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May 11, 2010

Gemini Observatory Press Release

For Immediate Release – May 12, 2010 - 9:00 am Eastern Daylight Time/Chile Daylight time

Media Contacts:

  • Peter Michaud
    Gemini Observatory, Hilo, HI
    Email: pmichaud"at"
    Cell: (808) 936-6643
    Desk: (808) 974-2510

  • Antonieta Garcia
    Gemini Observatory, La Serena, Chile
    Email: agarcia"at"
    Phone (Desk): 56-51-205628

Science Contact:

Gemini Legacy Image: R. Carrasco et al., Gemini Observatory/AURA

Central region of Abell 3827 as imaged using the Gemini Multi-Object Spectrograph on the Gemini South telescope in Chile. The central supermassive galaxy (ESO 146-IG 005) is clearly visible among its cluster companions as well as the remains of at least four nuclei that are being “digested” by the large galaxy. The central galaxy is thought to be the most massive galaxy in our local universe (out to about 1.5 billion light years). The field of view of this image is approximately 5 x 5 arcminutes and is a color composite made from g-, r- and i-band images combined and processed by Travis Rector (University of Alaska Anchorage). The inset (black on white image) is the single g-band image processed to reveal the gravitational lensed background galaxy arcs more clearly. Labeled on the inset are the most visible arcs from the closer background galaxy (z = 0.2 and labeled "A") and an arc from the more distant background galaxy (z = 0.4 and labeled "B"). This composite, labeled image, as well as all individual images, without text/labels, are available at full-resolution with the following links:

composite JPG 569 KB | TIFF 24.9 MB

text-free background image JPG 705 KB | TIFF 22.7 MB

inset image JPG 311 KB | TIFF 8.3 MB

A newly discovered gravitational lens in a relatively nearby galaxy cluster is leading astronomers to conclude that the cluster hosts the most massive galaxy known in our local universe. The study also reaffirms that galactic cannibalism is one reason that this galaxy is so obese, tipping the scales at up to 30 trillion times the mass of our Sun.

The supermassive galaxy is located at the core of the galaxy cluster Abell 3827, which lies some 1.4 billion light-years away. This galaxy and hundreds of its smaller cluster companions are visible in a dramatic new image released by the Gemini Observatory. The image is part of an upcoming paper in The Astrophysical Journal Letters (2010 715 L160) that reports on the study of the massive galaxy using the gravitational lens formed by its core (also visible in the image) to provide new measurements of the galaxy’s extreme mass.

Although this bright galaxy (known as ESO 146-IG 005) dominates the core of Abell 3827, “the magnitude of its appetite has not been fully appreciated,” said Gemini astronomer Rodrigo Carrasco, who is a member of the team that used the 8-meter Gemini South telescope in Chile to study this galaxy and its cluster. The Gemini observations revealed, for the first time, the effects of gravitational lensing near the core of ESO 146-IG 005.

A gravitational lens is created when a massive object (in this case the core of the super-massive galaxy) distorts its local space. Light from a background galaxy (in this case two galaxies) that is passing by appears deflected from its original path. From our perspective, we see the background galaxies’ light reshaped as a ring-like structure and arcs around the lensing object. These arcs from both galaxies are clearly visible in the new Gemini images.

“The gravitational lens we discovered allowed us to estimate for the first time the mass of this monster galaxy very accurately. The inferred mass is a factor of 10 bigger than previous estimates derived from X-ray,” said Carrasco. “Assuming our model is correct, this is by far the most massive galaxy known in our local universe.”

The exceptional galaxy was not simply born massive; it has grown by consuming its companions in perhaps the most extreme example of ongoing “galaxy cannibalism” known. “This unabashed cannibal is something of a messy eater, with the partially digested remains of at least four smaller galaxies still visible near its center,” said team member Michael West, astronomer at the European Southern Observatory who first observed this system more than a decade ago and says that he was immediately struck by the complex morphology of this giant cannibal galaxy (see West’s Astronomy Picture of the Day August 31, 1998). “Eventually this galaxy will grow even bigger judging by the number of nearby galaxies already within its gravitational grasp.”

These observations yield important insight into the process of galaxy growth, especially of elliptical galaxies; these galaxies do not appear to acquire their full mass quickly in the early universe, but instead show significant growth through mergers and cannibalism at later times, after many of their stars have formed. The resulting galaxies, such as this one can be extremely massive.

The Gemini observations were made using the Gemini Multi-Object Spectrograph (GMOS) on the Gemini South telescope in Chile. Follow-up spectroscopic observations used the same instrument to confirm the distances (redshifts) of the two background galaxies whose light is diverted by the massive galaxy. These two galaxies were found to lie at about 2.7 and 5.1 billion light-years away (z= 0.2 and 0.4 respectively).

In addition to R. Carrasco and M. West, the team includes Gemini astronomers P. Gomez, H. Lee, R. Diaz, J. Turner, B. Miller, M. Bergmann, and T. Verdugo (University of Valparaiso, Chile). Complete results appear in Carrasco et al. “Strong Gravitational Lensing by the Super-Massive cD Galaxy in Abell 3827,” The Astrophysical Journal Letters 715, L160, 2010.



The Gemini Observatory is an international collaboration with two identical 8-meter telescopes. The Frederick C. Gillett Gemini Telescope is located at Mauna Kea, Hawai'i (Gemini North) and the other telescope at Cerro Pachón in central Chile (Gemini South), and hence provide full coverage of both hemispheres of the sky. Both telescopes incorporate new technologies that allow large, relatively thin mirrors under active control to collect and focus both optical and infrared radiation from space.

The Gemini Observatory provides the astronomical communities in each partner country with state-of-the-art astronomical facilities that allocate observing time in proportion to each country's contribution. In addition to financial support, each country also contributes significant scientific and technical resources. The national research agencies that form the Gemini partnership include: the US National Science Foundation (NSF), the UK Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC), the Canadian National Research Council (NRC), the Chilean Comisión Nacional de Investigación Cientifica y Tecnológica (CONICYT), the Australian Research Council (ARC), the Argentinean Consejo Nacional de Investigaciones Científicas y Técnicas (CONICET) and the Brazilian Conselho Nacional de Desenvolvimento Científico e Tecnológico CNPq). The observatory is managed by the Association of Universities for Research in Astronomy, Inc. (AURA) under a cooperative agreement with the NSF. The NSF also serves as the executive agency for the international partnership.