Messier 33 – The Triangulum Galaxy

Welcome back to Messier Monday! In our ongoing tribute to the great Tammy Plotner, we take a look at the Triangulum Galaxy, also known as Messier 33. Enjoy!

During the 18th century, famed French astronomer Charles Messier noted the presence of several “nebulous objects” in the night sky. Having originally mistaken them for comets, he began compiling a list of them so that others would not make the same mistake he did. In time, this list (known as the Messier Catalog) would come to include 100 of the most fabulous objects in the night sky.

One of these is the Triangulum Galaxy, a spiral galaxy located approximately 3 million light-years from Earth in the direction of the Triangulum constellation. As the third-largest member of the Local Group of galaxies (behind the Andromeda Galaxy and the Milky Way), it is the one of the most distant objects that can be seen with the naked eye. Much like M32, M33 is very close to Andromeda, and is believed to be a satellite of this major galaxy.

Description:

At some 3 million light years away from Earth, the Triangulum Galaxy is the third largest galaxy in our Local Group and it may be a gravitationally bound companion of the Andromeda Galaxy. Its beautiful spiral arms show multitudes of red HII regions and blue clouds of young stars. The largest of these HII regions (NGC 604) spans nearly 1500 across and is the largest so far known.

The Triangulum Galaxy (M33), taken by the Swift Gamma-Ray Burst Mission. Credit: NASA/Swift

It has a spectrum similar to the Orion Nebula – our own Milky Way’s most celebrated starbirth region. “M33 is a gigantic laboratory where you can watch dust being created in novae and supernovae, being distributed in the winds of giant stars, and being reborn in new stars,” said University of Minnesota researcher and lead author Elisha Polomski. By studying M33, “you can see the Universe in a nutshell.”

Of course, our curiousity about our neighboring galaxy has driven us to try to understand more over the years. Once Edwin Hubble set the standard with Cepheid variables, we began measuring distance by discovering about 25 of them in M33. By 2004 we were studying the red giant star branch to peer even further. As A.W. McConnachie said in a 2004 study of the galaxy:

“The absolute bolometric luminosity of the point of core helium ignition in old, metal-poor, red giant stars is of roughly constant magnitude, varying only very slightly with mass or metallicity. It can thus be used as a standard candle. This technique then allows for the determination of realistic uncertainties which reflect the quality of the luminosity function used. Finally, we apply our technique to the Local Group spiral galaxy M33 and the dwarf galaxies Andromeda I and II, and derive distance. The result for M33 is in excellent agreement with the Cepheid distances to this galaxy, and makes the possibility of a significant amount of reddening in this object unlikely.”

By 2005, astronomers had detected two water masers on either side of M33 and for the first time ever – revealed what direction it as going in. According to Andreas Brunthaler (et al), who published a study about the distance and proper motion of the galaxy in 2005:

“We measured the angular rotation and proper motion of the Triangulum Galaxy (M33) with the Very Long Baseline Array by observing two H2O masers on opposite sides of the galaxy. By comparing the angular rotation rate with the inclination and rotation speed, we obtained a distance of 730 +/- 168 kiloparsecs. This distance is consistent with the most recent Cepheid distance measurement. This distance is consistent with the most recent Cepheid distance measurement. M33 is moving with a velocity of 190 +/- 59 kilometers per second relative to the Milky Way. These measurements promise a method to determine dynamical models for the Local Group and the mass and dark-matter halos of M31, M33, and the Milky Way.”

Composite image of the Triangulum Galaxy (Messier 33), taken at Mount Lemmon Observatory. Credit: Adam Block/Mount Lemmon SkyCenter/University of Arizona

Yes, it’s moving toward the Andromeda Galaxy, much like how Andromeda is moving towards us! In 2006, a group of astronomers announced the discovery of an eclipsing binary star in M33. As A.Z. Bonanos, the lead author of the study that detailed the discovery, said:

“We present the first direct distance determination to a detached eclipsing binary in M33, which was found by the DIRECT Project. Located in the OB 66 association, it was one of the most suitable detached eclipsing binaries found by DIRECT for distance determination, given its 4.8938 day period.”

