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Twin to Milky Way's Black Hole Found
Mon Jan 26, 10:15 am ET
A sharp-eyed instrument on the Very Large Telescope has given
astronomers a peek at the heart of a nearby galaxy, revealing a host
of young, massive and dusty stellar nurseries and a possible twin of
our own Milky Way's supermassive black hole.
The galaxy, dubbed NGC 253, is one of the brightest and dustiest
spiral galaxies in the sky. It is also known as the Sculptor Galaxy,
because it is located in the Sculptor constellation.
The Sculptor Galaxy is a starbust galaxy, so-called because of very
intense star formation there.
Astronomers from the Instituto de Astrofísica de Canarias in Spain
used NACO, an adaptive optics instrument on the European Southern
Observatory's Very Large Telescope (located in Atacama desert in
northern Chile), to study NGC 253 in finer detail in the near-infrared.
Adaptive optics corrects for the blurring effect that Earth's
atmosphere can have on images taken by ground-based telescopes.
Sensors and deformable mirrors correct distortions of incoming light,
producing images as clear as if the telescope were in space.
With its adaptive optics system, NACO revealed features of NGC 253
that were only 11 light-years across.
The NACO observations were combined with data from another VLT
instrument, VISIR, and images from the Hubble Space Telescope and
radio observations made by the Very Large Array and the Very Large
Baseline Interferometer. (Because of their longer wavelengths, radio
signals aren't affected by atmospheric turbulence.)
"Our observations provide us with so much spatially resolved detail
that we can, for the first time, compare them with the finest radio
maps for this galaxy maps that have existed for more than a decade,"
said team member Juan Antonio Fernández-Ontiveros.
With the images, the astronomers identified 37 distinct bright regions
a threefold increase on previous results packed into a tiny region
at the core of the galaxy that makes up just 1 percent of the galaxy's
"We now think that these are probably very active nurseries that
contain many stars bursting from their dusty cocoons," said team
member Jose Antonio Acosta-Pulido.
The combined data also led the astronomers to conclude that the center
of NGC 253 hosts a scaled-up version of Sagittarius A*, the bright
radio source that lies at the core of the Milky Way and is known to
harbor a massive black hole.
"We have thus discovered what could be a twin of our galaxy's center,"
said team member Almudena Prieto.
The team's findings are detailed in the January issue of the journal
Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society Letters.