New ESO Photo Unveils The ‘Elliptical Elegance’ Of Nearby Galaxies

Elliptical galaxies.
Spavone et al. / ESO (CC BY 4.0)

The cosmos may be a cold and dark place but it is not devoid of elegance, argues the European Southern Observatory (ESO). The proof was recently captured by ESO’s VLT Survey Telescope (VST), the largest visible light survey telescope in the entire world.

Unlike the Very Large Telescope (VLT), which is able to focus on dim celestial bodies and study them in detail thanks to its great acuity, the VST excels at offering a wide-view glimpse of the sky. Its superpower lies in its capacity to perform astronomical surveys on large portions of the southern hemisphere.

One such example is the image above, a spectacular snapshot of nearby galaxies recently taken by VST’s OmegaCAM. Released by the ESO earlier today, the gorgeous photo showcases “a glittering host of galaxies,” which scientists hope will help us unlock the secrets of galactic make-up.

Titled “Elliptical Elegance,” the 400-megapixel photo reveals a string of elliptical galaxies neighboring our own, as well as a few spiral galaxies and even a piece of the Milky Way.

“While astronomers set out to investigate the delicate features of distant galaxies millions of light-years from Earth, in the process they also captured images of nearby stars hundreds of light-years away, and even the faint trails of asteroids only light-minutes away in our own solar system,” ESO officials explain in the photo release.

Elliptical elegance.
  Spavone et al. / ESO (CC BY-SA 4.0)

The main target of the new VST photo was actually one particular elliptical galaxy known as NGC 5018. Seen near the center of the image above, this fascinating galaxy may appear like an uninspiring “diffuse blob,” but in reality, it hides delicate features and even a tidal tail — “a tenuous stream of stars and gas.”

“Delicate galactic features such as tidal tails and stellar streams are hallmarks of galactic interactions, and provide vital clues to the structure and dynamics of galaxies,” notes ESO.

Located in the Virgo constellation (The Virgin), NGC 5018 has recently been the subject of an interesting study, available on the arXiv pre-print server. Conducted by an international team of astronomers led by Marilena Spavone of the INAF-Astronomical Observatory of Capodimonte in Naples, Italy, the research documents that NGC 5018 is interacting with NGC 5022, an edge-on spiral galaxy imaged to its lower left.

Observing these galaxies could help astronomers “uncover the most delicate details of galactic structure” and, in the process, learn more things about the Milky Way as well.

Although intended as a study of NGC 5018, our Milky Way has managed to sneak into the VST photo and is featured in the foreground through a wide variety of colorful, sparkling stars.

One of them is the “vividly blue” star called HD 114746, which appears in the upper right corner of NGC 5018. Below the galaxy, the OmegaCAM captured the trail of asteroid 2001 TJ21 (110423), accompanied by 2000 WU69 (98603) further to the right. Both space rocks lie very close to home, right in our own solar system.