By studying the eclipsing binary, astronomers soon knew their size, distance, temperature and absolute magnitude. But more was yet to come! In 2007, the Chandra X-ray Observatory revealed even more when a black hole nearly 16 times the mass of the Sun was revealed. The black hole, named M33 X-7, orbits a companion star which it eclipses every 3.5 days. This means the companion star must also have an incredibly large mass as well….

Yet how huge must the parent star have been to have formed a black hole in advance of its companion? As Jerome Orosz, of San Diego State University, was quoted as saying in a 2007 Chandra press release:

“This discovery raises all sorts of questions about how such a big black hole could have been formed. Massive stars can be much less extravagant than people think by hanging onto a lot more of their mass toward the end of their lives. This can have a big effect on the black holes that these stellar time-bombs make.”

Artist’s rendering of the black hole found in orbit of the large blue star in M33 . Credit: Chandra/Harvard/HST

Stellar bombs? You bet. Gigantic stellar explosions even. Although no supernovae events have been detected in the Triangulum galaxy, it certainly doesn’t lack for evidence of supernova remnants. According to a 2004 study by F. Haberl and W. Pietsch of the Max-Planck-Institute:

“We present a catalogue of 184 X-ray sources within 50′ of the nucleus of the local group spiral galaxy M 33. The catalogue is derived from an analysis of the complete set of ROSAT archival data pointed in the direction of M 33 and contains X-ray position, existence likelihood, count rates and PSPC spectral hardness ratios. To identify the sources the catalog was correlated with previous X-ray catalogues, optical and radio catalogues. In addition sources were classified according to their X-ray properties. We find seven candidates for supersoft X-ray sources, of which two may be associated with known planetary nebulae in M 33. The majority of X-ray detected supernova remnants is also detected at radio frequencies and seen in optical lines. The low overall X-ray detection rate of optically selected SNRs can probably be attributed to their expansion into interstellar matter of low density.”

Or the creation of black holes…

History of Observation:

While the Triangulum Galaxy was probably first observed by Hodierna before 1654 (back when skies were dark), it was independently rediscovered by Charles Messier, and cataloged by him on August 25, 1764. As he recorded in his notes on the occasion:

“I have discovered a nebula between the head of the northern Fish and the large Triangle, a bit distant from a star which had not been known, of sixth magnitude, of which I have determined the position; the right ascension of that star was 22d 7′ 13″, and its declination 29d 54′ 10″ north: near that star, there is another one which is the first of Triangulum, described by the letter b. Flamsteed described it in his catalog, of sixth magnitude; it is less beautiful than that of which I have given the position, and one should set it to the rank of the stars of the eighth class. The nebula is a whitish light of 15 minutes in diameter, of an almost even density, despite a bit more luminous at two third of its diameter; it doesn’t contain any star: one sees it with difficulty with an ordinary refractor of one foot.”

The location of the Triangulum Galaxy in the night sky. Credit: Wikisky

While Sir William Herschel wouldn’t publish papers on Messier’s findings, he was an astronomically curious soul and couldn’t help but study M33 intently on his own, writing:

“There is a suspicion that the nebula consists of exceedingly small stars. With this low power it has a nebulous appearance; and it vanishes when I put on the higher magnifying powers of 278 and 460.” He would continue to observe this grand galaxy again and again over the years, cataloging its various regions with their own separate numbers and keeping track of his findings: “The stars of the cluster are the smallest points imaginable. The diameter is nearly 18 minutes.”

Yet it would take a very special observer, one named Bill Parsons – the third Earl of Rosse – to become the very first to describe it as spiral. As he wrote of it:

“September 16, 1849. – New spiral: Alpha the brighter branch; Gamma faint; Delta short but pretty bright; Beta pretty distinct; Epsilon but suspected; the whole involved in a faint nebula, which probably extends past several knots which lie about it in different directions. Faint nebula seems to extend very far following: drawing taken.”

Quite the description indeed, since it would eventually lead to Rosse’s description of M33 being “…full of knots. Spiral arrangement. Two similar curves like an “S” cross in the center”, and to other astronomers discovering that these “spiral nebulae” were extra-galactic!

