Article image

Twisted galaxies and galaxy clusters captured warping spacetime

The universe brims with celestial objects whose beauty and complexity captivate our imaginations. From swirling spiral galaxies to colossal galaxy clusters, telescopes like the VLT Survey Telescope (VST) in Chile offer breathtaking images of the cosmos, fueling our quest to understand its mysteries. 

A recent release of VST images unveils a captivating array of cosmic phenomena, highlighting star birth, galaxy mergers, and the intricate workings of the universe on a grand scale.

VLT Survey Telescope

Managed by Italy’s National Institute for Astrophysics (INAF), the VLT Survey Telescope (VST) features a 2.6-meter mirror and a wide-field camera called OmegaCAM. This setup allows the telescope to capture expansive sections of the sky in great detail.

The VST specializes in surveying large cosmic regions, enabling astronomers to study the evolution and clustering of galaxies over time.

OmegaCAM‘s wide-field capability covers one square degree of the sky per image, providing comprehensive data that contribute to our understanding of galaxy formation, interaction, and clustering in the universe.

The telescope has been operating since 2011 at the European Southern Observatory’s Paranal Observatory in Chile. Since 2022, INAF has fully managed its operations. It collects detailed data across wide areas of the sky. This makes it valuable for large-scale astrophysics research and public outreach initiatives.

Galaxies captured by the VLT telescope

Let’s explore the scientific and aesthetic wonders of three galaxies featured in the VLT telescope release:

ESO 510-G13

Located approximately 150 million light-years away in the Hydra constellation, the lenticular galaxy ESO 510-G13 stands out due to its prominent central bulge and distinctive dust lane.

This lane forms a distorted “S” shape, hinting at a turbulent past likely involving a merger or close encounter with another galaxy.

Lenticular galaxies like ESO 510-G13 are a transitional type between spiral and elliptical galaxies. They feature a central bulge and a surrounding disk with little to no spiral arm structure.

The distorted dust lane crossing the bulge obscures part of the galaxy’s light. This provides evidence of past interactions or collisions that likely stripped away interstellar gas and altered its shape.

Galactic collisions, suspected in ESO 510-G13’s case, are common and play a crucial role in galaxy evolution over billions of years. Gravitational forces between interacting galaxies can redistribute stars, gas, and dust, leading to new star formation and reorganizing galactic structures.

The distorted “S” shape of the dust lane suggests gravitational forces warped the disk, impacting the galaxy’s morphology, triggering star formation bursts, and possibly fueling the central supermassive black hole.

In the VLT telescope image, other galaxies appear in the background. A pair of spiral galaxies shines brightly from about 250 million light-years away. Zooming in reveals even more galaxies that appear as tiny spots among the stars of the Milky Way.

HCG 90

Hickson Compact Group 90 (HCG 90) is a group of four galaxies. It is about 100 million light-years away in the Piscis Austrinus constellation.

Three galaxies – NGC 7173, NGC 7176, and NGC 7174 – are engaged in a gravitational dance. Their shapes are distorted, creating a shared halo of diffuse light from stripped stars and gas.

The elliptical galaxies NGC 7173 and NGC 7176 are linked to the spiral galaxy NGC 7174, which shows a distorted shape due to their gravitational influence.

This halo of light envelops the trio and highlights the long-term gravitational interactions shaping their current forms.

The fourth member, NGC 7172, appears less affected by the gravitational turmoil of its neighbors. Its core, crossed by dark dust clouds, hides a supermassive black hole actively devouring surrounding material. This active galactic nucleus (AGN) suggests a different evolutionary path within the group.

Abell 1689

The Abell 1689 galaxy cluster is about 2 billion light-years away in the Virgo constellation. It acts as a colossal gravitational lens due to its immense mass. With over 200 galaxies, its combined mass – including hot gas and dark matter – bends and magnifies light from more distant galaxies behind it.

In the VST image, gravitational lensing creates faint streaks and arcs around the cluster’s core. These represent distorted images of galaxies billions of light-years away. The intense gravitational field produces multiple images of the same background galaxy by bending light in different directions.

The lensing pattern provides clues about the distribution of dark matter, which accounts for most of the cluster’s mass. By studying these patterns, astronomers can map this invisible matter.

The background galaxies revealed through gravitational lensing offer insights into early galaxy formation and evolution. This cosmic time machine allows scientists to peer into the distant reaches of the cosmos.

Science and wonder of the galaxy Images

“Besides scientific research, one of the goals of the VST Centre is to disseminate scientific knowledge and to share the wonders of the Universe with the general public. We especially wish that young people can discover and nurture their interest in astrophysics through these amazing images,” said Enrichetta Iodice, INAF researcher in Naples and responsible for the national Coordination Centre for VST.

By studying these snapshots, astronomers gain valuable insights and learn about the fundamental processes that shape the cosmos. These include the birth of stars and the large-scale structures that hold the universe together.

More information is available at the VST website.

Image Credit: INAF/VST/VEGAS, E. Iodice (INAF). Acknowledgment: M. Spavone (INAF), R. Calvi (INAF)


Like what you read? Subscribe to our newsletter for engaging articles, exclusive content, and the latest updates. 

Check us out on EarthSnap, a free app brought to you by Eric Ralls and


News coming your way
The biggest news about our planet delivered to you each day