Amateur stargazer helps university astronomers unlock the secrets of dwarf galaxy cannibalism

08 Feb 2012 19:08:17.747

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An unusual collaboration between an amateur astronomer and professional astrophysicists has shed new light on the first stage of the process by which small galaxies grow into large ones.

Astronomers believe that galaxies grow hierarchically by repeatedly merging with their peers, but the earliest stage of this process, in which one of the smallest ‘dwarf’ galaxies is cannibalized by another dwarf system, has proved very hard to study in detail, until now.

This key first step has been opened up for analysis after American amateur astronomer, Jay GaBany, who is noted for his ability to produce exceptional images of faint astronomical objects, was recruited by a large international team involving professional astronomers from Germany, the USA, Italy, Denmark, France, Spain and The University of Nottingham in the UK.

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Mr GaBany used his observational skills and his own relatively-modest 0.5m telescope in California's Sierra Nevada mountains to obtain a stunning image of one such merger happening in what astronomically-speaking is Earth’s own back yard.

His multi-colour image of the nearby dwarf galaxy NGC 4449 shows that it is in the process of gobbling up an even smaller companion. The faint smudge of the half-eaten companion was first noted in 2007 by Russian astronomers studying photographic plates, but it has taken GaBany's painstaking 30 hours of observations to produce the first detailed image of the system.

This information then inspired the professional team, led by David Martínez-Delgado from Heidelberg, to look still deeper. By imaging the system with the 8.2-meter Subaru Telescope in Hawaii, researchers from the University of California Santa Cruz (UCSC) were even able to resolve the companion into its individual constituent stars, in order to understand what type of galaxy is being consumed.

Amateur talent

Professor Michael Merrifield of The University of Nottingham’s School of Physics and Astronomy said: “This kind of dwarf cannibalism is happening all over the Universe and is a key first stage in building the big beautiful galaxies that we see around us. But because these dwarf systems are so faint, this step is extremely hard to spot, and we are lucky to witness such an event so nearby. By combining the talents of amateur astronomers with the knowledge and skills of the professionals, we are able to study this important phenomenon in detail for the first time.”

The new observations support the idea that the stellar halos around many dwarf galaxies are the remnants of smaller satellites that were shredded in past merger events. The ongoing merger in NGC 4449 may also be responsible for the intense burst of star formation seen in the galaxy. Dr Aaron Romanowsky of the University of California Santa Cruz added:

“This galaxy is famous for its starburst activity, and it seems we've found the reason for that. The gravitational interaction with the incoming galaxy has probably disturbed the gas in the main galaxy and caused it to start forming stars.”

The results of this study have been accepted for publication in Astrophysical Journal Letters. In addition to Jay GaBany, the team comprises: David Martínez-Delgado, Hans-Walter Rix and Andrea Macciò of the Max Planck Institute for Astronomy in Heidelberg; Aaron Romanowsky, Jacob Arnold and Jean Brodie at UC Santa Cruz; Francesca Annibali at the Astronomical Observatory of Bologna; Jürgen Fliri at the Observatory of Paris; Stefano Zibetti at the University of Copenhagen; Roeland van der Marel and Alessandra Aloisi at the Space Telescope Science Institute; Taylor Chonis at the University of Texas, Austin; Julio Carballo-Bello at the Canary Islands Astrophysics Institute; J.
Gallego-Laborda at Fosca Nit Observatory in Spain; and Michael Merrifield of The University of Nottingham, England.

Ends —

Notes to editors: The University of Nottingham, described by The Sunday Times University Guide 2011 as ‘the embodiment of the modern international university’, has award-winning campuses in the United Kingdom, China and Malaysia. It is ranked in the UK's Top 10 and the World's Top 75 universities by the Shanghai Jiao Tong (SJTU) and the QS World University Rankings. It was named ‘the world’s greenest university’ in the UI GreenMetric World University Ranking 2011, a league table of the most environmentally-friendly higher education institutions.
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More than 90 per cent of research at The University of Nottingham is of international quality, according to the most recent Research Assessment Exercise, with almost 60 per cent of all research defined as ‘world-leading’ or ‘internationally excellent’. Research Fortnight analysis of RAE 2008 ranked the University 7th in the UK by research power.

The University’s vision is to be recognised around the world for its signature contributions, especially in global food security, energy & sustainability, and health. The University won a Queen’s Award for Higher and Further Education in 2011, for its research on global food security. More news from the University at: 

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More information is available from Professor Michael Merrifield, School of Physics and Astronomy on +44 (0)115 95 15186

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