Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Overlapping Galaxies

NASA's Hubble Space Telescope has captured a rare alignment between two spiral galaxies. The outer rim of a small, foreground galaxy is silhouetted in front of a larger background galaxy. Skeletal tentacles of dust can be seen extending beyond the small galaxy's disk of starlight.

Such outer dark dusty structures, which appear to be devoid of stars, like barren branches, are rarely so visible in a galaxy because there is usually nothing behind them to illuminate them. Astronomers have never seen dust this far beyond the visible edge of a galaxy. They do not know if these dusty structures are common features in galaxies.

Understanding a galaxy's colour and how dust affects and dims that colour are crucial to measuring a galaxy's true brightness. By knowing the true brightness, astronomers can calculate the galaxy's distance from Earth.

Astronomers calculated that the background galaxy is 780 million light-years away. They have not as yet calculated the distance between the two galaxies, although they think the two are relatively close, but not close enough to interact. The background galaxy is about the size of the Milky Way Galaxy and is about 10 times larger than the foreground galaxy.

Most of the stars speckled across this image belong to the nearby spiral galaxy NGC 253, which is out of view to the right. Astronomers used Hubble's Advanced Camera for Surveys to snap images of NGC 253 when they spied the two galaxies in the background. From ground-based telescopes, the two galaxies look like a single blob. But the Advanced Camera's sharp "eye" distinguished the blob as two galaxies, cataloged as 2MASX J00482185-2507365.

Hubble Heritage release The images were taken on Sept. 19, 2006.