Galactic contortionists captured in amazing image
GEMINI OBSERVATORY NEWS RELEASE
Posted: September 15, 2004
A stunning image released by the Gemini Observatory captures the graceful interactions of a galactic ballet, on a stage some 300 million light years away, that might better be described as a contortionist's dance.
This unprecedented image of the cluster provides a unique combination of sensitivity, high resolution and field of view. "It doesn't take long to reach an incredible depth when you have an 8-meter mirror collecting light under excellent conditions," said Travis Rector of the University of Alaska, Anchorage who helped obtain the data with the Gemini North Telescope on Mauna Kea. "We were able to capture these galaxies at many different wavelengths or colors. This allowed us to bring out some remarkable details in the final color image that have never been seen before in one view."
One striking element of the image is a collection of vibrant red clumps that mark star-forming regions within a galaxy called NGC 7320. Although its relation to the other galaxies in the cluster has been the subject of some controversy, most astronomers now think that the galaxy leads a relatively tranquil existence in the foreground, safely isolated from the violent quarrels of the more distant cluster.
Spectroscopic data show that NGC 7320 has an apparent velocity away from us of about 800 kilometers per second. In contrast, the rest of the group is being carried away from us by the expansion of the universe at over 6,000 kilometers per second. Using current models for the expanding universe, this would put the bulk of the cluster almost 8 times farther away from us than NGC 7320.
The vivid red patches scattered across the spiral arms of NGC 7320 in the new Gemini image provide a dramatic illustration of how these differing apparent velocities can impact our view. NGC 7320 and the other cluster galaxies have regions of intense star formation indicated by glowing clouds of hydrogen gas called HII regions. These areas appear distinctly red because a selective filter was used which only passes a special color of red light, called hydrogen alpha, that is produced in the HII regions. In the higher-velocity members of the cluster, prominent HII clumps dominate around the two closely interacting central galaxies but they do not appear red in the image. In these galaxies, the HII glow was Doppler-shifted beyond the range of the selective filter, and was therefore not detected.
The interacting members of Stephan's Quintet appear destined to continue their dance for millions more years. Eventually, this dance will probably cause some of the galaxies in the cluster to completely lose their current identity, combining into even fewer objects than we see today.
Stephan's Quintet was discovered in 1877 by the French astronomer Edouard Stephan using the Foucault 80-centimeter reflector at the Marseilles Observatory. The cluster is listed in the Hickson Compact Group Catalog as number 92. It has been studied extensively at all wavelengths including imaging by the Hubble Space Telescope.
The Gemini Observatory is an international collaboration that has built two identical 8-meter telescopes. The Frederick C. Gillett Gemini Telescope is located on Mauna Kea, Hawai`i (Gemini North) and the Gemini South telescope is located on Cerro Pachon in central Chile (Gemini South), and hence provide full coverage of both hemispheres of the sky. Both telescopes incorporate new technologies that allow large, relatively thin mirrors under active control to collect and focus both optical and infrared radiation from space.
The Gemini Observatory provides the astronomical communities in each partner country with state-of- the-art astronomical facilities that allocate observing time in proportion to each country's contribution. In addition to financial support, each country also contributes significant scientific and technical resources. The national research agencies that form the Gemini partnership include: the US National Science Foundation (NSF), the UK Particle Physics and Astronomy Research Council (PPARC), the Canadian National Research Council (NRC), the Chilean Comision Nacional de Investigacion Cientifica y Tecnologica (CONICYT), the Australian Research Council (ARC), the Argentinean Consejo Nacional de Investigaciones Cientificas y Tecnicas (CONICET) and the Brazilian Conselho Nacional de Desenvolvimento Cientifico e Tecnologico (CNPq). The Observatory is managed by the Association of Universities for Research in Astronomy, Inc. (AURA) under a cooperative agreement with the NSF. The NSF also serves as the executive agency for the international partnership.