The location of Messier 33 in the Triangulum constellation. Credit: IAU and Sky & Telescope magazine (Roger Sinnott & Rick Fienberg)

Locating Messier 33:

While actually locating Messier 33 isn’t so difficult, seeing Messier 33 can be. Even though it is billed at nearly unaided eye magnitude, this huge, low surface brightness galaxy requires some experience with equipment and observing conditions or you may hunt forever in the right place and never find it. Let’s begin first by getting you in the proper area! First locate the Great Square of Pegasus – and its easternmost bright star, Alpha. About a hand span further east you will see the brightest star in Triangulum – Alpha.

M33 is just a couple of degrees (about 2 finger widths) west. Now, the most important part to understand is that you must use the lowest magnification possible, or you won’t be able to see the proverbial forest because of the trees. The image you see here at the top of the page is around a full degree of sky – about 1/3 the field of view of average binoculars and far larger than your average telescope eyepiece.

However, by using the least amount of magnification with a telescope you are causing M33 to appear much smaller – allowing it to fit within eyepiece field of view range. The larger the aperture, the more light it gathers and the brighter the image will be. The next thing to understand is M33 really is low surface brightness… Light pollution, a fine haze in the sky, moonlight… All of these things will make it difficult to find. Yet, there are places left here on Earth where the Triangulum Galaxy can be seen with no optical aid at all!

Enjoy your quest for M33. You may find it your first time out and it may be years before you see it in all its glory. But when you do, we guarantee you’ll never forget! Be sure to enjoy this video of the Triangulum galaxy too, courtesy of the European Southern Observatory:

Enjoy your quest for M33. You may find it your first time out and it may be years before you see it in all its glory. But when you do, we guarantee you’ll never forget!

And here are the quick facts on M33 to help you get started:

Object Name: Messier 33
Alternative Designations: M33, NGC 598, Triangulum Galaxy, Pinwheel Galaxy
Object Type: Type Sc, Spiral Galaxy
Constellation: Triangulum
Right Ascension: 01 : 33.9 (h:m)
Declination: +30 : 39 (deg:m)
Distance: 3000 (kly)
Visual Brightness: 5.7 (mag)
Apparent Dimension: 73×45 (arc min)

We have written many interesting articles about Messier Objects here at Universe Today. Here’s Tammy Plotner’s Introduction to the Messier Objects, , M1 – The Crab Nebula, M8 – The Lagoon Nebula, and David Dickison’s articles on the 2013 and 2014 Messier Marathons.

Be to sure to check out our complete Messier Catalog. And for more information, check out the SEDS Messier Database.

Sources:

Andromeda Galaxy Shines In Nosehair-Closeup Glory

Woah, is that ever close! The Hubble Space Telescope’s new picture of the Andromeda Galaxy makes us feel as though we’re hovering right above the iconic structure, which is visible with the naked eye from Earth under the right conditions.

Just to show you how awesome this close-up is, we’ve posted a picture below the jump showing what is the typical view of M31 in a more modest telescope.

“This ambitious photographic cartography of the Andromeda galaxy represents a new benchmark for precision studies of large spiral galaxies that dominate the universe’s population of over 100 billion galaxies,” stated the Space Telescope Science Institute (STScI), which operates the telescope.

“Never before have astronomers been able to see individual stars inside an external spiral galaxy over such a large contiguous area. Most of the stars in the universe live inside such majestic star cities, and this is the first data that reveal populations of stars in context to their home galaxy.”

M31 (image credit: Noel Carboni).
M31 (image credit: Noel Carboni).

Andromeda is about 2.5 million light-years from us and on a collision course with our galaxy. The image at the top of this story is actually not a single picture; it was assembled from an astounding 7,398 exposures taken over 411 individual pointings, according to STScI.

The image is so big, in fact, that there’s a zoomable version that was released separately so that you can get a better sense of how high-definition this view is. Dontcha wish you could take a light-travel ship and see this thing up close, for real?

Sources: Space Telescope Science Institute and Hubble European Space Agency Information Centre

Astrophoto: Can You Count the 292 Pink Nebulae in the Triangulum Galaxy?

