An interacting colossusThis picture, taken by the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope’s Wide Field Planetary Camera 2 (WFPC2), shows a galaxy known as NGC 6872 in the constellation of Pavo (The Peacock). Its unusual shape is caused by its interactions with the smaller galaxy that can be seen just above NGC 6872, called IC 4970. They both lie roughly 300 million light-years away from Earth.
From tip to tip, NGC 6872 measures over 500 000 light-years across, making it the second largest spiral galaxy discovered to date. In terms of size it is beaten only byNGC 262, a galaxy that measures a mind-boggling 1.3 million light-years in diameter! To put that into perspective, our own galaxy, the Milky Way, measures between 100 000 and 120 000 light-years across, making NGC 6872 about five times its size.
The upper left spiral arm of NGC 6872 is visibly distorted and is populated by star-forming regions, which appear blue on this image. This may have been be caused by IC 4970 recently passing through this arm — although here, recent means 130 million years ago! Astronomers have noted that NGC 6872 seems to be relatively sparse in terms of free hydrogen, which is the basis material for new stars, meaning that if it weren’t for its interactions with IC 4970, NGC 6872 might not have been able to produce new bursts of star formation.
Image credit: ESA/Hubble & NASA; Acknowledgement: Judy Schmidt (geckzilla.com)
This star cluster is not what it seems
This new image from the VLT Survey Telescope at ESO’s Paranal Observatory in northern Chile shows a vast collection of stars, the globular cluster Messier 54. This cluster looks very similar to many others but it has a secret. Messier 54 doesn’t belong to the Milky Way, but is part of a small satellite galaxy, the Sagittarius Dwarf Galaxy. This unusual parentage has now allowed astronomers to use the Very Large Telescope (VLT) to test whether there are also unexpectedly low levels of the element lithium in stars outside the Milky Way.
The Milky Way galaxy is orbited by more than 150 globular star clusters, which are balls of hundreds of thousands of old stars dating back to the formation of the galaxy. One of these, along with several others in the constellation of Sagittarius (The Archer), was found in the late eighteenth century by the French comet hunter Charles Messier and given the designation Messier 54.
For more than two hundred years after its discovery Messier 54 was thought to be similar to the other Milky Way globulars. But in 1994 it was discovered that it was actually associated with a separate galaxy — the Sagittarius Dwarf Galaxy. It was found to be at a distance of around 90 000 light-years — more than three times as far from Earth as the galactic centre.
Astronomers have now observed Messier 54 using the VLT as a test case to try to solve one of the mysteries of modern astronomy — the lithium problem.
Most of the light chemical element lithium now present in the Universe was produced during the Big Bang, along with hydrogen and helium, but in much smaller quantities. Astronomers can calculate quite accurately how much lithium they expect to find in the early Universe, and from this work out how much they should see in old stars. But the numbers don’t match — there is about three times less lithium in stars than expected. This mystery remains, despite several decades of work.
Up to now it has only been possible to measure lithium in stars in the Milky Way. But now a team of astronomers led by Alessio Mucciarelli (University of Bologna, Italy) has used the VLT to measure how much lithium there is in a selection of stars in Messier 54. They find that the levels are close to those in the Milky Way. So, whatever it is that got rid of the lithium seems not to be specific to the Milky Way.
This new image of the cluster was created from data taken with the VLT Survey Telescope (VST) at the Paranal Observatory. As well as showing the cluster itself it reveals the extraordinarily dense forest of much closer Milky Way stars that lie in the foreground.
Image credit: ESO