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Astronomers spun up by galaxy-shape finding

12 September 2017
Game-changing Australian instrument nets huge haul of galaxies

Scientists have measured how a galaxy’s spin affects its shape - and found faster-spinning galaxies are flatter and rounder. The discovery was made sampling 845 galaxies and could help provide insights into a galaxy’s past.

For the first time astronomers have measured how a galaxy’s spin affects its shape.

It sounds simple, but measuring a galaxy’s true 3D shape is a tricky problem that astronomers first tried to solve 90 years ago.

“This is the first time we’ve been able to reliably measure how a galaxy’s shape depends on any of its other properties – in this case, its rotation speed,” said research team leader Dr Caroline Foster of the University of Sydney's School of Physics, who completed this research while working at the Australian Astronomical Observatory.

The study was published on 11 September in the journal Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society.

Galaxies can be shaped like a pancake, a sea urchin or a football, or anything in between.

Faster-spinning galaxies are flatter than their slower-spinning siblings, the team found.

“And among spiral galaxies, which have disks of stars, the faster-spinning ones have more circular disks,” said team member Professor Scott Croom of the University of Sydney.

The team made its findings with SAMI (the Sydney-AAO Multi-object Integral field unit), an instrument jointly developed by The University of Sydney and the Australian Astronomical Observatory with funding from CAASTRO, the ARC Centre of Excellence for All-sky Astrophysics.

SAMI gives detailed information about the movement of gas and stars inside galaxies. It can examine 13 galaxies at a time and so collect data on huge numbers of them.

Dr Foster’s team used a sample of 845 galaxies, over three times more than the biggest previous study. This large number was the key to solving the shape problem.

Because a galaxy’s shape is the result of past events such as merging with other galaxies, knowing its shape also tells us about the galaxy’s history.

The ARC Centre of Excellence for All-sky Astrophysics (CAASTRO) is a collaboration between The University of Sydney, The Australian National University, The University of Melbourne, Swinburne University of Technology, The University of Queensland, The University of Western Australia and Curtin University, the last two participating together as the International Centre for Radio Astronomy Research (ICRAR). CAASTRO is funded under the Australian Research Council (ARC) Centre of Excellence program, with additional funding from the seven participating universities and from the NSW State Government's Science Leveraging Fund.

Read the great explainer in The Conversation: 3D view helps us to understand how galaxies formed and evolved

Vivienne Reiner

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