A new galaxy class has been identified using observations from ESO’s Very Large Telescope (VLT), the Gemini South telescope, and the Canada-France-Hawaii Telescope (CFHT). Nicknamed “green bean galaxies” because of their unusual appearance, these galaxies glow in the intense light emitted from the surroundings of monster black holes and are amongst the rarest objects in the Universe.
Astronomer Mischa Schirmer of the Gemini Observatory had looked at many images of the distant Universe, searching for clusters of galaxies, but when he came across one object in an image from the Canada-France-Hawaii Telescope he was stunned — it looked like a galaxy, but it was bright green. It was unlike any galaxy he had ever seen before, something totally unexpected. He quickly applied to use ESO’s Very Large Telescope to find out what was creating the unusual green glow.
“ESO granted me special observing time at very short notice and just a few days after I submitted my proposal, this bizarre object was observed using the VLT,” says Schirmer. “Ten minutes after the data were taken in Chile, I had them on my computer in Germany. I soon refocused my research activities entirely as it became apparent that I had come across something really new.”
The new object has been labelled J224024.1−092748 or J2240. It lies in the constellation of Aquarius (The Water Bearer) and its light has taken about 3.7 billion years to reach Earth. These galaxies signal the presence of a fading galactic center, marking a very fleeting phase in a galaxy’s life.
In the early Universe galaxies were much more active, growing massive black holes at their centers that swallowed up surrounding stars and gas and shining brilliantly, easily producing up to 100 times more light than all the stars in the galaxy together. Light echoes like that seen in J2240 allow astronomers to study the shutdown processes of these active objects to understand more about how, when, and why they halt — and why we now see so few of them in younger galaxies.
After the discovery, Schirmer’s team searched through a list of nearly a billion other galaxies in the Sloan Digital Sky Survey (SDSS) database, and found 16 more with similar properties, which were confirmed by observations made at the Gemini South telescope. These galaxies are so rare that there is on average only one in a cube about 1.3 billion light-years across. This new class of galaxies has been nicknamed green bean galaxies because of their colour and because they are superficially similar to, but larger than, green pea galaxies.
Green Pea galaxies are small, luminous galaxies undergoing vigorous star formation. They were first spotted in 2007 by participants in the astronomical crowd-sourcing project Galaxy Zoo. Unlike green beans, these galaxies are very small — our Milky Way galaxy contains a mass equivalent to that of around 200 average green pea galaxies. The similarity between green pea and green bean galaxies is limited to their appearance, as most of them are not closely related.
In many galaxies the material around the supermassive black hole at the center gives off intense radiation and ionises the surrounding gas so that it glows strongly. These glowing regions in typical active galaxies are usually small, up to 10% of the diameter of the galaxy. However, the team’s observations showed that in the case of J2240, and other green beans spotted since, it is truly huge, spanning the entire object. J2240 displays one of the biggest and brightest such regions ever found. Ionised oxygen glows bright green, which explains the strange color that originally caught Schirmer’s attention.
“These glowing regions are fantastic probes to try to understand the physics of galaxies — it’s like sticking a medical thermometer into a galaxy far, far away,” says Schirmer. “Usually, these regions are neither very large nor very bright, and can only be seen well in nearby galaxies. However, in these newly discovered galaxies they are so huge and bright that they can be observed in great detail, despite their large distances.”
The team’s further analysis of the data soon revealed another puzzle. J2240 appeared to have a much less active black hole at its centre than expected from the size and brightness of the glowing region. The team thinks that the glowing regions must be an echo from when the central black hole was much more active in the past, and that they will gradually dim as the remnants of radiation pass through them and out into space.
In many active galaxies the view of the central black hole is blocked by large amounts of dust, making it difficult to measure the activity of the black hole. To check whether green bean galaxies are indeed different from other galaxies with hidden centres, the astronomers looked at data from these galaxies at much longer infrared wavelengths that easily penetrate even very thick dust clouds. The central regions of J2240, and the other green bean galaxies, turned out to be much fainter than expected. This means that the active nucleus is now really much weaker than suggested by the brightness of the glowing regions.
“Discovering something genuinely new is an astronomer's dream come true, a once-in-a-lifetime event,” concluded Schirmer. “It's very inspiring!”
The Daily Galaxy via ESO