What the spectacular photo of one of our strangest galactic neighbors reveals

It has an active supermassive black hole at its center. One of the Milky Way's strange companions is Centaurus A, a peculiar galaxy more than 12 million light years away.

We've all had "peculiar" neighbors, the same is true in galaxies. The Milky Way has, for example, Centaurus A, a peculiar galaxy more than 12 million light years away from ours with a very interesting feature for scientists. It has an active supermassive black hole at its center observable through telescopes. A new image from the Dark Energy Camera (DECam) in Chile, has captured Centaurus A revealing strange and intriguing details. The photo looks at the galaxy from the side and therefore doesn't show the galactic center itself, but may give some insight into its past.

Photo of one of our strangest galactic neighbors

The image shows that Centaurus A is dense with dust, as seen by the dark stripes that wrap around its exterior. Deformation is also evident in its disk and magnetic fields. These features are evidence of a violent past, a collision with another galaxy that left its mark on Centaurus A. The colossal encounter would have had other effects as well. The galactic collision triggered an explosion of star formation, which is ongoing and can be seen in the new photo in the bright red of the hydrogen clouds and the blue glow of small stars around the thick streaks of dust.

The supermassive black hole, clocking in at 55 million times the mass of the Sun, also generates some pretty interesting features. They extend thousands of light-years into space with colossal jets, launched from the poles of the black hole as it actively devours material. These jets do not emerge from the black hole itself, and not all of the material would pass beyond the event horizon; some of it, according to scientists, would be accelerated along magnetic field lines outside the black hole toward the poles, where it is launched at a significant percentage of the speed of light as a plasma jet.

Each of Centaurus A's massive plasma jets is exploding into intergalactic space, creating vast lobes that emit radio waves. These lobes are nearly a million light-years long. Because the galaxy is very close to the Milky Way, they are incredibly bright in the sky, making Centaurus A an excellent laboratory to study how these jets work.

Centaurus A is also interesting in another way: it has a swarm of dwarf galaxies that orbit in a plane, much like planets around the Sun. Models predict that dwarf galaxies should orbit a massive galaxy in a non-orderly fashion. Centaurus A is the first galaxy outside the Local Group for which we have identified ordered satellites. This would suggest that Centaurus A may be more like our own Milky Way than we have detected so far.

Staying at the edge of the Cosmos, however, a group of researchers led by Ming Sun, an associate professor of physics at UAH, has discovered a mysterious galactic cloud larger than the Milky Way.

Stefania Bernardini