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Giant Cannibal Galaxy's Last Meal: Another Galaxy

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New images show the "last meal" of a giant cannibal galaxy as it gobbles down a smaller spiral galaxy, which has been twisted and warped from being devoured.

The giant galaxy, Centaurus A (NGC 5128) is the nearest giant, elliptical galaxy, at a distance of about 11 million light-years. The galaxy hosts a supermassive black hole that is 200 million times the mass of the sun, or 50 times the mass of the black hole at the center of the Milky Way.

At the galaxy's center is an opaque dust lane that is thought to be the remains of a cosmic merger between the galaxy and a smaller spiral galaxy full of dust.

Between 200 and 700 million years ago, this galaxy is believed to have consumed a smaller spiral, gas-rich galaxy — the contents of which appear to be churning inside Centaurus A's core, likely triggering new generations of stars.

First glimpses of the "leftovers" of this meal were obtained thanks to observations with the European Space Agency's Infrared Space Observatory, which revealed a 16,500 light-year-wide structure, very similar to that of a small barred galaxy.

More recently, NASA's Spitzer Space Telescope resolved this structure into a parallelogram, which can be explained as the remnant of a gas-rich spiral galaxy falling into an elliptical galaxy and becoming twisted and warped in the process. Galaxy merging is the most common mechanism to explain the formation of such giant elliptical galaxies.

The new images, taken by the European Southern Observatory's 3.58-meter New Technology Telescope (NTT) in La Silla, Chile, allow astronomers to get an even sharper view of the structure of this galaxy, completely free of obscuring dust.

What the astronomers found in the images was surprising: "There is a clear ring of stars and clusters hidden behind the dust lanes, and our images provide an unprecedentedly detailed view toward it," said Jouni Kainulainen, lead author of the paper reporting these results. "Further analysis of this structure will provide important clues on how the merging process occurred and what has been the role of star formation during it."

The technique used to observe Centaurus A could help scientists better understand star formation in galaxies.

"These are the first steps in the development of a new technique that has the potential to trace giant clouds of gas in other galaxies at high resolution and in a cost-effective way," said co-author Joao Alves. "Knowing how these giant clouds form and evolve is to understand how stars form in galaxies."