Take a look at this stunning new close-up of M33, the Triangulum Galaxy by one of our favorite astrophotographers, John Chumack. “The thing that amazes me about M33 other than it being our neighbor and a beautiful spiral galaxy, is that M33 is loaded with 292 pink nebulae (HII Star Formation Regions),” John said via email, “the largest pink nebula being NGC-604, which is actually visible in a 6″ diameter telescope…to be able to see nebula visually in other galaxies — now that is really cool!”

Your challenge for the day: how many nebulae can you count in this beautiful new image? There are also star clusters and even a few globular clusters in the image, as well.

M33 is about 2.6 million light years away and is the second closest spiral galaxy to us, next to the Andromeda galaxy. “Due to its very low surface brightness it can be a challenge to see from or nearby cities,” John explained, “but from a dark location on a perfectly clear night and assuming you have 20/20 vision, it is the furthest object the Human eye could see into deep space without optical aid.”

John used a QHY8 CCD + 16″ reflector in this 4.3 hour exposure. Pretty in pink!

John Chumack's daughter Kayla took this picture of her Dad holding a 16x24 print of M33. Image courtesy of John Chumack.
John Chumack’s daughter Kayla took this picture of her Dad holding a 16×24 print of M33. Image courtesy of John Chumack.

John said he always runs his images by his wife and children to get their final okay, if it looks good to them, then he knows it’s a keeper! His daughter Kayla liked this one enough to want to take a picture of her Dad holding a print of it.

See more of John’s work at his website, Galactic Images, or on his Flickr page.

Want to get your astrophoto featured on Universe Today? Join our Flickr group or send us your images by email (this means you’re giving us permission to post them). Please explain what’s in the picture, when you took it, the equipment you used, etc.

Astronomers Refine Distances to our Closest Spiral-Galaxy Neighbors

M31 and M33 are two of the nearest spiral galaxies, and can form the basis for determining distances to more remote spiral galaxies and constraining the expansion rate of the Universe (the Hubble constant).  Hence the relevance and importance of several new studies that employed near-infrared data to establish solid distances for M31 (Andromeda) and M33 (Triangulum) (e.g., Gieren et al. 2013), and aimed to reduce existing uncertainties tied to the fundamental parameters for those galaxies.  Indeed, reliable distances for M31 and M33 are particularly important in light of the new Hubble constant estimate from the Planck satellite, which is offset relative to certain other results, and that difference hinders efforts to ascertain the nature of dark energy (the mysterious force theorized as causing the Universe’s accelerated expansion).

Gieren et al. remarked that, “a number of new distance determinations to M33 … span a surprisingly large interval … which is a cause of serious concern. As the second-nearest spiral galaxy, an accurate determination of [M33’s] distance is a crucial step in the process of building the cosmic distance ladder.”  Concerning M31, Riess et al. 2012 likewise remarked that “M31, the nearest analogue of the Milky Way Galaxy, has long provided important clues to understanding the scale of the Universe.

 The new Gieren and Riess et al. distances are based on near-infrared observations, which are pertinent because radiation from that part of the electromagnetic spectrum is less sensitive than optical data to absorption by dust located along our sight-line (see the figure below).  Properly accounting for the impact of dust is a principal problem in cosmic distance scale work, since it causes targets to appear dimmer.  “different assumptions about [dust obscuration] are a prime source for the discrepancies among the various distance determinations for M33.” noted Gieren et al., and the same is true for the distance to M31 (see Riess et al.).

Optical and near-infrared images highlight how dust obscures light emitted from a target along the line-of-sight.  The near-infrared observations are less sensitive to that obscuration (image credit: Alves et al. 2001).
Optical and near-infrared images highlight how dust obscures light emitted from targets along the sight-line, and that the level of obscuration is wavelength dependent. New distances established for M31 and M33 are based on near-infrared observations, which are less sensitive to that obscuration (image credit: Alves et al. 2001).

