Centaurus A

Centaurus A is an elliptical galaxy located about 12 million light years away towards the constellation Centaurus. It is the fifth brightest galaxy in Earth’s sky, and houses a supermassive black hole that creates an enormous jet of outflowing material. A lane of dust wrapping around the galaxy’s center also attests to a possible collision with a smaller galaxy millions of years ago.

The galaxy has been studied by Chandra, examining X-ray sources located within the region. Many sources are small black holes or neutron stars pulling material from a companion star. The gap between the masses of the neutron stars and the black holes help astronomers understand the processes of stellar explosions. It would be expected that, as stars exist at a range of masses, once the star is too large to form a neutron star it would become a black hole. However, the smallest black holes have been found to be much more massive than this limit, prompting further study.

Image from NASA, information from Chandra.

Hubble traces the halo of a galaxy more accurately than ever before

Astronomers using the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope have probed the extreme outskirts of the stunning elliptical galaxy Centaurus A. The galaxy’s halo of stars has been found to extend much further from the galaxy’s centre than expected and the stars within this halo seem to be surprisingly rich in heavy elements. This is the most remote portion of an elliptical galaxy ever to have been explored.

There is more to a galaxy than first meets the eye. Extending far beyond the bright glow of a galaxy’s centre, the swirling spiral arms, or the elliptical fuzz, is an extra component: a dim halo of stars sprawling into space.

These expansive halos are important components of a galaxy. The halo of our own galaxy, the Milky Way, preserves signatures of both its formation and evolution. Yet, we know very little about the halos of galaxies beyond our own as their faint and spread-out nature makes exploring them more difficult. Astronomers have so far managed to detect very few starry halos around other galaxies.

Now, by utilising the unique space-based location of the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope and its sensitive Advanced Camera for Surveys and Wide Field Camera 3, a team of astronomers has probed the halo surrounding the prominent giant elliptical galaxy Centaurus A, also known as NGC 5128, to unprecedented distances. They have found that its halo spreads far further into space than expected and does so in an unexpected form.

“Tracing this much of a galaxy’s halo gives us surprising insights into a galaxy’s formation, evolution, and composition,” says Marina Rejkuba of the European Southern Observatory in Garching, Germany, lead author of the new Hubble study.“We found more stars scattered in one direction than the other, giving the halo a lopsided shape — which we hadn’t expected!”

Along the galaxy’s length the astronomers probed out 25 times further than the galaxy’s radius — mapping a region some 450 000 light-years across. For the width they explored along 295 000 light-years, 16 times further than its “effective radius”. These are large distances if you consider that the main visible component of the Milky Way is around 120 000 light-years in diameter. In fact, the diameter of the halo probed by this team extends across 4 degrees in the sky — equivalent to eight times the apparent width of the Moon.

Alongside their unexpected uneven distribution, the stars within the halo also showed surprising properties relating to the proportion of elements heavier than hydrogen and helium found in the gas that makes up the stars. While the stars within the haloes of the Milky Way and other nearby spirals are generally low in heavy elements, the stars within Centaurus A’s halo appear to be rich in heavy elements, even at the outermost locations explored.

The small quantity of heavy elements in the stellar haloes of large spiral galaxies like the Milky Way, is thought to originate from the way that the galaxies formed and evolved, slowly pulling in numerous small satellite galaxies and taking on their stars. For Centaurus A, the presence of stars rich in heavy elements in such remote locations suggests a single past merger with a large spiral galaxy. This event would have ejected stars from the spiral galaxy’s disc and these are now seen as part of Centaurus A’s outer halo.

Image credit: NASAESA & M. Rejkuba (European Southern Observatory)

NGC 5128, otherwise known as Centaurus A, is a fairly large galaxy that is quite peculiar. Large galaxies usually are either elliptical or spiral; Centaurus A however, seems to be both at the same time. Radio imaging has revealed to us that under the veil of dust, it has hidden spiral arms. It is currently the only elliptical galaxy that we know of that also has spiral arms. Even better yet, it is the 5th brightest galaxy in the night sky, making it an ideal target for amateur astronomers so you can check this hidden gem out for yourself!

The Dark Side of Star Clusters
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ESO - European Southern Observatory logo.

13 May 2015

VLT discovers new kind of globular star cluster

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The giant elliptical galaxy Centaurus A (NGC 5128) and its strange globular clusters
Observations with ESO’s Very Large Telescope in Chile have discovered a new class of “dark” globular star clusters around the giant galaxy Centaurus A. These mysterious objects look similar to normal clusters, but contain much more mass and may either harbour unexpected amounts of dark matter, or contain massive black holes — neither of which was expected nor is understood.

Globular star clusters are huge balls of thousands of stars that orbit most galaxies. They are among the oldest known stellar systems in the Universe and have survived through almost the entire span of galaxy growth and evolution.

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The strange galaxy Centaurus A in the constellation of Centaurus
Matt Taylor, a PhD student at the Pontificia Universidad Catolica de Chile, Santiago, Chile, and holder of an ESO Studentship, is lead author of the new study. He sets the scene: “Globular clusters and their constituent stars are keys to understanding the formation and evolution of galaxies. For decades, astronomers thought that the stars that made up a given globular cluster all shared the same ages and chemical compositions — but we now know that they are stranger and more complicated creatures.”

