Galaxies Fluffy And Faint

Cathleen’s at the coffee shop’s baked goods counter. “A lemon scone, please, Al.”

I’m next in line. “Lemon sounds good to me, too. It’s a warm day.”

The Pinwheel Galaxy, NGC 5457
Credit: ESA/Hubble

“Sure thing, Sy. Hey, got a question for you, Cathleen, you bein’ an Astronomer and all. I just saw an Astronomy news item about a fluffy galaxy and they mentioned a faint galaxy. Are they the same and why the excitement?”

“Not the same, Al. It’ll be easier to show you in pictures. Sy, may I borrow Old Reliable?”

“Sure, here.”

“Thanks. OK, Al, here’s a classic ‘grand design‘ spiral galaxy, NGC 5457, also known as The Pinwheel. Gorgeous, isn’t it?”

“Sure is. Hey, I’ve wondered — what does ‘NGC‘ stand for, National Galaxy Collection or something?”

“Nope. The ‘G‘ doesn’t even stand for ‘Galaxy‘. It’s ‘New General Catalog‘. Anyway, here’s NGC 2775, one of our prettiest fluffies. Doesn’t look much like the Pinwheel or Andromeda, does it?”

NGC 2775
Credit: NASA / ESA / Hubble / J. Lee / PHANGS-HST Team / Judy Schmidt

“Nah, those guys got nice spiral arms that sort of grow out of the center. This one looks like there’s an inside edge to all the complicated stuff. And it’s got what, a hundred baby arms.”

“The blue dots in those ‘baby arms’ are young blue stars. They’re separated by dark lanes of dust just like the dark lanes in classic spirals. The difference is that these lanes are much closer together. The grand design spirals are popular photography subjects in your astronomy magazines, Al, but they’re only about 10% of all spirals. I’ll bet your news item was about 2775 because we’re just coming to see how mysterious this one is.”

“What’s mysterious about it?”

“That central region. It’s huge and smooth, barely any visible dust lanes and no blue dots. It’s bright in the infra‑red, which is what you’d expect from a population of old red stars. In the ultra‑violet, though, it’s practically empty — just a small dot at the center. UV is high‑energy light. It generally comes from a young star or a recent nova or a black hole’s accretion disk. The dot is probably a super-massive back hole. but its image is just a tiny fraction of the smooth region’s width. With a billion red stars in the way it’s hard to see how the black hole’s gravity field could have cleaned up all the dust that should be in there. Li’l Fluffy here is just begging for some Astrophysics PhD candidates to burn computer time trying to explain it.”

NGC 1052-DF2
Credit: NASA, ESA, and P. van Dokkum (Yale University)

“What about Li’l Faint?”

“That’s probably this one, NGC 1052-DF2. Looks a bit different, doesn’t it?

“I’ll say. It’s practically transparent. Is it a thing at all or just a smudge on the lens?”

“Not a smudge. We’ve got multiple images in different wavelength ranges from multiple observatories, and there’s another similar object, NGC 1052-DF4, in the same galaxy group. We even have measurements from individual stars and clusters in there. The discovery paper claimed that DF2 is so spread out because it lacks the dark matter whose gravity compacts most galaxies. That led to controversy, of course.”

“Is there anything in Science that doesn’t? What’s this argument?”

“It hinges on distance, Sy. The object is about as wide as the Milky Way but we see only 1% as many stars. Does their mass exert enough gravitational force to hold the structure together? There’s a fairly good relationship between a galaxy’s mass and its intrinsic brightness — more stars means more emitting surface and more mass. We know how quickly apparent brightness drops with distance. From other data the authors estimated DF2 is 65 lightyears away and from its apparent brightness they back‑calculated its mass to be just about what you’d expect from its stars alone. No dark matter required to prevent fly‑aways. Another group using a different technique estimated 42 lightyears. That suggested a correspondingly smaller luminous mass and therefore a significant amount of dark matter in the picture. Sort of. They’re still arguing.”

“But why does it exist at all?”

“That’s another question.”

~~ Rich Olcott

  • Thanks to Oriole for suggesting this topic.

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