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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