New Observatory Unlocks Secrets Of Distant Galaxy

By  //  March 5, 2013

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Cosmic Marvel


BREVARD COUNTY • KENNEDY SPACE CENTER, FLORIDA – New images from the center of the Centaurus A galaxy have scientists worldwide raving about the new Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA) telescope and observatory in Chile.

Centaurus A is a massive elliptical galaxy which emits very strong radio waves and is the most prominent and nearest radio galaxy to the Milky Way. (Image courtesy ALMA)

An international astronomy facility, ALMA is a partnership of Europe, North America and East Asia in cooperation with the Republic of Chile.

The National Radio Astronomy Observatory is the North American executive for the ALMA project, which is a facility of the National Science Foundation.

ALMA is still under construction and isn’t expected to be completed until later this summer, but already astronomers have been able to peer through the opaque dust lanes that obscure the center of the Centauraus A galaxy to take brilliant and colorful images.

Centaurus A is a massive elliptical radio galaxy which emits very strong radio waves and is the most prominent and nearest radio galaxy to the Milky Way.

It was the first major source of radio waves discovered in the constellation of Centaurus almost five decades ago.

The galaxy was discovered by British astronomer James Dunlop in 1826 and is about 12 million light-years away from earth in the southern constellation of Centaurus.

Bright center

It has very bright center hosting a supermassive black hole containing a mass of about 100 million times that of the sun.

Observed in visible light, Centaurus A has a dark dusty band obscuring the galaxy’s center. This dust lane is made up of large amounts of gas, dust and young stars.

Astronomers say that these features, along with the strong radio emission, reveal that Centaurus A is the result of a collision between a giant elliptical galaxy and a smaller spiral galaxy.

When fully completed next year, the new ALMA observatory in Chile will have 66 high-precision antennas tuned to the cosmos. (Image courtesy ALMA)

Astronomers are able to see through the obscuring dust in the central band by using longer wavelengths of light, like infrared light or radio waves.

The latest ALMA observations have shown the position and motion of clouds of gas in the Centaurus A galaxy.

They are the clearest observations yet made of Centaurus A and the millimeter wavelength observations were performed by advanced radio receivers built by the National Radio Astronomy Observatory.

Antenna array

ALMA is being built on the Chajnantor Plateau in northern Chile and when finished will have 66 high-precision antennas.

Early observations were begun with a partial array at the facility in 2011.

When used in conjunction with images from the Hubble Telescope, ALMA observations will ultimately be used by NASA for pinpointing far-reaching destinations for future scientific missions and mapping the cosmos.