Munich, November 21 (ANI): Astronomers, using European Southern Observatory's (ESO's) 3.58-meter New Technology Telescope (NTT), are seeing through the opaque dust lanes of the giant cannibal galaxy Centaurus A, unveiling its "last meal" in unprecedented detail - a smaller spiral galaxy, currently twisted and warped.
Centaurus A (NGC 5128) is the nearest giant, elliptical galaxy, at a distance of about 11 million light-years.
One of the most studied objects in the southern sky, by 1847 the unique appearance of this galaxy had already caught the attention of the famous British astronomer John Herschel, who catalogued the southern skies and made a comprehensive list of nebulae.
Herschel could not know, however, that this beautiful and spectacular appearance is due to an opaque dust lane that covers the central part of the galaxy.
This dust is thought to be the remains of a cosmic merger between a giant elliptical galaxy and a smaller spiral galaxy full of dust.
Between 200 and 700 million years ago, this galaxy is indeed 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 ESA 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 SOFI images, obtained with the 3.58-meter New Technology Telescope at ESO's La Silla Observatory, allow astronomers to get an even sharper view of the structure of this galaxy, completely free of obscuring dust. (ANI)