A galaxy’s net of dust

A galaxy's net of dust
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Cool image time! The picture to the right, cropped, reduced, and sharpened to post here, was taken by the Hubble Space Telescope of the central part of galaxy NGC 4753, 60 million light years away and known as a lenticular galaxy because of its elongated elliptical shape and ill-defined spiral arms. It is believed we looking at this galaxy edge-on.

You can see a wider image of NGC 4753 here, released in January and taken by the Gemini South telescope in Chile. According to that press release, the brown dust lanes that seem to form a wavy net in the foreground are created by a process called differential precession:

Precession occurs when a rotating object’s axis of rotation changes orientation, like a spinning top that wobbles as it loses momentum. And differential means that the rate of precession varies depending on the radius. In the case of a dusty accretion disk orbiting a galactic nucleus, the rate of precession is faster toward the center and slower near the edges. This varying, wobble-like motion results from the angle at which NGC 4753 and its former dwarf companion collided and is the cause of the strongly twisted dust lanes we see wrapped around the galaxy’s luminous nucleus today.

Once again, the limitation of only observing this object from one angle makes it very difficult to untangle what it really looks like. Therefore, these conclusions carry a great deal of uncertainty.

Swirling galactic-sized streams surrounding a pair of supermassive black holes

Swirling galactic arms surrounding two supermassive black holes

Time for another galactic cool image! The picture to the right, reduced and sharpened to post here, was released today by the Gemini South ground-based telescope in Chile. It shows the streams of gas and stars that swirl around a pair of supermassive black holes at the center of this galaxy, located only 90 million light years away.

The image reveals vast swirling bands of interstellar dust and gas resembling freshly-spun cotton candy as they wrap around the merging cores of the progenitor galaxies. From the aftermath has emerged a scattered mix of active starburst regions and sedentary dust lanes encircling the system.

What is most noteworthy about NGC 7727 is undoubtedly its twin galactic nuclei, each of which houses a supermassive black hole, as confirmed by astronomers using the European Southern Observatory’s Very Large Telescope (VLT). Astronomers now surmise the galaxy originated as a pair of spiral galaxies that became embroiled in a celestial dance about one billion years ago. Stars and nebulae spilled out and were pulled back together at the mercy of the black holes’ gravitational tug-of-war until the irregular tangled knots we see here were created.

The black holes themselves are 154 and 6.3 million solar masses respectively, and are presently about 1,600 light years apart. Scientists calculate that they will merge in about 250 million years. Each once formed the center of its own galaxy. Now both galaxies have merged, creating this three-dimensional whirlpool of arms.

Universe’s most massive star is found to be less massive than previously believed

The uncertainty of science: Using data from the Gemini South telescope in Chile, astronomers have determined that the universe’s most massive star, dubbed R136a1, is actually less massive than previously believed.

By pushing the capabilities of the Zorro instrument on the Gemini South telescope of the International Gemini Observatory, operated by NSF’s NOIRLab, astronomers have obtained the sharpest-ever image of R136a1 — the most massive known star. This colossal star is a member of the R136 star cluster, which lies about 160,000 light-years from Earth in the center of the Tarantula Nebula in the Large Magellanic Cloud, a dwarf companion galaxy of the Milky Way.

Previous observations suggested that R136a1 had a mass somewhere between 250 to 320 times the mass of the Sun. The new Zorro observations, however, indicate that this giant star may be only 170 to 230 times the mass of the Sun. Even with this lower estimate, R136a1 still qualifies as the most massive known star.

What astronomers are trying to figure out is the highest possible mass a star can possibly have. This new data suggests that this upper limit is smaller than previously believed.