The Gieren and Riess et al. distances to M33 and M31, respectively, were inferred from observations of Cepheids.   Cepheids are a class of variable stars that exhibit periodic brightness variations (they pulsate radially).  Cepheids can be used as distance indicators because their pulsation period and mean luminosity are correlated.  That relationship was discovered by Henrietta Leavitt in the early 1900s.  A pseudo period-luminosity relation derived for M31 Cepheids is presented below.

Gieren et al. observed 26 Cepheids in M33 and established a distance of ~2,740,000 lightyears.  The team added that, “As the first modern near-infrared Cepheid study [of] M33 since … some 30 years … we consider this work as long overdue …”  Astronomers often cite distances to objects in lightyears, which defines the time required for light emitted from the source to reach the observer. Despite the (finite) speed of light being 300,000,000 m/s, the rays must traverse “astronomical” distances.   Gazing into space affords one the unique opportunity to peer back in time.

A relation exists between a Cepheid's a periodic brightness variations and its luminosity.  Astronomers use that relation, which was discovered in the early 1900s by Henrietta Leavitt, to establish distances to galaxies.  In the above figure the horizontal axis features the pulsation period, and the vertical axis a proxy  for luminosity (image credit: Fig 2 in Riess et al., 2013 arXiv/ApJ).
A relation exists between a Cepheid’s periodic brightness variations and its mean luminosity. Astronomers use that trend, which was discovered in the early 1900s by Henrietta Leavitt, to establish distances to galaxies hosting Cepheids. In the above figure the horizontal axis features the pulsation period, and the vertical axis defines a proxy for luminosity (image credit: Fig 2 from Riess et al., arXiv/ApJ).

The distances to M33 shown below convey seminal points in the evolution of humanity’s knowledge.  The scatter near the 1920s stems partly from a debate concerning whether the Milky Way and the Universe are synonymous.  In other words, do galaxies exist beyond the Milky Way?  The topic is immortalized in the famed great debate (1920) featuring H. Shapley and H. Curtis (the latter argued for an extragalactic scale).  The offset between the pre-1930 and post-1980 data result in part from a nearly two-fold increase in the cosmic distance scale recognized circa 1950 (see also Feast 2000).   Also evident is the scatter associated with the post-1980 distances, which merely reinforces the importance of the new high-precision distance estimates.

Riess et al. obtained data for some 70 Cepheids and determined a distance for M31 of ~2,450,000 lightyears.  The latter is corroborated by a new study by Contreras Ramos et al. 2013 (d~2,540,000 ly), whose distance estimate relied on data for stars in a M31 globular cluster.

A subset of the distances estimated for M33, as compiled from estimates featured in the NASA/IPAC Extragalactic Database (Steer & Madore). On the vertical axis is the distance to the galaxy in units of lightyears, and  the year is cited on the horizontal axis.  The red arrow and black datum indicate the new near-infrared based distance from Gieren et al. 2013 (image credit: DM).
A subset of the distances deduced for M33, as compiled from estimates featured in the NASA/IPAC Extragalactic Database (Steer & Madore). On the vertical axis is the distance to the galaxy in units of lightyears, and the year is cited on the horizontal axis.  The red arrow and black datum indicate the new near-infrared based distance from Gieren et al. (image credit: DM).

Top-class instruments and telescopes are needed to obtain reliable measurements of stars in galaxies nearly 3,000,000 million lightyears away.  Gieren et al. utilized the 8.2-m Very Large Telescope (Yepun) instrument shown below, while Riess and Contreras Ramos et al. analyzed observations from the Hubble Space Telescope.  Riess et al. acquired images of M31 via the new Wide-field Camera 3, which replaced the Wide-field and Planetary Camera 2 (“The Camera That Saved Hubble“) during the famed 2009 servicing mission.

The new results mark the culmination of a century’s worth of effort aimed at securing precise distances for our Galaxy’s local spiral kin (M31 and M33).  However, the offset between the Planck and certain Cepheid/SN-based determinations of the Hubble constant demands that research continue in order to identify uncertainties associated with the methods.

Gieren et al. used the 8.2-m Very Large Telescope (Yepun) to image M33, and deduce the distance to that galaxy (image credit: ESO).
Gieren et al. used the 8.2-m Very Large Telescope (Yepun) to image stars in M33, and deduce the distance to that galaxy (image credit: G. Hüdepohl/ESO).

