This is a galaxy?

Contributed by
Jun 27, 2011
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I love to post pretty pictures of galaxies and wax lyrical about their magnificent structure, complex history, and complicated internal compositions.

... and then there's the Carina Dwarf galaxy. It's so small and faint it wasn't even discovered until 1977 even though it's one of the closest galaxies in the sky! How did it avoid detection so long? This'll make it obvious:

[Click to unendwarfenate.]

See it? Yeah, it's that faint smattering of stars in the middle of the picture (the bright star near the center is in our Milky Way and coincidentally aligned with Carina). Not much to it, is there? It's about 300,000 light years away, only 1/10th as far as the much brighter and more famous Andromeda Galaxy, and only about twice as distant as our two satellite galaxies, the Small and Large Magellanic Clouds, both of which are easily visible to the unaided eye.

Like the LMC and SMC, it is apparently a satellite of the Milky Way, but formed long after we did; studies of the stars in the Carina Dwarf indicate it's only about 7 billion years old at most, while our galaxy is well over 10 billion years old. It probably formed from primordial gas orbiting the Milky Way, taking much longer due to its low mass and relatively quiet environment.

This image is a combination of observations taken with the 2.2 meter MPG/ESO and the Victor M. Blanco 4-meter telescopes in Chile. It shows that the galaxy has very little or no gas at all in it, and so its career in star-formation is long dead. But there's still much to learn from such objects: they get eaten by bigger galaxies, for example. This cosmic cannibalism is one way galaxies like ours get so big, so studying these smaller bite-sized snacks in situ help us learn about ones we've already munched on.

Plus, galaxies like Carina might be the most common in the Universe! We just can't see them because even at relatively small distances they fade away into the background. They may not be as flashy as spirals or as monstrous as giant elliptical galaxies, but they play an important role in building up such beasts. The more we know about them, the better we'll understand the Universe itself.

Image credit: ESO/G. Bono & CTIO

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