The elliptical galaxy Centaurus A (also known as NGC 5128) is the closest giant galaxy to the Milky Way and is suspected to harbour as many as 2000 globular clusters. Many of these globulars are brighter and more massive than the 150 or so orbiting the Milky Way.

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Wide-field view of the giant galaxy Centaurus A
Matt Taylor and his team have now made the most detailed studies so far of a sample of 125 globular star clusters around Centaurus A using the FLAMES instrument on ESO’s Very Large Telescope at the Paranal Observatory in northern Chile [1].

They used these observations to deduce the mass of the clusters [2] and compare this result with how brightly each of the clusters shines.

For most of the clusters in the new survey, the brighter ones had more mass in the way that was expected — if a cluster contains more stars it has greater total brightness and more total mass. But for some of the globulars something strange showed up: they were many times more massive than they looked. And even more strangely, the more massive these unusual clusters were, the greater the fraction of their material was dark. Something in these clusters was dark, hidden and massive. But what?

Video above: Panning across the giant elliptical galaxy Centaurus A (NGC 5128) and its strange globular clusters.

There were several possibilities. Perhaps the dark clusters contain black holes, or other dark stellar remnants in their cores? This may be a factor that explains some of the hidden mass, but the team concludes that it cannot be the whole story. What about dark matter? Globular clusters are normally considered to be almost devoid of this mysterious substance, but perhaps, for some unknown reason, some clusters have retained significant dark matter clumps in their cores. This would explain the observations but does not fit into conventional theory.

Co-author Thomas Puzia adds: “Our discovery of star clusters with unexpectedly high masses for the amount of stars they contain hints that there might be multiple families of globular clusters, with differing formation histories. Apparently some star clusters look like, walk like, and smell like run-of-the-mill globulars, but there may quite literally be more to them than meets the eye.”

These objects remain a mystery. The team is also engaged in a wider survey of other globular clusters in other galaxies and there are some intriguing hints that such dark clusters may also be found elsewhere.

Matt Taylor sums up the situation: “We have stumbled on a new and mysterious class of star cluster! This shows that we still have much to learn about all aspects of globular cluster formation. It’s an important result and we now need to find further examples of dark clusters around other galaxies.”


[1] Up to now astronomers have studied star clusters to this detail only in the Local Group. The relatively small distances make direct measurements of their masses possible. Looking at NGC 5128, which is an isolated, massive elliptical galaxy just outside the Local Group about 12 million light-years away, they were able to estimate masses of globular clusters in a completely different environment by pushing VLT/FLAMES to its limits.

[2] The FLAMES observations provide information about the motions of the stars in the clusters. This orbital information depends on the strength of the gravitational field and can hence be used to deduce the mass of the cluster — astronomers call such estimates dynamical masses. The light gathering power of a 8.2-metre VLT Unit Telescope mirror and FLAMES’s ability to observe more than 100 clusters simultaneously was the key to collecting the data necessary for the study.

More information:

This research was presented in a paper entitled “Observational evidence for a dark side to NGC 5128’s globular cluster system”, by M. Taylor et al., to appear in the Astrophysical Journal.

The team is composed of Matthew A. Taylor (Pontificia Universidad Catolica de Chile, Santiago, Chile; ESO, Santiago, Chile), Thomas H. Puzia (Pontificia Universidad Catolica de Chile), Matias Gomez (Universidad Andres Bello, Santiago, Chile) and Kristin A. Woodley (University of California, Santa Cruz, California, USA).

ESO is the foremost intergovernmental astronomy organisation in Europe and the world’s most productive ground-based astronomical observatory by far. It is supported by 16 countries: Austria, Belgium, Brazil, the Czech Republic, Denmark, France, Finland, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Poland, Portugal, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland and the United Kingdom, along with the host state of Chile. ESO carries out an ambitious programme focused on the design, construction and operation of powerful ground-based observing facilities enabling astronomers to make important scientific discoveries. ESO also plays a leading role in promoting and organising cooperation in astronomical research. ESO operates three unique world-class observing sites in Chile: La Silla, Paranal and Chajnantor. At Paranal, ESO operates the Very Large Telescope, the world’s most advanced visible-light astronomical observatory and two survey telescopes. VISTA works in the infrared and is the world’s largest survey telescope and the VLT Survey Telescope is the largest telescope designed to exclusively survey the skies in visible light. ESO is a major partner in ALMA, the largest astronomical project in existence. And on Cerro Armazones, close to Paranal, ESO is building the 39-metre European Extremely Large Telescope, the E-ELT, which will become “the world’s biggest eye on the sky”.


Science paper: http://www.eso.org/public/archives/releases/sciencepapers/eso1519/eso1519a.pdf

Images of the VLT: http://www.eso.org/public/images/archive/category/paranal/

ESO’s Very Large Telescope (VLT): http://www.eso.org/paranal/

Images, Text, Credits: ESO/Digitized Sky Survey. Acknowledgement: Davide de Martin/IAU and Sky & Telescope/ESA/Hubble, NASA. Digitized Sky Survey. Acknowledgement: Davide de Martin/Video: ESO/Digitized Sky Survey. Acknowledgement: Davide de Martin/Music: Johan B Monell (www.johanmonell.com).

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