The Great Chain of Galaxies –“Crater Cloud to the Virgo Supercluster”


NGC 3981


“Imagine the beings that exist there!” Is our thought every time we look at the spectacular ESO image of spiral galaxy NGC 3981 suspended in the inky blackness of space. NGC 3981, lying approximately 65 million light years from Earth, is part of the NGC 4038 group, which also contains the well-known interacting Antennae Galaxies. This group is part of the larger Crater Cloud, which is itself a smaller component of the Virgo Supercluster, the colossal collection of galaxies that harbors our Milky Way galaxy.

Galaxy NGC 3981, which lies in the constellation of Crater (the Cup), was imaged in May 2018 using the FOcal Reducer and low dispersion Spectrograph 2 (FORS2) instrument on ESO’s Very Large Telescope (VLT).

FORS2 is mounted on Unit Telescope 1 (Antu) of the VLT at ESO’s Paranal Observatory in Chile. Amongst the host of cutting-edge instruments mounted on the four Unit Telescopes of the VLT, FORS2 stands apart due to its extreme versatility. This ”Swiss Army knife” of an instrument is able to study a variety of astronomical objects in many different ways — as well as being capable of producing beautiful images like this one.

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The sensitive gaze of FORS2 revealed NGC 3981’s spiral arms, strewn with vast streams of dust and star-forming regions, and a prominent disc of hot young stars. The galaxy is inclined towards Earth, allowing astronomers to peer right into the heart of this galaxy and observe its bright center, a highly energetic region containing a supermassive black hole. Also shown is NGC 3981’s outlying spiral structure, some of which appears to have been stretched outwards from the galaxy, presumably due to the gravitational influence of a past galactic encounter.

NGC 3981 is not the only interesting feature captured in this image. As well as several foreground stars from our own galaxy, the Milky Way, FORS2 also captured a rogue asteroid streaking across the sky, visible as the faint line towards the top of the image. This particular asteroid has unwittingly illustrated the process used to create astronomical images, with the three different exposures making up this image displayed in the blue, green and red sections of the asteroid’s path.

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Astronomers have known for years that something seems to be pulling our Milky Way and tens of thousands of other galaxies toward itself at a breakneck 22 million kilometers (14 million miles) per hour. But they couldn’t pinpoint exactly what or where it is.

A huge volume of space that includes the Milky Way and super-clusters of galaxies is flowing towards a mysterious, gigantic unseen mass named mass astronomers have dubbed “The Great Attractor,” some 250 million light years from our Solar System.

The Milky Way and Andromeda galaxies are the dominant structures in a galaxy cluster called the Local Group which is, in turn, an outlying member of the Virgo supercluster. Andromeda — about 2.2 million light-years from the Milky Way — is speeding toward our galaxy at 200,000 miles per hour.

The Daily Galaxy, Max Goldberg  via ESO

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