The Antennae Galaxies Move Closer
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The Antennae Galaxies Move Closer

May 10, 2008

New research on the Antennae Galaxies using the Advanced Camera for Surveys onboard the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope shows that this benchmark pair of interacting galaxies is in fact much closer than previously thought - 45 million light-years instead of 65 million light-years.

The Antennae Galaxies are among the closest known merging galaxies. The two galaxies, also known as NGC 4038 and NGC 4039, began interacting a few hundred million years ago, creating one of the most impressive sights in the night sky. They are considered by scientists as the archetypal merging galaxy system and are used as a standard against which to validate theories about galaxy evolution.

The ground-based image (left) is taken by Robert Gendler and shows the two merging galaxies and their impressive long tidal tails.

The Hubble Advanced Camera for Surveys image (right) shows a portion of the southern tidal tail. The main visible component consists of young blue stars recently formed out of the gas accumulating along the spine of the tail, and many red background galaxies can also be seen. The region is also filled by thousands of faint red stars, just visible when zooming on the image.

By measuring the colours and brightnesses of red giant stars in the system, the scientists found that the Antennae Galaxies are much closer than previously thought: 45 million light-years instead of the previous best estimate of 65 million light-years. These red stars cannot be brighter than a certain threshold, and it is this luminosity threshold that was used to derive the new distance of the Antennae.

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