9 January 2008
An Inconvenient Galaxy
by Kate Melville
The discovery of two new components within a puzzling spiral galaxy confirm it must have a pair of arms winding in the opposite direction than that of most other galaxies, according to a study published in the Astronomical Journal.
"While the existence of a galaxy with a pair of 'backward' arms may seem like an inconvenient truth to many, our latest analysis indicates it is, nonetheless, a reality," says Gene Byrd, professor of astronomy at The University of Alabama.
The galaxy, known as NGC4622, lies 200 million light years away in the constellation Centaurus. Spiral arm pairs seen in galaxies are thought to trail, meaning they wind outward, opposite the direction of rotation of the disk material. Leading arms, such as the pair reported by the astronomers for NGC4622, do the opposite, opening outward in the same direction as the rotation of the galaxy's disk.
Using a Fourier component image method to further analyze a 2001 Hubble Space Telescope image, the team discovered a previously hidden inner counter clockwise pair of spiral arms. "Contrary to conventional wisdom, with both an inner counter-clockwise pair and an outer clockwise pair of spiral arms, NGC4622 must have a pair of leading arms," Byrd explained. "With two pairs of arms winding in opposite directions, one pair must lead and one pair must trail. Which way is which depends on the disk's rotation. The outer clockwise pair must be the leading pair if the disk turns clockwise. Alternatively, the inner counter clockwise pair must be the leading pair if the disk turns counter clockwise."
The astronomers also discovered an outer clockwise single arm, previously hidden by the stronger outer clockwise arm pair. The galaxy also has a previously identified inner single counterclockwise arm. This confirms the galaxy must have a single leading arm. The outer clockwise arm must be the leading arm if the disk turns clockwise. The inner counter clockwise arm must be the leading single arm if the disk turns counter clockwise. The researchers also performed a more complicated analysis of different color Fourier image components. This revealed the stronger outer clockwise pair of arms as the leading pair.
In 2002, team members first published, to great skepticism, results from a previous method that indicated the galaxy had a leading pair of spiral arms. Other astronomers were skeptical of the 2002 announcement, in part, because the galaxy disk is only tilted about 19 degrees from face-on and because clumpy dust clouds might be concentrated on one side of the disk, creating misleading results. In response, the team's new Fourier component method is actually assisted by the small tilt, and the effects of dust are not used in the latest analysis.
"Two independent methods now indicate that NGC4622's arms do indeed behave in a very unusual fashion, with the outer arms winding outward in the same direction the galaxy turns," said Byrd.
Source: University of Alabama