Surprising image provides new tool for studying a galaxy

Astronomers using the Very Large Array what they believed to be a single galaxy actually is the superposition of two galaxies — one in the background and in the foreground — almost perfectly aligned on the sky.
By | Published: November 14, 2013 | Last updated on May 18, 2023
Two galaxies masquerade as one

What astronomers thought was just the galaxy UGC 10288 actually is two galaxies superimposed on each other. The nearer one is 100 million light-years from Earth, while the distant one is some 7 billion light-years away.

Jayanne English/Judith Irwin/Richard Rand/CHANG-ES consortium/NRAO/VLA/NASA/WISE/Spitzer/NOAO/SDSS

Astronomers studying gas halos around nearby galaxies were surprised when detailed studies with the Karl G. Jansky Very Large Array (VLA) in New Mexico showed that one of their subjects is not a single galaxy but rather two, nearly perfectly superimposed on the sky to masquerade as one. The alignment allows them to learn otherwise unobtainable facts about the nearer galaxy.

As part of a study of 35 galaxies, the astronomers observed one called UGC 10288, a spiral more than 100 million light-years distant that appears edge-on as seen from Earth. Their multiple VLA observations in 2011 and 2012 produced the best radio-telescope images of that galaxy ever made. The detailed pictures surprisingly revealed a more-distant galaxy, with strong radio emission, almost directly behind UGC 10288. In previous images, the two galaxies had been blended together.

The background galaxy is nearly 7 billion light-years from Earth.

“This changed the picture, quite literally,” said Judith Irwin, of Queen’s University in Ontario, Canada. “It changed our understanding of the characteristics of UGC 10288, but also gave us an unexpected new tool for learning more about that galaxy,” Irwin added. The alignment of a foreground galaxy with such a strongly emitting background galaxy with extended jets probably is the first such alignment found, the astronomers said.

The first insight gleaned from the improved images was that UGC 10288 is not forming stars as rapidly as the astronomers first thought. This is because much of the radio emission in the previous, blended images came from the background galaxy.

The new images also showed that the gas in the galaxy’s “outskirts,” high above its spiral disk of stars, is not a smooth, halo-like envelope, but instead has smaller, discrete features. One of these features is arc-like, rising more than 11,000 light-years above the disk.

The background galaxy, and the fact that it is aligned with its radio jets perpendicular to UGC 10288’s disk, provides a valuable means of studying the nearer galaxy. “We can use the radio waves from the background galaxy, coming through the nearer one, as a way to measure the properties of the nearer galaxy,” said Jayanne English, of the University of Manitoba.

Preliminary use of the more-distant galaxy in this manner has given the scientists some magnetic-field measurements of different portions of UGC 10288. The researchers plan to do additional analysis of their data to make more such measurements.

“We’re getting a nice scientific reward from the unexpected discovery of the background galaxy,” Irwin said. “Ironically, we would not have included UGC 10288 in our original study if its radio brightness had not been boosted by the background galaxy in the earlier images,” she added.