star formation varies with galaxy morphology in a galaxy supercluster a z~0.165. I discuss the relation between the star formation rate (SFR) and molecular gas surface densities (e.g., Schmidt-Kennicutt relation) in Galactic star forming regions and find there is a discrepancy between my study and extragalactic relations. The discrepancy is attributed to extragalactic measurements that are averaged over large >kpc scales and include star forming molecular gas (above some threshold) and molecular gas the is not dense enough to form stars. I find a steep increase in the Galactic SFR-gas surface density relation indicative of a threshold for efficient star formation that is best fit to a broken power law with a linear slope above 129 Msun pc⁻². I introduce the VIRUS-P Investigation of the eXtreme ENviroments of Starbursts (VIXENS) project which is a survey of interacting is a large integral field unit survey of nearby infrared bright (L_IR>3x10¹⁰ Lsun) interacting/starburst galaxies. The main goal of VIXENS is to investigate the relation between star formation and gas content on spatially resolved scales of ~0.1-1 kpc in the extreme star forming environments of interacting/starburst galaxies. The VIXENS sample is composed of systems in a range interaction stages with morphological signatures from early phase (close pairs) to late stage mergers (single system with multiple nuclei), SFRs, and gas surface densities. I highlight the first results from the VIXENS survey in the late interaction phase galaxy merger Arp 299. I find 1.3 kpc regions in Arp 299 to lie along the SFR-gas surface density relation found for mergers at high redshift, but this relation is highly dependent on the CO to molecular hydrogen (H₂) conversion factor. I find evidence for a Galactic CO-to-H₂ conversion factor using metallicity and dust temperature measurements, which would place 1.3 kpc regions in the Arp 299 merger in between the high redshift and Kennicutt-Schmidt relations. Comparing the SFR to dense gas surface densities as traced by HCN and HCO⁺, I find an agreement between the spatially resolved measurements and that found on global scales in spirals and (ultra)luminous infrared galaxies. Finally, I present an investigation of the influence of environment on frequency, distribution, color, and star formation properties of galaxy mergers and non-interacting galaxies in the Abell 901/902 supercluster at z~0.165. I find galaxy mergers be preferentially blue in color and have an enhanced SFR by a factor of ~2 compared to non-interacting galaxies. This result may be due to a decrease in galaxy velocity dispersion in the cluster outskirt, favoring galaxy-galaxy interactions, or to interacting galaxies that are part of groups or field galaxies being accreted along cosmological filaments by the clusters. I compare to N-body simulations of groups and field galaxies accreting onto the clusters and find the fraction of mergers are similar to that predicated at group overdensities. I find the SFR of galaxies in the supercluster to be depressed compared to field galaxies in both the core and cluster outskirts, suggesting that an environmental process such as ram pressure stripping is effective throughout the cluster. The results of a modest SFR enhancement and a low merger fraction culminate in my finding that mergers contribute only a small fraction (between 10% and 15%) of the total SFR density of the Abell 901/902 clusters.