Winged Heat

Credit: ESA Herschel

Wings flank the cen­ter of Cen­tau­rus A in this far-infrared image of the ellip­ti­cal galaxy from the Euro­pean Space Agency’s Her­schel Space Obser­va­tory and the XMM-Newton X-ray satellite.

Explore the reds, greens and blues of this giant ellip­ti­cal galaxy. What shapes or sto­ries do you see? Leave a com­ment below.

Cen­tau­rus A is only about 12 mil­lion light-years from Earth mak­ing it the clos­est giant ellip­ti­cal galaxy to Earth. Sci­en­tists study the galaxy not only because it is rel­a­tively close but also because when we train our radio tele­scopes in its direc­tion we are blasted with noise. Astronomers believe that a mas­sive black hole, more than a mil­lion times heav­ier than our Sun, sits at the core emit­ting the blar­ing sound. In vis­i­ble light, the galaxy is beau­ti­ful; a halo of stars with a dark and warped lane of dust sur­round­ing the mid­dle. The galaxy is bright and with a dust block­ing our view of the galac­tic core, sci­en­tists can’t see much beyond the ini­tial view. But by using other wave­lengths of light, such as infrared or ultra­vi­o­let, astronomers can begin to see the inner work­ings of the galaxy.

The new images from Her­schel show a flat­tened inner disk of a spi­ral galaxy. This may be the last rem­nants of a spi­ral galaxy that col­lided with the ellip­ti­cal galaxy long ago. The dust we see across the cen­ter of the vis­i­ble image is that rem­nant. Deeper toward the cen­ter of the galaxy, the image shows evi­dence of a burst of star birth. Jets shoot from the top and bot­tom of the galaxy curl­ing near the top more than 15,000 light-years from the galac­tic core. Herschel’s sen­si­tive tele­scopes pick up the warm dust sur­round­ing the galaxy and also the sear­ing heat as elec­trons are spun up to a veloc­ity near the speed of light by the galaxy’s strong mag­netic fields.

Cen­tau­rus A lies in the south­ern con­stel­la­tion of Cen­tau­rus the myth­i­cal Cen­taur. Eng­lish astronomer Sir John Her­schel first detailed the bright galaxy in the mid 19th century.

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The ancient peo­ples saw pic­tures in the sky. From those pat­terns in the heav­ens, ancient sto­ry­tellers cre­ated leg­ends about heroes, maid­ens, drag­ons, bears, cen­taurs, dogs and myth­i­cal crea­tures…
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