This video zooms into the relic galaxy NGC 1277. Via NASA, ESA, and J. DePasquale (STScI).
Astronomers using NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope are investigating an ancient galaxy – called NGC 1277 – that’s in our cosmic backyard, 240 million light-years from Earth. What makes NGC 1277 unique is that the galaxy is composed exclusively of aging stars that were born 10 billion years ago. NGC 1277 started its life churning out stars 1,000 times faster than in our own Milky Way, but, unlike other galaxies in the local universe, NGC 1277 has not undergone any further star formation. The very rare and odd assemblage of stars has remained essentially unchanged for the past 10 billion years.
Astronomers nickname such galaxies as “red and dead,” because the stars are aging and there aren’t any successive generations of younger stars. Though Hubble has seen such “red and dead” galaxies in the early universe, one has never been conclusively found nearby. The findings were published in the March 12, 2018, issue of the peer-reviewed science journal Nature.
The researchers learned that although NGC 1277 has twice as many stars as our Milky Way, it’s one quarter of our galaxy in size. Essentially, the relic galaxy is in a state of “arrested development.” Perhaps, the researchers said, like all galaxies, it started out as a compact object but failed to accrete more material to grow in size to form a pinwheel-shaped galaxy.
Approximately one in 1,000 massive galaxies is expected to be a relic (or oddball) galaxy, like NGC 1277, researchers said. NGC 1277 offers a unique opportunity to see one up close and personal. Ignacio Trujillo, of the Instituto de Astrofisica de Canarias at the University of La Laguna, Spain, is an author of the study. He said in statement:
We can explore such original galaxies in full detail and probe the conditions of the early universe.
The telltale sign of the galaxy’s state lies in the ancient globular clusters of stars that swarm around it. Massive galaxies tend to have both metal-poor (appearing blue) and metal-rich (appearing red) globular clusters. Astronomers think the red clusters form as the galaxy forms, while the blue clusters are later brought in as smaller satellites are swallowed by the central galaxy. However, NGC 1277 is almost entirely lacking in blue globular clusters. Study co-author Michael Beasley, also of the Instituto de Astrofisica de Canarias, said:
I’ve been studying globular clusters in galaxies for a long time, and this is the first time I’ve ever seen this.
The red clusters are the strongest evidence that the galaxy went out of the star-making business long ago. However, the lack of blue clusters suggests that NGC 1277 never grew further by gobbling up surrounding galaxies.
By contrast, our Milky Way contains approximately 180 blue and red globular clusters. This is due partly to the fact that our Milky Way continues cannibalizing galaxies that swing too close by in our Local Group of a few dozen small galaxies.
The team started looking for “arrested development” galaxies in the Sloan Digital Sky Survey and found 50 candidate massive compact galaxies. Using a similar technique, but out of a different sample, NGC 1277 was identified as unique in that it has a central black hole that is much more massive than it should be for a galaxy of that size. This reinforces the scenario that the supermassive black hole and dense hub of the galaxy grew simultaneously, but the galaxy’s stellar population stopped growing and expanding because it was starved of outside material.
The NASA James Webb Space Telescope, scheduled for launch in 2019, will allow astronomers to measure the motions of the globular clusters in NGC 1277. This will provide the first opportunity to measure how much dark matter the primordial galaxy contains.
Bottom line: Hubble Space Telescope astronomers are investigating an ancient “relic” galaxy – called NGC 1277 – that’s in our cosmic backyard.
Eleanor Imster has helped write and edit EarthSky since 1995. She was an integral part of the award-winning EarthSky radio series almost since it began until it ended in 2013. Today, as Lead Editor at EarthSky.org, she helps present the science and nature stories and photos you enjoy. She also serves as one of the voices of EarthSky on social media platforms including Facebook, Twitter and G+. She and her husband live in Tennessee and have two grown sons.