The Gieren et al. findings have been accepted for publication in the Astrophysical Journal (ApJ), and a preprint is available on arXiv.   Both the Riess and Contreras Ramos et al. studies are likewise published in ApJ.  The interested reader desiring additional information on the cosmic distance scale and Cepheids will find the following resources pertinent: the AAVSO’s article on Delta Cephei (the namesake for the class of Cepheid variables), Freedman & Madore (2010)Tammann & Reindl 2012, Fernie 1969, the NASA/IPAC Extragalactic Database, G. Johnson’s Miss Leavitt’s Stars: The Untold Story of the Woman Who Discovered How to Measure the Universe, D. Fernie’s Setting Sail for the Universe: Astronomers and their Discoveries, Nick Allen’s The Cepheid Distance Scale: A History, D. Turner’s Classical Cepheids After 228 Years of Study, J. Percy’s Understanding Variable Stars.

Hydrogen Clouds Discovered Between Andromeda And Triangulum Galaxies

Score another point for the National Science Foundation’s Green Bank Telescope (GBT) at the National Radio Astronomy Observatory (NRAO) in Green Bank. They have opened our eyes – and ears – to previously undetected region of hydrogen gas clouds located in the area between the massive Andromeda and Triangulum galaxies. If researchers are correct, these dwarf galaxy-sized sectors of isolated gases may have originated from a huge store of heated, ionized gas… Gas which may be associated with elusive and invisible dark matter.

“We have known for some time that many seemingly empty stretches of the Universe contain vast but diffuse patches of hot, ionized hydrogen,” said Spencer Wolfe of West Virginia University in Morgantown. “Earlier observations of the area between M31 and M33 suggested the presence of colder, neutral hydrogen, but we couldn’t see any details to determine if it had a definitive structure or represented a new type of cosmic feature. Now, with high-resolution images from the GBT, we were able to detect discrete concentrations of neutral hydrogen emerging out of what was thought to be a mainly featureless field of gas.”

So how did astronomers detect the extremely faint signal which clued them to the presence of the gas pockets? Fortunately, our terrestrial radio telescopes are able to decipher the representative radio wavelength signals emitted by neutral atomic hydrogen. Even though it is commonplace in the Universe, it is still frail and not easy to observe. Researchers knew more than 10 years ago that these repositories of hydrogen might possibly exist in the empty space between M33 and M32, but the evidence was so slim that they couldn’t draw certain conclusions. They couldn’t “see” fine grained structure, nor could they positively identify where it came from and exactly what these accumulations meant. At best, their guess was it came from an interaction between the two galaxies and that gravitational pull formed a weak “bridge” between the two large galaxies.

The animation demonstrates the difference in resolution from the original Westerbork Radio Telescope data (Braun & Thilker, 2004) and the finer resolution imaging of GBT, which revealed the hydrogen clouds between M31 and M33. Bill Saxton, NRAO/AUI/NSF Credit: Bill Saxton, NRAO/AUI/NSF.

Just last year, the GBT observed the tell-tale fingerprint of hydrogen gas. It might be thin, but it is plentiful and it’s spread out between the galaxies. However, the observations didn’t stop there. More information was gathered and revealed the gas wasn’t just ethereal ribbons – but solid clumps. More than half of the gas was so conspicuously aggregated that they could even have passed themselves off as dwarf galaxies had they a population of stars. What’s more, the GBT also studied the proper motion of these gas pockets and found they were moving through space at roughly the same speed as the Andromeda and Triangulum galaxies.

“These observations suggest that they are independent entities and not the far-flung suburbs of either galaxy,” said Felix J. Lockman, an astronomer at the NRAO in Green Bank. “Their clustered orientation is equally compelling and may be the result of a filament of dark matter. The speculation is that a dark-matter filament, if it exists, could provide the gravitational scaffolding upon which clouds could condense from a surrounding field of hot gas.”

