Carbon monoxide (CO) is the primary tracer for interstellar clouds where stars form, yet CO has never been detected in galaxies with an Oxygen abundance relative to Hydrogen less than 20% of solar, even though such low metallicity galaxies often form stars. This raises the question of whether stars can form in dense gas without the usual molecules, cooling to the required near-zero temperatures by atomic transitions and dust radiation rather than molecular line emission (Krumholz 2012), and it highlights uncertainties about star formation in the early universe, when the metallicity was generally low. Here we report the detection of CO in two regions of a local dwarf irregular galaxy, WLM, where the metallicity is 13% of the solar value (Lee et al. 2005, Asplund et al. 2009). New sub-millimeter observations and archival far-infrared observations are used to estimate the cloud masses, which are both slightly larger than 10^5 Msun. The clouds have produced stars at a rate per molecule equal to 10% of that in the local Orion Nebula cloud. The CO fraction of the molecular gas is also low, about 3% of the Milky Way value. These results suggest that both star-forming cores and CO molecules become increasingly rare in H_2 clouds as the metallicity decreases in small galaxies.
Date added: Thu, 17 Oct 13