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NASA's GALEX Reveals The Largest-Known Spiral Galaxy

12 January, 2013

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MessageToEagle.com -A team of astronomers from the United States, Chile and Brazil has unveiled the picture of the largest-known spiral galaxy NGC 6872.

Measuring tip-to-tip across its two outsized spiral arms, a spectacular barred spiral galaxy NGC 6872 spans more than 522,000 light-years and makes it more than five times the size of our Milky Way galaxy.

The galaxy is among the biggest stellar systems for decades and this ranking is based on archival data from NASA's Galaxy Evolution Explorer (GALEX) mission, which has since been loaned to the California Institute of Technology, Pasadena, Calif.



Click on image to enlarge

This composite of the giant barred spiral galaxy NGC 6872 combines visible light images from the European Southern Observatory's Very Large Telescope with far-ultraviolet (1,528 angstroms) data from NASA's GALEX and 3.6-micron infrared data acquired by NASA's Spitzer Space Telescope. A previously unsuspected tidal dwarf galaxy candidate (circled) appears only in the ultraviolet, indicating the presence of many hot young stars. IC 4970, the small disk galaxy interacting with NGC 6872, is located above the spiral's central region. The spiral is 522,000 light-years across from the tip of one outstretched arm to the tip of the other, which makes it about 5 times the size of our home galaxy, the Milky Way. Images of lower resolution from the Digital Sky Survey were used to fill in marginal areas not covered by the other data. Credit: NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center/ESO/JPL-Caltech/DSS


Measuring tip-to-tip across its two outsized spiral arms, NGC 6872 spans more than 522,000 light-years, making it more than five times the size of our Milky Way galaxy.

"Without GALEX's ability to detect the ultraviolet light of the youngest, hottest stars, we would never have recognized the full extent of this intriguing system," said lead scientist Rafael Eufrasio, a research assistant at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md., and a doctoral student at Catholic University of America in Washington.

The galaxy's unusual size and appearance stem from its interaction with a much smaller disk galaxy named IC 4970, which has only about one-fifth the mass of NGC 6872. The odd couple is located 212 million light-years from Earth in the southern constellation Pavo.

Astronomers think large galaxies, including our own, grew through mergers and acquisitions -- assembling over billions of years by absorbing numerous smaller systems.

Intriguingly, the gravitational interaction of NGC 6872 and IC 4970 may have done the opposite, spawning what may develop into a new small galaxy.

"The northeastern arm of NGC 6872 is the most disturbed and is rippling with star formation, but at its far end, visible only in the ultraviolet, is an object that appears to be a tidal dwarf galaxy similar to those seen in other interacting systems," said team member Duilia de Mello, a professor of astronomy at Catholic University.

Computer simulations reproducing the overall appearance of this large system of NGC 6872 were already developed in 2007 by Cathy Horellou at Onsala Space Observatory in Sweden and Baerbel Koribalski of the Australia National Telescope Facility.



Click on image to enlarge

Computer simulations of the collision between NGC 6872 and IC 4970 reproduce the basic features of the galaxies as we see them today. They indicate that IC 4970's closest encounter occurred 130 million years ago and that the smaller galaxy followed a path (dashed curve) close to the plane of the spiral's disk and in the same direction it rotates. Credit: NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center, after C. Horellou (Onsala Space Observatory) and B. Koribalski (ATNF)


According to the closest match, IC 4970 made its closest approach about 130 million years ago and followed a path that took it nearly along the plane of the spiral's disk in the same direction it rotates. The current study is consistent with this picture.

NGC 6872 contains a stellar bar component that transitions between the spiral arms and the galaxy's central regions. Measuring about 26,000 light-years in radius, or about twice the average length found in nearby barred spirals, it is a bar that befits a giant galaxy.

"Understanding the structure and dynamics of nearby interacting systems like this one brings us a step closer to placing these events into their proper cosmological context, paving the way to decoding what we find in younger, more distant systems," said team member and Goddard astrophysicist Eli Dwek.

The researchers studied the galaxy across the spectrum using archival data from the European Southern Observatory's Very Large Telescope, the Two Micron All Sky Survey, and NASA's Spitzer Space Telescope, as well as GALEX.

Scientists presented the findings Thursday at the American Astronomical Society meeting in Long Beach, Calif.

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