Space

April 24, 2012

NASA’s Spitzer finds galaxy with split personality

While some galaxies are rotund and others are slender disks like our spiral Milky Way, new observations from NASA’s Spitzer Space Telescope show that the Sombrero galaxy is both.

The galaxy, which is a round, elliptical with a thin disk embedded inside, is one of the first known to exhibit characteristics of the two different types. The findings will lead to a better understanding of galaxy evolution, a topic still poorly understood.

“The Sombrero is more complex than previously thought,” said Dimitri Gadotti of the European Southern Observatory in Chile and lead author of a new paper on the findings appearing in the Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society. “The only way to understand all we know about this galaxy is to think of it as two galaxies, one inside the other.”

The Sombrero galaxy, also known as NGC 4594, is located 28 million light-years away in the constellation Virgo. From our viewpoint on Earth, we can see the thin edge of its flat disk and a central bulge of stars, making it resemble a wide-brimmed hat. Astronomers do not know whether the Sombrero’s disk is shaped like a ring or a spiral, but agree it belongs to the disk class.

“Spitzer is helping to unravel secrets behind an object that has been imaged thousands of times,” said Sean Carey of NASA’s Spitzer Science Center at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, Calif. “It is intriguing Spitzer can read the fossil record of events that occurred billions of years ago within this beautiful and archetypal galaxy.”

Spitzer captures a different view of the galaxy than visible-light telescopes. In visible views, the galaxy appears to be immersed in a glowing halo, which scientists had thought was relatively light and small. With Spitzer’s infrared vision, a different view emerges. Spitzer sees old stars through the dust and reveals the halo has the right size and mass to be a giant elliptical galaxy.

While it is tempting to think the giant elliptical swallowed a spiral disk, astronomers say this is highly unlikely because that process would have destroyed the disk structure. Instead, one scenario they propose is that a giant elliptical galaxy was inundated with gas more than nine billion years ago. Early in our universe, networks of gas clouds were common, and they sometimes fed growing galaxies, causing them to bulk up. The gas would have been pulled into the galaxy by gravity, falling into orbit around the center and spinning out into a flat disk. Stars would have formed from the gas in the disk.

“This poses all sorts of questions,” said Ruben Sanchez-Janssen from the European Southern Observatory, co-author of the study. “How did such a large disk take shape and survive inside such a massive elliptical? How unusual is such a formation process?”

Researchers say the answers could help them piece together how other galaxies evolve. Another galaxy, called Centaurus A, appears also to be an elliptical galaxy with a disk inside it. But its disk does not contain many stars. Astronomers speculate that Centaurus A could be at an earlier stage of evolution than the Sombrero and might eventually look similar.

The findings also answer a mystery about the number of globular clusters in the Sombrero galaxy. Globular clusters are spherical nuggets of old stars. Ellipticals typically have a few thousand, while spirals contain a few hundred. The Sombrero has almost 2,000, a number that makes sense now but had puzzled astronomers when they thought it was only a disk galaxy.

 




All of this week's top headlines to your email every Friday.


 
 

 
Image courtesy of NASA Ames/JPL-Caltech/T Pyle

NASA’s Kepler reborn, makes first exoplanet find of new mission

Image courtesy of NASA Ames/JPL-Caltech/T Pyle The artistic concept shows NASA’s planet-hunting Kepler spacecraft operating in a new mission profile called K2. Using publicly available data, astronomers have confirmed K2&...
 
 
NASA illustration

NASA, planetary scientists find meteoritic evidence of Mars water reservoir

This illustration depicts Martian water reservoirs. Recent research provides evidence for the existence of a third reservoir that is intermediate in isotopic composition between the Red Planetís mantle and its current atmosphe...
 
 
Lockheed Martin photograph

Lockheed Martin-built MUOS-3 satellite encapsulated in launch vehicle fairing

Lockheed Martin photograph The U.S. Navy’s Mobile User Objective System-3 satellite (above) is encapsulated in its payload fairings for a scheduled Jan. 20, 2015 launch aboard a United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket. MUOS ope...
 

 
NASA photograph

NASA’s Orion arrives back at Kennedy

NASA photograph NASA’s Orion spacecraft returned to the agency’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida Dec. 18, 2014. The spacecraft flew to an altitude of 3,600 miles in space during a Dec. 5 flight test designed to stre...
 
 

NASA launches new Micro-g NExT for undergraduates

NASA is offering undergraduate students an opportunity to participate in a new microgravity activity called Micro-g Neutral Buoyancy Experiment Design Teams. The deadline for proposals is Jan. 28, 2015. Micro-g NExT challenges students to work in teams to design and build prototypes of spacewalking tools to be used by astronauts for spacewalk training in the...
 
 
launch1

Storm fails to quench liftoff of secret reconnaissance satellite

The fiery launch of an Atlas V (541), among the most powerful of the venerable Atlas family, briefly dispelled the gloom over Californiaís Central Coast on the evening of Dec. 12. A team of personnel from United Launch Allianc...
 




0 Comments


Be the first to comment!


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>