And where there is neutral hydrogen gas, there is fuel for new stars. Astronomers also recognize these new formations could eventually be drawn into M31 and M33, eliciting stellar creation. To add even more interest, these cold, dark regions which exist between galaxies contain a large amount of “unaccounted-for normal matter” – perhaps a clue to dark matter riddle and the reason behind the amount of hydrogen yet to revealed in universal structure.

“The region we have studied is only a fraction of the area around M31 reported to have diffuse hydrogen gas,” said D.J. Pisano of West Virginia University. “The clouds observed here may be just the tip of a larger population out there waiting to be discovered.”

Original Story Source: National Radio Astronomy Observatory News Release.

Galactic Close Call Leaves a Bridge of Gas

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An ancient passing between two nearby galaxies appears to have left the participants connected by a tenuous “bridge” of hydrogen gas, according to findings reported Monday, June 11 by astronomers with the National Radio Astronomy Observatory (NRAO).

Using the National Science Foundation’s Green Bank Telescope in West Virginia — the world’s largest fully-steerable radio telescope — astronomers have confirmed the existence of a vast bridge of hydrogen gas streaming between the Andromeda galaxy (M31) and the Triangulum galaxy (M33), indicating that they likely passed very closely billions of years ago.

The Robert C. Byrd Green Bank Telescope (GBT) in West Virginia (NRAO/AUI)

The faint bridge structure had first been identified in 2004 with the 14-dish Westerbork Synthesis Radio Telescope in the Netherlands but there was some scientific dispute over the findings. Observations with the GBT confirmed the bridge’s existence as well as revealed the presence of six large clumps of material within the stream.

Since the clumps are moving at the same velocity as the two galaxies relative to us, it seems to indicate the bridge of hydrogen gas is connecting them together.

“We think it’s very likely that the hydrogen gas we see between M31 and M33 is the remnant of a tidal tail that originated during a close encounter, probably billions of years ago,” said Spencer Wolfe of West Virginia University. “The encounter had to be long ago, because neither galaxy shows evidence of disruption today.”

The findings were announced Monday at the 220th Meeting of the American Astronomical Society in Anchorage, Alaska. Read more on the NRAO website here.

It’s Inevitable: Milky Way, Andromeda Galaxy Heading for Collision

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Astronomers have known for years that our Milky Way and its closest neighbor, the Andromeda galaxy, (a.k.a M31) are being pulled together in a gravitational dance, but no one was sure whether the galaxies would collide head-on or glide past one another. Precise measurements from the Hubble Space Telescope have now confirmed that the two galaxies are indeed on a collision course, headed straight for a colossal cosmic collision.

No need to panic for the moment, as this is not going to happen for another four billion years. And while astronomers say it is likely the Sun will be flung into a different region of our galaxy, Earth and the solar system will probably just go along for the ride and are in no danger of being destroyed.

“In the ‘worst-case-scenario’ simulation, M31 slams into the Milky Way head-on and the stars are all scattered into different orbits,” said team member Gurtina Besla of Columbia University in New York, N.Y. “The stellar populations of both galaxies are jostled, and the Milky Way loses its flattened pancake shape with most of the stars on nearly circular orbits. The galaxies’ cores merge, and the stars settle into randomized orbits to create an elliptical-shaped galaxy.”

The simulations Besla was talking about came from precise measurements by Hubble, painstakingly determining the motion of Andromeda, looking particularly at the sideways motion of M31, which until now has not been able to be done.

“This was accomplished by repeatedly observing select regions of the galaxy over a five- to seven-year period,” said Jay Anderson of STScI.

Right now, M31 is 2.5 million light-years away, but it is inexorably falling toward the Milky Way under the mutual pull of gravity between the two galaxies and the invisible dark matter that surrounds them both.

Of course, the collision is not like a head-on between two cars that takes place in an instant. Hubble data show that it will take an additional two billion years after the encounter for the interacting galaxies to completely merge under the tug of gravity and reshape into a single elliptical galaxy similar to the kind commonly seen in the local universe.

Astronomers said the stars inside each galaxy are so far apart that they will not collide with other stars during the encounter. However, the stars will be thrown into different orbits around the new galactic center. Simulations show that our solar system will probably be tossed much farther from the galactic core than it is today.

