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NASA's Hubble and Chandra Find Evidence for Densest Nearby Galaxy

For Release: September 24, 2013

NASA

Sagittarius A*
Credit: X-ray: NASA/CXC/MSU/J.Strader et al, Optical: NASA/STScI
Press Image and Caption

The densest galaxy in the nearby part of the Universe may have been found. Packed with an extraordinary number of stars, this unusual galaxy is providing astronomers with clues to its intriguing past and how it fits into the galactic evolutionary chain.

The galaxy, known as M60-UCD1, is a type of “ultra-compact dwarf galaxy”. It was discovered with NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope and follow-up observations were done with NASA’s Chandra X-ray Observatory and ground-based optical telescopes.

Observations from the W. M. Keck Observatory on the summit of Mauna Kea, Hawaii, characterized it as the most luminous known galaxy of its type and one of the most massive, weighing 200 million times more than our Sun.

What makes M60-UCD1 so remarkable is that about half of this mass is found within a radius of only about 80 light years. This would make the density of stars about 15,000 times greater than found in Earth’s neighborhood in the Milky Way, meaning that the stars are about 25 times closer.

"Traveling from one star to another would be a lot easier in M60-UCD1 than it is in our galaxy," said Jay Strader of Michigan State University in Lansing, first author of a new paper describing these results. "But it would still take hundreds of years using present technology."

The 6.5-meter Multiple Mirror Telescope in Arizona was used to study the amount of elements heavier than hydrogen and helium in stars in M60-UCD1. The values were found to be similar to our Sun.

"The abundance of heavy elements in this galaxy makes it a fertile environment for planets and, potentially, life to form," said co-author Anil Seth of the University of Utah.

Another intriguing aspect of M60-UCD1 is that the Chandra data reveal the presence of a bright X-ray source in its center. One explanation for this source is a giant black hole weighing in at some 10 million times the mass of the Sun.

Astronomers are trying to determine if M60-UCD1 and other ultra-compact dwarf galaxies are either born as jam-packed star clusters or if they are galaxies that get smaller because they have stars ripped away from them. Large black holes are not found in star clusters, so if the X-ray source is in fact due to a massive black hole, it was likely produced by collisions between the galaxy and one or more nearby galaxies. The mass of the galaxy and the Sun-like abundances of elements also favor the idea that the galaxy is the remnant of a much larger galaxy.

"We think nearly all of the stars have been pulled away from the exterior of what once was a much bigger galaxy," said co-author Duncan Forbes of Swinburne University in Australia. "This leaves behind just the very dense nucleus of the former galaxy, and an overly massive black hole."

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