Herschel and Keck take Census of the Invisible Universe

Image Credits: ESA–C. Carreau/C. Casey (University of Hawai’i); COSMOS field: ESA/Herschel/SPIRE/HerMES Key Programme; Hubble images: NASA, ESA

By combining the observing powers of ESA’s Herschel space observatory and the ground-based Keck telescopes, astronomers have characterised hundreds of previously unseen starburst galaxies, revealing extraordinary high star-formation rates across the history of the Universe. Read More →

Astronomers discover rare ’emerald-cut’ galaxy

An international team of astronomers has discovered a rare square galaxy with a striking resemblance to an emerald cut diamond.

The astronomers – from Australia, Germany, Switzerland and Finland – discovered the rectangular shaped galaxy within a group of 250 galaxies some 70 million light years away.

“In the Universe around us, most galaxies exist in one of three forms: spheroidal, disc-like, or lumpy and irregular in appearance,” said Associate Professor Alister Graham from Swinburne University of Technology.

He said the rare rectangular-shaped galaxy was a very unusual object. “It’s one of those things that just makes you smile because it shouldn’t exist, or rather you don’t expect it to exist.

“It’s a little like the precarious Leaning Tower of Pisa or the discovery of some exotic new species which at first glance appears to defy the laws of nature.”
The unusually shaped galaxy was detected in a wide field-of-view image taken with the Japanese Subaru Telescope for an unrelated program by Swinburne astrophysicist Dr Lee Spitler.

The astronomers suspect it is unlikely that this galaxy is shaped like a cube. Instead, they believe that it may resemble an inflated disc seen side on, like a short cylinder.

Support for this scenario comes from observations with the giant Keck Telescope in Hawaii, which revealed a rapidly spinning, thin disc with a side on orientation lurking at the centre of the galaxy. The outermost measured edge of this galactic disc is rotating at a speed in excess of 100,000 kilometres per hour.

“One possibility is that the galaxy may have formed out of the collision of two spiral galaxies,” said Swinburne’s Professor Duncan Forbes, co author of the research.

“While the pre-existing stars from the initial galaxies were strewn to large orbits creating the emerald cut shape, the gas sank to the mid plane where it condensed to form new stars and the disc that we have observed.”

Despite its apparent uniqueness, partly due to its chance orientation, the astronomers have managed to glean useful information for modelling other galaxies.

While the outer boxy shape is somewhat reminiscent of galaxy merger simulations which don’t involve the production of new stars, the disc-like structure is comparable with merger simulations involving star formation.

“This highlights the importance of combining lessons learned from both types of past simulation for better understanding galaxy evolution in the future,” said Associate Professor Graham.

“One of the reasons this emerald cut galaxy was hard to find is due to its dwarf-like status: it has 50 times less stars than our own Milky Way galaxy, plus its distance from us is equivalent to that spanned by 700 Milky Way galaxies placed end-to-end.

“Curiously, if the orientation was just right, when our own disc-shaped galaxy collides with the disc-shaped Andromeda galaxy about three billion years from now we may find ourselves the inhabitants of a square looking galaxy.”

Source: Swinburne University of Technology

Reference:

Alister W. Graham, Lee R. Spitler, & Duncan A. Forbes (2012). LEDA 074886: A REMARKABLE RECTANGULAR-LOOKING GALAXY The Astrophysical Journal arXiv:1203.3608v1

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Keck Interferometer Winding Down

The Keck Interferometer, linking twin telescopes located atop Mauna Kea in Hawaii and part of NASA’s search for extrasolar planets, now faces its final months of operation due to NASA budget cuts. It is scheduled to shut down in July, though the two telescopes it linked will continue to observe independently of one another. While the Keck telescopes are among the largest in the world for infrared and near-optical observation, financial and political obstacles prevented them from ever reaching their full potential.

Built in the 1990s, the Keck’s twin telescopes were to have been joined by four smaller “outrigger” telescopes that would have dramatically increased the Interferometer’s ability to observe small areas of sky. The telescopes’ combined power would have made visible planets the size of Uranus orbiting nearby stars.

NASA actually built the outriggers several years ago, but they never reached Mauna Kea. NASA withdrew their funding after setbacks in other programs meant to search for exoplanets. This, added to objections from native Hawaiians who have long opposed the presence of an observatory atop what they consider a sacred mountain, along with a court-ordered halt to expansion of the observatory to assess its environmental impact, sounded the death knell for the project. Last year, NASA ultimately withdrew funding for the Interferometer itself.

Keck in Motion from Andrew Cooper on Vimeo.

Image: The Keck Interferometer, with the telescopes’ doors open to equalize temperature inside and outside of the domes. Credit: NASA/JPL