Space is a ruthless place. An image captured by the Very Large Telescope in Chile has revealed a cluster of galaxies 65 million light years from Earth — and one of them is in cannibal, swallowing the others.
The cannibal galaxy was found in the Fornax cluster, which contains a menagerie of galaxies of a variety of shapes and sizes. Fornax, which means “the furnace,” is a constellation in the Southern Hemisphere and includes 60 huge systems and 60 dwarfs, Space.com reported.
In the middle of Fornax is a beast called NGC 1399, which is a cD galaxy — or cannibal. It has grown to its current size by eating its smaller counterparts; it does this through gravitational force, CNN added.
The cannibal galaxy has “grown by swallowing smaller galaxies drawn by gravity towards the center of the cluster,” said the European Southern Observatory (ESO).
Galaxy clusters are an astonishing demonstration of the power of gravity.
As ESO put it, galaxies in general are “social animals,” meaning they tend to gather and hang out in large groups, Astronomy Now reported. These large groups are called clusters — like Fornax.
Gravity holds them together like glue and turn them into a single entity. The source of this sticky gravity comes from large amounts of dark matter and other systems. What’s most remarkable about these gatherings is that they are brought together over huge distances, demonstrating the physical force of gravitational pull.
Such groupings can be home to as few as 100 or as many as 1,000 systems. Each individual galaxy can be as close as 5 light years or as far away as 30. Their width can stretch from 5 to 30 million light-years across, so they aren’t easily defined because of their massive size. Astronomers have a hard time seeing where such formations begin and end.
Inside Fornax is a wide variety of galaxies, from the aforementioned cannibal, to elliptical and spiral galaxies, and ones both mammoth and little.
And each, as Space.com put it, “holds many mysterious to be uncovered.”
On Wednesday, the Very Large Telescope (VLT), located at the European Southern Observatory’s Paranal Observatory in Chile, captured a revealing snapshot of one of these mysterious bodies.
Astronomers in Italy picked through data captured by the telescope to discern what looks like a faint bridge of light between a small galaxy and a big one; the bridge was very dim and hard to spot, ESO reported.
Such a bridge had actually never been seen before and is a bit bluer than either galaxy. This suggests that it’s made up of stars created in gas sucked from the smaller galaxy by the gravitational pull of the larger cannibal.
The cabbinal NGC 1399 (the larger of the two) is feeding off it smaller counterpart, a process it has used with other, smaller galaxies to grow larger and larger at the center of Fornax.
The cannibal’s celestial meal cannot be seen by the naked eye, but only be witnessed through a high-powered telescope. Astronomers didn’t find much evidence of continued interactions within Fornax as a whole, but are confident that NGC 1399 is still feeding.
A cannibal galaxy actually looks a lot like an elliptical galaxy, but they’re bigger and have “extended, faint envelopes,” because of how they grow — using gravity to draw others into the cluster’s center.
The find provides some evidence for how gravity creates and changes clusters like Fornax, which is one of many such gatherings in the universe.
The image also uncovered another amazing galaxy, and a rather large one, called NGC 1365. It’s a large barred spiral, meaning a distinctive bar passes through its core with spiral arms at its ends. And there’s more to it than meets the eye, ESO noted: it has an active nucleus, which contains a supermassive black hole.
[Photo by NASA/Getty Images]