virgo galaxy cluster

In the Heart of the Virgo Cluster : The Virgo Cluster of Galaxies is the closest cluster of galaxies to our Milky Way Galaxy. The Virgo Cluster is so close that it spans more than 5 degrees on the sky - about 10 times the angle made by a full Moon. With its heart lying about 70 million light years distant, the Virgo Cluster is the nearest cluster of galaxies, contains over 2,000 galaxies, and has a noticeable gravitational pull on the galaxies of the Local Group of Galaxies surrounding our Milky Way Galaxy. The cluster contains not only galaxies filled with stars but also gas so hot it glows in X-rays. Motions of galaxies in and around clusters indicate that they contain more dark matter than any visible matter we can see. Pictured above, the heart of the Virgo Cluster includes bright Messier galaxies such as Markarians Eyes on the upper left, M86 just to the upper right of center, M84 on the far right, as well as spiral galaxy NGC 4388 at the bottom right. via NASA

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A supermassive black hole in the nucleus of the galaxy M87 (the biggest galaxy in the Virgo Cluster, 55 million light years from us).

The jet shoots out of the hot plasma region surrounding the black hole (top left) and we can see it streaming down across the galaxy, over a distance of 6,000 light-years. The white/purple light of the jet in this stunning image is produced by the stream of electrons spiralling around magnetic field lines at a speed of approximately 98% of the speed of light.

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The Special Ingredients…of Earth!

With its blue skies, puffy white clouds, warm beaches and abundant life, planet Earth is a pretty special place. A quick survey of the solar system reveals nothing else like it. But how special is Earth, really?

One way to find out is to look for other worlds like ours elsewhere in the galaxy. Astronomers using our Kepler Space Telescope and other observatories have been doing just that! 

In recent years they’ve been finding other planets increasingly similar to Earth, but still none that appear as hospitable as our home world. For those researchers, the search goes on.

Another group of researchers have taken on an entirely different approach. Instead of looking for Earth-like planets, they’ve been looking for Earth-like ingredients. Consider the following:

Our planet is rich in elements such as carbon, oxygen, iron, magnesium, silicon and sulfur…the stuff of rocks, air, oceans and life. Are these elements widespread elsewhere in the universe? 

To find out, a team of astronomers led by the Japanese Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA), with our participation, used Suzaku. This Japanese X-ray satellite was used to survey a cluster of galaxies located in the direction of the constellation Virgo.

The Virgo cluster is a massive swarm of more than 2,000 galaxies, many similar in appearance to our own Milky Way, located about 54 million light years away. The space between the member galaxies is filled with a diffuse gas, so hot that it glows in X-rays. Instruments onboard Suzaku were able to look at that gas and determine which elements it’s made of.

Reporting their findings in the Astrophysical Journal Letters, they reported findings of iron, magnesium, silicon and sulfur throughout the Virgo galaxy cluster. The elemental ratios are constant throughout the entire volume of the cluster, and roughly consistent with the composition of the sun and most of the stars in our own galaxy.

When the Universe was born in the Big Bang 13.8 billon years ago, elements heavier than carbon were rare. These elements are present today, mainly because of supernova explosions. 

Massive stars cook elements such as, carbon, oxygen, iron, magnesium, silicon and sulfur in their hot cores and then spew them far and wide when the stars explode.

According to the observations of Suzaku, the ingredients for making sun-like stars and Earth-like planets have been scattered far and wide by these explosions. Indeed, they appear to be widespread in the cosmos. The elements so important to life on Earth are available on average and in similar relative proportions throughout the bulk of the universe. In other words, the chemical requirements for life are common.

Earth is still special, but according to Suzaku, there might be other special places too. Suzaku recently completed its highly successful mission.

