Bizarre ‘Frankenstein’ galaxy spotted in unlikely place

12 Jul 2016

A colourised version of galaxy M101

In a part of the universe once overlooked for being relatively humdrum, a team of astronomers has now spotted a giant and bizarre galaxy with ‘Frankenstein’-like qualities.

If there’s one word you would think you’d never hear when referring to a distant galaxy, it’s ‘Frankenstein’.

Yet this appears to be the correct adjective for UGC 1382, located 250m light-years away in a region of space that had been previously catalogued, but relatively ignored because it was a typical example of a small, old galaxy.

Built from spare parts

However, in a new study published in the Astrophysical Journal, new data from NASA’s array of telescopes has revealed that this galaxy is actually 10-times larger than once thought, measuring 718,000 light-years across, or seven-times wider than our own Milky Way.

Not only that, but, unlike the majority of known galaxies, it has a younger interior than its exterior, which is why it has been compared to Frankenstein, as it appears as if it’s been built using spare parts.

The discovery was made by researchers from Pennsylvania State University, who accidentally stumbled on the galaxy during a search for elliptical galaxies that don’t spin and are three-dimensional, shaped much like an American football.

It was only after they gazed at the galaxy using ultraviolet light from NASA’s Galaxy Evolution Explorer (GALEX) that this new bizarre behemoth emerged into view.

Frankenstein galaxy

UGC 1382 appears to be a simple elliptical galaxy (left), but spiral arms emerged when astronomers incorporated ultraviolet and deep optical data (middle). Combining that with a view of low-density hydrogen gas (shown in green at right), scientists discovered that UGC 1382 is gigantic. Image via NASA/JPL/Caltech/SDSS/NRAO/L Hagen and M Seibert

The slightest nudge will destroy it

When looking into the galaxy’s Frankenstein qualities in greater detail, the team of Seibert and Lea Hagen showed that, unlike most galaxies where its outermost stars are its youngest, UGC 1382 has its youngest stars internally, possibly due to two separate galaxies merging into one.

Before this merging, their research suggests, it is likely that a group of smaller galaxies existed there dominated by gas and dark matter, but around 3bn years ago another galaxy would have fallen into its orbit, with it leading to the wide galaxy we see today.

“This rare, ‘Frankenstein’ galaxy formed and is able to survive because it lies in a quiet little suburban neighbourhood of the universe, where none of the hubbub of the more crowded parts can bother it,” said Mark Seibert.

“It is so delicate that a slight nudge from a neighbour would cause it to disintegrate.”

The hunt is now on to find similar ghoulish galaxies out there in the universe.

Main image via Stuart Rankin/Flickr

Colm Gorey was a senior journalist with Silicon Republic