Revealed: a savage galaxy hunting for prey
In the Fornax cluster lurks a gigantic predator. Andrew Masterson reports.
Astronomers now have clearer details on an entity nicknamed a “galactic serial killer”, thanks to new images obtained by European Southern Observatory’s VLT Survey Telescope at the Paranal facility on Chile.
The images include an extraordinary 2.3-gigapixel rendition of the Fornax Cluster, a collection of galaxies 62 million light-years away.
Fornax contains more than 50 galaxies, including NGC 1316, which ESO astronomers dubbed a serial killer back in 2014 after images from the organisation’s La Silla Observatory revealed that over the course of its life it had swallowed several other galaxies and experienced a “violent history”.
For the astronomers, the evidence of the galaxy’s aggressive disposition was clear – and the latest images only add weight to their conclusions.
The scientists have been able to identify dust lanes embedded within it, and note that it contains several small globular star clusters. These phenomena, they suggest, indicate that about three billion years ago NGC 1316 enjoyed smaller a dust-rich spiral galaxy for breakfast.
It was not, on the evidence, a gentle meal. The ESO astronomers also identified a great number of star shells that had been ripped from their orbits and flung into space. This again is strong evidence that the serial killer has absorbed other galaxies in its time – and continues to be a predator.
The latest image will allow researchers to better analyse the aftermath of NGC 1316’s turbulent behaviour, which includes four type 1a supernovae. And if the predatory habits of the serial killer galaxy weren’t scary enough, the fresh data will also assist in understanding the behaviour of the monster black hole – 150 million times the mass of our sun – that lurks in its centre.