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Laniakea: our home supercluster of galaxies

It is not only one of the largest structures known – it is our home. The just-identified Laniakea Supercluster of galaxies contains thousands of galaxies that includes our Milky Way Galaxy, the Local Group of galaxies, and the entire nearby Virgo Cluster of Galaxies. The colossal supercluster is shown in the above computer-generated visualization, where green areas are rich with white-dot galaxies and white lines indicate motion towards the supercluster center. An outline of Laniakea is given in orange, while the blue dot shows our location. Outside the orange line, galaxies flow into other galatic concentrations. The Laniakea Supercluster spans about 500 million light years and contains about 100,000 times the mass of our Milky Way Galaxy. The discoverers of Laniakea gave it a name that means “immense heaven” in Hawaiian.

Image credit: R. Brent Tully (U. Hawaii) et al., SDvision, DP, CEA/Saclay

In the center of the Virgo Cluster

The Virgo Cluster of Galaxies is the closest cluster of galaxies to our Milky Way Galaxy. The Virgo Cluster is so close that it spans more than 5 degrees on the sky - about 10 times the angle made by a full Moon. It contains over 100 galaxies of many types - including spiral, elliptical, and irregular galaxies. The Virgo Cluster is so massive that it is noticeably pulling our Galaxy toward it. The cluster contains not only galaxies filled with stars but also gas so hot it glows in X-rays. Motions of galaxies in and around clusters indicate that they contain more dark matter than any visible matter we can see. Pictured above, the center of the Virgo cluster might appear to some as a human face, and includes bright Messier galaxies M86 at the top, M84 on the far right, NGC 4388 at the bottom, and NGC 4387 in the middle.

Image credit: Jean-Charles Cuillandre (CFHT), Hawaiian Starlight, CFHT

The Sombrero Galaxy in Infrared : This floating ring is the size of a galaxy. In fact, it is a galaxy – or at least part of one: the photogenic Sombrero Galaxy, one of the largest galaxies in the nearby Virgo Cluster of Galaxies. The dark band of dust that obscures the mid-section of the Sombrero Galaxy in optical light actually glows brightly in infrared light. The above image, digitally sharpened, shows the infrared glow, recently recorded by the orbiting Spitzer Space Telescope, superposed in false-color on an existing image taken by NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope in optical light. The Sombrero Galaxy, also known as M104, spans about 50,000 light years across and lies 28 million light years away. M104 can be seen with a small telescope in the direction of the constellation Virgo. via NASA

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Elliptical M60, Spiral NGC 4647 
Giant elliptical galaxy M60 and spiral galaxy NGC 4647 do look like an odd couple in this sharp cosmic portrait from the Hubble Space Telescope. But they are found in a region of space where galaxies tend to gather, on the eastern side of the nearby Virgo Galaxy Cluster. About 54 million light-years distant, bright M60’s simpler egg-like shape is created by its randomly swarming older stars, while NGC 4647’s young blue stars, gas and dust are organized into winding arms rotating in a flattened disk. Spiral NGC 4647 is estimated to be more distant than M60, some 63 million light-years away. Also known as Arp 116, the pair of galaxies may be on the verge of a significant gravitational encounter, though. M60 (aka NGC 4649) is about 120,000 light-years across. The smaller NGC 4647 spans around 90,000 light-years, about the size of our own Milky Way.

Credit: NASA, ESA, Hubble Heritage Team (STScI/AURA)

M104 Hubble remix

The striking spiral galaxy M104 is famous for its nearly edge-on profile featuring a broad ring of obscuring dust. Seen in silhouette against a bright bulge of stars, the swath of cosmic dust lanes lends a hat-like appearance to the galaxy in optical images suggesting the more popular moniker, The Sombrero Galaxy. Here, Hubble Space Telescope archival image data has been reprocessed to create this alternative look at the well-known galaxy. The newly developed processing improves the visibility of details otherwise lost in overwhelming glare, in this case allowing features of the galaxy’s dust lanes to be followed well into the bright central region. About 50,000 light-years across and 28 million light-years away, M104 is one of the largest galaxies at the southern edge of the Virgo Galaxy Cluster.

Image credit & copyright: Vicent Peris (OAUV / PTeam), MAST, STScI, AURA, NASA