There’s also the complication of M31’s small companion, the Triangulum galaxy, M33. This galaxy will join in the collision and perhaps later merge with the M31/Milky Way pair. There is a small chance that M33 will hit the Milky Way first.

The astronomers working on this project said that they were able to make the precise measurements because of the upgraded cameras on Hubble, installed during the final servicing mission. This gave astronomers a long enough time baseline to make the critical measurements needed to nail down M31’s motion.

The Hubble observations and the consequences of the merger are reported in three papers that will appear in an upcoming issue of the Astrophysical Journal.

This series of photo illustrations shows the predicted merger between our Milky Way galaxy and the neighboring Andromeda galaxy. Credit: NASA; ESA; Z. Levay and R. van der Marel, STScI; T. Hallas, and A. Mellinger

First Row, Left: Present day.
First Row, Right: In 2 billion years the disk of the approaching Andromeda galaxy is noticeably larger.
Second Row, Left: In 3.75 billion years Andromeda fills the field of view.
Second Row, Right: In 3.85 billion years the sky is ablaze with new star formation.
Third Row, Left: In 3.9 billion years, star formation continues.
Third Row, Right: In 4 billion years Andromeda is tidally stretched and the Milky Way becomes warped.
Fourth Row, Left: In 5.1 billion years the cores of the Milky Way and Andromeda appear as a pair of bright lobes.
Fourth Row, Right: In 7 billion years the merged galaxies form a huge elliptical galaxy, its bright core dominating the nighttime sky.

Source: HubbleSite See more images and videos here and here.

More to Meets the Eye in M33

The spiral galaxy M33 is one of the largest galaxies in our local group. This spiral galaxy is moderately tilted when viewed from Earth, displaying a lack of a distinct central bulge but prominent spiral arms. It has only one potential companion galaxy (the Pisces Dwarf) and its spiral arms are so pristine, they have been thought to be unperturbed by the accretion of dwarf galaxies that constantly occurs in the Milky Way and Andromeda galaxy. Yet these features are what has made M33 so hard to explain. Since larger galaxies are expected to form from the merger of smaller galaxies it is expected that M33 should show some scars from previous mergers. If this picture is true, where are they?

The role of galaxy accretion in our own galaxy was first revealed in 1994 with the discovery of the Sagittarius stellar stream. With the completion of the first Sloan Digitised Sky Survey, many more tidal streams were revealed in our own galaxy. Modeling of the kinematics of these streams suggested they should last billions of years before fading into the rest of the galaxy. Deep imaging of the Andromeda galaxy revealed stellar streams as well as a notable warping of the disc of the galaxy.

Yet M33 seems to lack obvious signs of these structures. In 2006, a spectroscopic study analyzed the bright red giants in the galaxy and found three distinct populations. One could be attributed to the disc, one to the halo, but the third was not immediately explicable. Could this be the relic of an ancient satellite?

Another potential clue on missing mergers was discovered in 2005 when a radio survey around M33 was conducted with the Arecibo telescope. This study uncovered large clouds with a thousand to a million solar masses worth of raw hydrogen suspended around the galaxy. Might these be incomplete dwarf galaxies that never merged into M33? A new study uses the Subaru telescope atop Mauna Kea to study these regions as well as the outskirts of M33 to better understand their history.

The team, led by Marco Grossi at the Observatório Astronómico de Lisboa in Portugal, did not find evidence of a stellar population in these clouds suggesting they were not likely to be galaxies in their own right. Instead, they suggest that these clouds may be analogous to hydrogen clouds around the Milky Way and Andromeda which are “often found close to stellar streams or disturbances in the stellar disc” where gas is pulled from a former satellite galaxy through tidal or ram-pressure stripping. This would constitute another piece of indirect evidence that M33 once underwent mergers of some sort.

Outside of these clouds, in the outskirts of the galaxy, the team uncovered a diverse population of stars beyond the main disc. The overall metallicity of these stars was lower, but it also included some younger stars. At such a distance, these young stars would not be expected unless accreted.

While this finding doesn’t fully answer the question of how M33 may have formed, it does reveal that this galaxy has likely not evolved in the isolation previously assumed.