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SYFY WIRE Bad Astronomy

A Spiral Galaxy Defying the Cosmic Flow

By Phil Plait

I’d like to introduce you to an interesting galaxy today. The reason it’s interesting is because it’s surprising, and in a way that caught me off guard.

It’s called M98 (or NGC 4192; every object in the sky is in multiple catalogs and has multiple handles), and it’s a spiral galaxy much like the Milky Way. It’s located about 50 million light-years away, which isn’t exactly close on a cosmic scale but isn’t all that far away either. If I had to make an analogy, it’s like it’s in the next town over.

We see M98 at a pretty low angle, so it appears nearly edge-on to us; spiral galaxies are pretty flat, and can have wildly different appearances depending on our viewing angle. Still, the spiral pattern is obvious enough, and you can see bright blue regions where stars are being born; those trace the arms. There is also lots of patchy dust along the arms; molecules of silica and aluminum as well as complex carbon-based molecules that are more like soot than anything else.

I like the central region of the galaxy; it’s bright but from this angle is cut in half by a dust lane, distorting the apparent shape of the usually elliptical hub.

All in all, it’s quite lovely, and that shot by the New Technology Telescope really shows it off.

But in that way it’s like a zillion other spirals. So what makes this one special?

Unlike nearly every single other galaxy in the Universe, this one isn’t moving away from us. It’s moving toward us.

There’s no danger of a collision! At its speed of 150 km/sec, it would take a hundred billion years to get here, so don’t wait up. Also, it’s probably not heading directly at us, because it’s part of the Virgo Cluster, a grouping of about  thousand galaxies bound by their own gravity. It’s the closest true cluster to us, and our own small Local Group of a couple dozen galaxies is like a small town near a bigger one. M98 is part of the Virgo Cluster, so it’s in orbit around the cluster center. We’re way outside the cluster, so it can’t hit us.

Here’s the fun bit. The Universe, as you may know, is expanding. One way to think of it is that space itself is getting bigger, and as it does galaxies are swept along with it. Galaxies aren’t really moving away from each other, they’re just floating along with the local flow.

But in many ways it’s like they really are moving away. One way is that their light is redshifted; the wavelength of the light they emit is stretched (it’s very similar to the Doppler effect that makes a motorcycle go EEEEEEeoowwwwwww as it passes you, changing the pitch of the noise). Practically every galaxy in the Universe shows this redshift, and in fact that’s how all this was discovered in the first place. The farther away a galaxy is, the more it’s light is shifted.

But not every galaxy shows it. Close by galaxies have much lower redshifts, and if the galaxy itself is moving rapidly through space (and not just with it), that local velocity will get added to or subtracted from the recession velocity.

One example of this is the monstrous Andromeda galaxy, which is headed toward us at high speed. We actually will collide with it, though not for quite some time (like, 4 billion years). But it shows a distinct blueshift in its light; it’s moving around faster than space is expanding.

M98 is doing the same thing. That surprised me when I saw it in a catalog; it’s far enough away that the Universal expansion should make it recede from us at about 1,000 km/sec.

But then I saw it was in the Virgo Cluster, and I understood. The massive gravity of all those galaxies means they orbit the center at a decent clip, so some galaxies are redshifted more than average as they head away from us, in the part of their orbit taking them to the other side of the cluster. Some have lower velocities because they’re headed toward us in their orbits.

But M98 is still unusual because it can completely overcome the recession of the cluster, and actually be physically headed toward us. That’s almost certainly because it’s recently interacted with another galaxy in the cluster; when galaxies pass each other one can be flung away at high speed, something like a slingshot effect. M98 may very well have done this, and that’s why it’s blueshifted, not redshifted.

As you look to more distant clusters this gets rare or nonexistent, because at that distance the cosmic expansion dominates, and it doesn’t matter how fast the galaxy is moving: It can’t overcome that recession. All galaxies past a certain distance are redshifted, which is yet another reason (among many, many others) that we know the Universe actually is expanding.

That’s pretty cool. I like surprises when I’m reading up on lovely astronomical objects; that means I’ve learned something. M98 is headed toward us, a rare blueshifted galaxy. Huh. That just adds to its beauty and intrigue to me.

It’s a really beautiful Universe, and it’s also a really interesting one. I’d say that’s its best quality.

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