Hubble telescope sees haunting galactic dance of 2 galaxies linked by the corpse of a cannibalized neighbor

The Hubble Space Telescope captured a detailed view of the large spiral galaxy NGC 3227 and its companion, an elliptical galaxy called NGC 3226, along with the faint tidal streams of gas and dust that connect them.  (Image credit: NASA, ESA, and H. Ford (Johns Hopkins University); Image Processing: G. Kober (NASA Goddard/Catholic University of America))

Two galaxies are intertwined in a turbulent gravitational dance in a stunning new view from the Hubble Space Telescope. 

The pair includes the large spiral galaxy NGC 3227 and the elliptical galaxy NGC 3226. The galaxies, collectively known as Arp 94, reside relatively close to Earth, between 50 million and 60 million light-years away, near the constellation Leo.

The new Hubble Space Telescope view shows faint tidal streams of gas and dust linking NGC 3227 and NGC 3226 in their gravitational dance. Observations of this duet were captured as part of a program to measure black holes at the center of bright cluster galaxies, according to a statement from NASA

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NGC 3227 is classified as a Seyfert galaxy, a type of galaxy that has an active nucleus and is powered by a supermassive black hole at its core. As the black hole pulls in material from its surroundings, it releases vast amounts of radiation, which fuels the galaxy's active nucleus. 

Hubble was used to measure the mass of the galaxy's black hole by observing the dynamics of the inflowing gas at its core. The space telescope captured both visible red and near-infrared wavelengths of light, represented by the red areas of the image, according to the NASA statement.

NGC 3227 is captured in the lower left of the Hubble image, while NGC 3226 is located to the upper right of its companion. The new photo, which NASA released May 25, offers a detailed view of the dark dust lanes and bright star-forming regions of NGC 3227, along with the bright streamers of material connecting the two galaxies. Previous Hubble observations suggest these streamers are remnants of a third galaxy that was likely consumed by NGC 3226, which, in turn, would have scattered shreds of gas and dust across space, NASA reported in 2014

Earlier observations also suggest that NGC 3226 has a very low rate of star formation, despite the large streams of gas and dust — debris from the cannibalized galaxy — flowing into its core. 

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Samantha Mathewson
Contributing Writer

Samantha Mathewson joined as an intern in the summer of 2016. She received a B.A. in Journalism and Environmental Science at the University of New Haven, in Connecticut. Previously, her work has been published in Nature World News. When not writing or reading about science, Samantha enjoys traveling to new places and taking photos! You can follow her on Twitter @Sam_Ashley13.