15 October 2014

Probing the Spiderweb Galaxy Cluster (MRC 1138-262) Yields Surprising Data

A galaxy cluster is composed of smaller galaxies held together by gravity. It is the largest object found in the Universe.

Using the APEX telescope, astronomers probed the Spiderweb Galaxy which is a galaxy cluster 10.6 billion light years away. Formed by smaller galaxies, the Spiderweb Galaxy (also known as MRC 1138-262) has been studied for twenty years. It has been observed that the object contains a supermassive black hole and is a powerful source of radio waves.

The data from the observation has surprised scientists with their discovery of the formation of the stars in the galaxy cluster taking place. They have noted that instead of the stars being formed from the filaments of the cluster, APEX data has shown that the star formation region is concentrated in one area and not even centered on the galaxy cluster itself.

The Spiderweb Galaxy contains a supermassive black hole and is a powerful source of radio waves — which is what led astronomers to notice it in the first place. The object has thick dust clouds which the LABOCA camera on the APEX telescope can see through.

Secrets of a Galactic CLuster

Astronomers have used the APEX telescope to probe a huge galaxy cluster that is forming in the early Universe and revealed that much of the star formation taking place is not only hidden by dust, but also occurring in unexpected places. This is the first time that a full census of the star formation in such an object has been possible.

Galaxy clusters are the largest objects in the Universe held together by gravity but their formation is not well understood. The Spiderweb Galaxy (formally known as MRC 1138-262) and its surroundings have been studied for twenty years, using ESO and other telescopes, and is thought to be one of the best examples of a protocluster in the process of assembly, more than ten billion years ago.

But Helmut Dannerbauer (University of Vienna, Austria) and his team strongly suspected that the story was far from complete. They wanted to probe the dark side of star formation and find out how much of the star formation taking place in the Spiderweb Galaxy cluster was hidden from view behind dust.

Video: Probing A Huge Galaxy Cluster

The team used the LABOCA camera on the APEX telescope in Chile to make 40 hours of observations of the Spiderweb Cluster at millimetre wavelengths — wavelengths of light that are long enough to peer right through most of the thick dust clouds. LABOCA has a wide field and is the perfect instrument for this survey.

Carlos De Breuck (APEX project scientist at ESO, and a co-author of the new study) emphasises: “This is one of the deepest observations ever made with APEX and pushes the technology to its limits — as well as the endurance of the staff working at the high-altitude APEX site, 5050 metres above sea level.”

The APEX observations revealed that there were about four times as many sources detected in the area of the Spiderweb compared to the surrounding sky. And by carefully comparing the new data with complementary observations made at different wavelengths they were able to confirm that many of these sources were at the same distance as the galaxy cluster itself and must be parts of the forming cluster.

Helmut Dannerbauer explains: “The new APEX observations add the final piece needed to create a complete census of all inhabitants of this mega star city. These galaxies are in the process of formation so, rather like a construction site on Earth, they are very dusty.”

But a surprise awaited the team when they looked at where the newly detected star formation was taking place. They were expecting to find this star formation region on the large filaments connecting galaxies. Instead, they found it concentrated mostly in a single region, and that region is not even centred on the central Spiderweb Galaxy in the protocluster.

Helmut Dannerbauer concludes: “We aimed to find the hidden star formation in the Spiderweb cluster — and succeeded — but we unearthed a new mystery in the process; it was not where we expected! The mega city is developing asymmetrically.”

To continue the story further observations are needed — and ALMA will be the perfect instrument to take the next steps and study these dusty regions in far greater detail.


European Southern Observatory
Construction Secrets of a Galactic Metropolis
An excess of dusty starbursts related to the Spiderweb galaxy
Two Black Holes Discovered Inside Globular Star Cluster M22
Star Cluster NGC 3293 Nestled Against Clouds of Gas and Dust in the Carina Constellation
VLT Survey Telescope (VST) Captures Powerful Images of Galaxies
Stars in Star Clusters Observed To Age At Varying Rates
Globular Star Cluster Messier 4 And Mysterious Source of Lithium