NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope has beamed back a striking image of a massive tail of gas exuding from a distant spiral galaxy nicknamed D100.
The eye-catching tail of hot gas stretches far behind the galaxy, extending nearly 200,000 light-years — or about twice the length of the Milky Way galaxy. At the same time, the tail is extremely narrow, spanning just 7,000 light-years across.
This spectacular phenomenon is created by a process known as ram-pressure stripping, in which galaxies are subjected to so much pressure as they navigate through their containing cluster that they can become mangled. As a result, they sometimes take on peculiar shapes or begin exhibiting bizarre features.
In D100’s case, the galaxy can be seen giving off a glowing streak of hot gas that trails behind it in a magnificent red tail, making it appear as though it’s bleeding out into the cosmos. The compelling photo was unveiled today on the Hubble Space Telescope website and paints a gruesome yet fascinating picture of what the incredible forces at play within a crowded galaxy cluster.
This unfortunate galaxy lies some 350 light-years from Earth and is part of the Coma Cluster — one of the richest galaxy clusters known to date, located in the constellation Coma Berenices (“Berenices’ Hair”), as previously reported by the Inquisitr. According to a new study published this month in the Astrophysical Journal, the spiral galaxy has ventured too close to the center of the gigantic cluster and is now slowly being devoured by the incredible pressure that it exerts as it plows through the very dense intra-cluster material.
This unimaginable ordeal has caused the galaxy to leak a massive trail of hydrogen gas, losing precious ingredients that fuel the birth of new stars.
“The pressure from the cluster’s hot constituent plasma (known as the intra-cluster medium) has stripped gas from D100 and torn it away from the galaxy’s main body, and drawing it out into the plume pictured here,” explains the Hubble Space Telescope website.
The blood-red trail of gas emerging from D100 was first spotted more than a decade ago by the Subaru Telescope in Hawaii, which imaged it in 2007. The recent Hubble observations confirmed that the glowing hydrogen gas emission had the signature of star formation, Phys.org is reporting.
While many galaxies have gone through the same violent gas-loss process, D100 and its arresting tail of hydrogen gas are considered unique.
“The dust tail is remarkably well-defined, straight, and smooth, and has clear edges,” said study co-author Jeffrey Kenney, an astronomer at Yale University.
“This is a surprise because a tail like this is not seen in most computer simulations. Most galaxies undergoing this process are more of a mess. The clean edges and filamentary structures of the dust tail suggest that magnetic fields play a prominent role in shaping the tail.”
Ram-pressure stripping affects different galaxies in different ways. For instance, a previous image from Hubble taken in 2014 showed that the gas-stripping process made spiral galaxy ESO 137-001 look like a dandelion caught in a breeze.
Though wondrous to behold, D100’s gas tail and the phenomenon that sparked it will inevitably spell doom for the spiral galaxy. While the ram-pressure stripping originally began in the galaxy’s outskirts, the new Hubble observations revealed that the gas-stripping process has moved in towards the heart of the galaxy – clearing out gas all the way down to the D100’s central region. As it continues to lose hydrogen gas, the galaxy will ultimately deplete all of its gas reserves and will no longer be able to churn out new stars, eventually meeting an untimely death.
“This galaxy stands out as a particularly extreme example of processes common in massive clusters, where a galaxy goes from being a healthy spiral full of star formation to a ‘red and dead’ galaxy,” said study lead author William Cramer, also a Yale astronomer.
“The spiral arms disappear and the galaxy is left with no gas and only old stars.”