The clashing galaxies, spotted by NASA's Spitzer Space Telescope and the WIYN Telescope, will eventually merge into a single, behemoth galaxy up to 10 times as massive as our own Milky Way. This rare sighting provides an unprecedented look at how the most massive galaxies in the universe form.
“Most of the galaxy mergers we already knew about are like compact cars crashing together,” said Kenneth Rines of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, Cambridge, Mass. “What we have here is like four sand trucks smashing together, flinging sand everywhere.” Rines, who was a Mead postdoctoral fellow at Yale from 2003-6 when much of this work was done, is lead author of a paper accepted for publication in Astrophysical Journal Letters.
Collisions, or mergers, between galaxies are common in the universe. Gravity causes some galaxies that are close together to tangle and ultimately unite over a period of millions of years. Though stars in merging galaxies are tossed around like sand, they have a lot of space between them and survive the ride. Our Milky Way galaxy will team up with the Andromeda galaxy in five billion years.
Mergers between one big galaxy and several small ones, called minor mergers, are well documented. For example, one of the most elaborate known minor mergers is taking place in the Spiderweb galaxy – a massive galaxy that is catching dozens of small ones in its “web” of gravity. Astronomers have also witnessed “major” mergers among pairs of galaxies that are similar in size. But no major mergers between multiple hefty galaxies – the big rigs of the galaxy world – have been seen until now.
The new quadruple merger was discovered serendipitously during a survey of a distant cluster of galaxies, called CL0958+4702, located nearly five billion light-years away. The telescopes first spotted an unusually large fan-shaped plume of light coming out of a gathering of four blob-shaped, or elliptical, galaxies. Three of the galaxies are about the size of the Milky Way, while the fourth is three times as big.
“The colors from the WIYN and Spitzer data show that the stars are old, but the higher resolution WIYN images show that the light from the disrupted galaxy does not have small-scale structure but is instead smoothly distributed telling us that the galaxies involved in the merger are elliptical rather than spiral galaxies,” said Jeffrey Kenney, professor and chair of Astronomy at Yale.
According to Kenney, WIYN (named for it’s joint ownership by the University of Wisconsin, Indiana University, Yale University, and the National Optical Astronomy Observatory) is one of the best imaging telescopes in the world. “The sharpness of the WIYN images helps show that we are in fact seeing a merger, and what type of galaxies have merged.”
“The WIYN telescope provides some of the sharpest images possible from ground-based telescopes. The WIYN images show that the four galaxies have well-defined cores that have held together during the merger, much like egg yolks stay together longer than egg whites if you "merge" them in a mixing bowl,” said Rines.
Further analysis of the plume revealed that it is made up of billions of older stars flung out and abandoned in an ongoing clash. About half of the stars in the plume will later fall back into the galaxies. “When this merger is complete, this will be one of the biggest galaxies in the universe,” said Rines.
The Spitzer observations also show that the new merger lacks gas. Theorists predict that massive galaxies grow in a variety of ways, including gas-rich and gas-poor mergers. In gas-rich mergers, the galaxies are soaked with gas that ignites to form new stars. Gas-poor mergers lack gas, so no new stars are formed. Spitzer found only old stars in the quadruple encounter.
“The Spitzer data show that these major mergers are gas-poor, unlike most mergers we know about," said Rines. "The data also represent the best evidence that the biggest galaxies in the universe formed fairly recently through major mergers.”
Some of the stars tossed out in the monstrous merger will live in isolated areas outside the borders of any galaxies. Such abandoned stars could theoretically have planets. If so, the planets' night skies would be quite different from our own, with fewer stars and more visible galaxies.
In addition to Spitzer and WIYN, Rines and his team used a telescope formerly known as the Multiple Mirror Telescope and now called MMT near Tuscon, Ariz., to confirm that the four galaxies are intertwined, and NASA's Chandra X-ray Observatory to weigh the mass of the giant cluster of galaxies in which the merger was discovered. Both Spitzer and WIYN, also near Tucson, Ariz., were used to study the plume.
Janet Rettig Emanuel | EurekAlert!
APEX takes a glimpse into the heart of darkness
25.05.2018 | Max-Planck-Institut für Radioastronomie
First chip-scale broadband optical system that can sense molecules in the mid-IR
24.05.2018 | Columbia University School of Engineering and Applied Science
The more electronics steer, accelerate and brake cars, the more important it is to protect them against cyber-attacks. That is why 15 partners from industry and academia will work together over the next three years on new approaches to IT security in self-driving cars. The joint project goes by the name Security For Connected, Autonomous Cars (SecForCARs) and has funding of €7.2 million from the German Federal Ministry of Education and Research. Infineon is leading the project.
Vehicles already offer diverse communication interfaces and more and more automated functions, such as distance and lane-keeping assist systems. At the same...
A research team led by physicists at the Technical University of Munich (TUM) has developed molecular nanoswitches that can be toggled between two structurally different states using an applied voltage. They can serve as the basis for a pioneering class of devices that could replace silicon-based components with organic molecules.
The development of new electronic technologies drives the incessant reduction of functional component sizes. In the context of an international collaborative...
At the LASYS 2018, from June 5th to 7th, the Laser Zentrum Hannover e.V. (LZH) will be showcasing processes for the laser material processing of tomorrow in hall 4 at stand 4E75. With blown bomb shells the LZH will present first results of a research project on civil security.
At this year's LASYS, the LZH will exhibit light-based processes such as cutting, welding, ablation and structuring as well as additive manufacturing for...
There are videos on the internet that can make one marvel at technology. For example, a smartphone is casually bent around the arm or a thin-film display is rolled in all directions and with almost every diameter. From the user's point of view, this looks fantastic. From a professional point of view, however, the question arises: Is that already possible?
At Display Week 2018, scientists from the Fraunhofer Institute for Applied Polymer Research IAP will be demonstrating today’s technological possibilities and...
So-called quantum many-body scars allow quantum systems to stay out of equilibrium much longer, explaining experiment | Study published in Nature Physics
Recently, researchers from Harvard and MIT succeeded in trapping a record 53 atoms and individually controlling their quantum state, realizing what is called a...
25.05.2018 | Event News
02.05.2018 | Event News
13.04.2018 | Event News
25.05.2018 | Event News
25.05.2018 | Machine Engineering
25.05.2018 | Life Sciences