Forum for Science, Industry and Business

Sponsored by:     3M 
Search our Site:


Mystery spiral arms explained?

Using a trio of space observatories, astronomers may have cracked a 45-year old mystery surrounding two ghostly spiral arms in the galaxy M106 (NGC 4258).

The results, obtained by a team from the University of Maryland (USA), took advantage of the unique capabilities of the European Space Agency’s XMM-Newton X-ray observatory, NASA’s Chandra X-ray Observatory, and NASA’s Spitzer Space Telescope.

This is a composite image of spiral galaxy M106 (NGC 4258). Optical data from the Digitized Sky Survey is shown in yellow, radio data from the Very Large Array appears purple, X-ray data from Chandra is coded blue, and infrared data from the Spitzer Space Telescope appears red. The anomalous arms appear as purple and blue emission. Credits: NASA/CXC/Univ. of Maryland/A.S. Wilson et al. Optical: Pal.Obs. DSS; IR: NASA/JPL-Caltech; VLA & NRAO/AUI/NSF

M106 (also known as NGC 4258) is a spiral galaxy 23.5 million light-years away, in the constellation Canes Venatici. In visible-light images, two prominent arms emanate from the bright nucleus and spiral outward. These arms are dominated by young, bright stars, which light up the gas within the arms. "But in radio and X-ray images, two additional spiral arms dominate the picture, appearing as ghostly apparitions between the main arms," says team member Andrew Wilson of the University of Maryland. These so-called "anomalous arms" consist mostly of gas.

"The nature of these anomalous arms is a long-standing puzzle in astronomy," says Yuxuan Yang, lead author of the team. "They have been a mystery since they were first discovered in the early 1960s."

By analyzing data from XMM-Newton, Spitzer, and Chandra, the team in Maryland have confirmed earlier suspicions that the ghostly arms represent regions of gas that are being violently heated by shock waves.

It has been previously suggested that the anomalous arms are jets of particles being ejected by a supermassive black hole in M106’s nucleus. But radio observations at the Very Large Array in New Mexico later identified another pair of jets originating in the core. "It is highly unlikely that an active galactic nucleus could have more than one pair of jets," says Yang.

In 2001, another team of astronomers at the University of North Carolina (USA), noted that the two jets are tipped 30 degrees with respect to the disk. But if one could vertically project the jets onto the disk, they would line up almost perfectly with the anomalous arms. Figuring that this alignment was not strictly a matter of chance, the team proposed that the jets heat the gas in their line of travel, forming an expanding cocoon. Because the jets lie close to M106’s disk, the cocoon heats gas in the disk and generates shock waves, heating the gas to millions of degrees and causing it to radiate brightly in X-rays and other wavelengths.

To test this idea, Yang and his colleagues looked at archival spectral observations from XMM-Newton. With XMM-Newton’s superb sensitivity, the team could measure the gas temperature in the anomalous arms and also see how X-rays from the gas are absorbed en route by intervening material.

"One of the predictions of this scenario is that the anomalous arms will gradually be pushed out of the galactic disk plane by jet-heated gas," says Yang. The XMM-Newton spectra show that X-rays are absorbed more strongly in the direction of the northwest arm than in the southeast arm. The results strongly suggest that the southeast arm is partly on the near side of M106’s disk, and the northwest arm is partly on the far side.

The scientists noted that these observations show clear consistency with their scenario. Confirmation of this interpretation has recently come from archival observations from NASA’s Spitzer Space Telescope, whose infrared view shows clear signs that X-ray emission from the northwest arm is being absorbed by warm gas and dust in the galaxy’s disk. Moreover, Chandra’s superior imaging resolution gives clear indications of gas shocked by interactions with the two jets.

Besides addressing the mystery of the anomalous arms, these observations allowed the team to estimate the energy in the jets and gauge their relationship to M106’s central black hole.

Norbert Schartel | alfa
Further information:

More articles from Physics and Astronomy:

nachricht 'Frequency combs' ID chemicals within the mid-infrared spectral region
16.03.2018 | American Institute of Physics

nachricht Fraunhofer HHI have developed a novel single-polarization Kramers-Kronig receiver scheme
16.03.2018 | Fraunhofer-Institut für Nachrichtentechnik, Heinrich-Hertz-Institut, HHI

All articles from Physics and Astronomy >>>

The most recent press releases about innovation >>>

Die letzten 5 Focus-News des innovations-reports im Überblick:

Im Focus: Locomotion control with photopigments

Researchers from Göttingen University discover additional function of opsins

Animal photoreceptors capture light with photopigments. Researchers from the University of Göttingen have now discovered that these photopigments fulfill an...

Im Focus: Surveying the Arctic: Tracking down carbon particles

Researchers embark on aerial campaign over Northeast Greenland

On 15 March, the AWI research aeroplane Polar 5 will depart for Greenland. Concentrating on the furthest northeast region of the island, an international team...

Im Focus: Unique Insights into the Antarctic Ice Shelf System

Data collected on ocean-ice interactions in the little-researched regions of the far south

The world’s second-largest ice shelf was the destination for a Polarstern expedition that ended in Punta Arenas, Chile on 14th March 2018. Oceanographers from...

Im Focus: ILA 2018: Laser alternative to hexavalent chromium coating

At the 2018 ILA Berlin Air Show from April 25–29, the Fraunhofer Institute for Laser Technology ILT is showcasing extreme high-speed Laser Material Deposition (EHLA): A video documents how for metal components that are highly loaded, EHLA has already proved itself as an alternative to hard chrome plating, which is now allowed only under special conditions.

When the EU restricted the use of hexavalent chromium compounds to special applications requiring authorization, the move prompted a rethink in the surface...

Im Focus: Radar for navigation support from autonomous flying drones

At the ILA Berlin, hall 4, booth 202, Fraunhofer FHR will present two radar sensors for navigation support of drones. The sensors are valuable components in the implementation of autonomous flying drones: they function as obstacle detectors to prevent collisions. Radar sensors also operate reliably in restricted visibility, e.g. in foggy or dusty conditions. Due to their ability to measure distances with high precision, the radar sensors can also be used as altimeters when other sources of information such as barometers or GPS are not available or cannot operate optimally.

Drones play an increasingly important role in the area of logistics and services. Well-known logistic companies place great hope in these compact, aerial...

All Focus news of the innovation-report >>>



Industry & Economy
Event News

Ultrafast Wireless and Chip Design at the DATE Conference in Dresden

16.03.2018 | Event News

International Tinnitus Conference of the Tinnitus Research Initiative in Regensburg

13.03.2018 | Event News

International Virtual Reality Conference “IEEE VR 2018” comes to Reutlingen, Germany

08.03.2018 | Event News

Latest News

Wandering greenhouse gas

16.03.2018 | Earth Sciences

'Frequency combs' ID chemicals within the mid-infrared spectral region

16.03.2018 | Physics and Astronomy

Biologists unravel another mystery of what makes DNA go 'loopy'

16.03.2018 | Life Sciences

Science & Research
Overview of more VideoLinks >>>