Image: Centaurus A
Y. Beletsky  /  ESO
This image of the central parts of Centaurus A reveals the parallelogram-shaped remains of a smaller galaxy that was gulped down 200 million to 700 million years ago.
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updated 11/20/2009 8:06:15 PM ET 2009-11-21T01:06:15

New images show the "last meal" of a giant cannibal galaxy as it gobbles down a smaller spiral galaxy, which has been twisted and warped from being devoured.

The giant galaxy, Centaurus A (NGC 5128) is the nearest giant, elliptical galaxy, at a distance of about 11 million light-years. The galaxy hosts a supermassive black hole that is 200 million times the mass of the sun, or 50 times the mass of the black hole at the center of the Milky Way.

At the galaxy's center is an opaque dust lane that is thought to be the remains of a cosmic merger between the galaxy and a smaller spiral galaxy full of dust.

Image: IN SEARCH OF WATER, NASA PREPARES TO BOMB THE MOON
Ho  /  AFP - Getty Images
(FILES): This NASA file handout image taken by the Galileo spacecraft shows the Moon. NASA is preparing a violent return to the moon on Friday, October 9, 2009 as part of a mission to send a satellite and a rocket booster crashing into the planet's surface to look for water. Conspiracy theories aside -- a 'do not bomb the moon' website is already campaigning against the move -- there is no actual bomb, but the US space agency's LCROSS satellite and heavier Centaur upper-stage rocket will still leave huge impact sites where NASA hopes to find evidence of water or ice. At 1130 GMT, the rocket and four minutes later the spacecraft will separately race into the moon at 5,600 miles (9,000 kilometers) per hour to kick up approximately 6.2 miles (10 km) of lunar dirt from the Cabeus crater floor near the planet's south pole. AFP PHOTO / NASA / JPL == RESTRICTED TO EDITORIAL USE == (Photo credit should read HO/AFP/Getty Images)

Between 200 and 700 million years ago, this galaxy is believed to have consumed a smaller spiral, gas-rich galaxy — the contents of which appear to be churning inside Centaurus A's core, likely triggering new generations of stars.

First glimpses of the "leftovers" of this meal were obtained thanks to observations with the European Space Agency's Infrared Space Observatory, which revealed a 16,500 light-year-wide structure, very similar to that of a small barred galaxy.

More recently, NASA's Spitzer Space Telescope resolved this structure into a parallelogram, which can be explained as the remnant of a gas-rich spiral galaxy falling into an elliptical galaxy and becoming twisted and warped in the process. Galaxy merging is the most common mechanism to explain the formation of such giant elliptical galaxies.

The new images, taken by the European Southern Observatory's 3.58-metre New Technology Telescope (NTT) in La Silla, Chile, allow astronomers to get an even sharper view of the structure of this galaxy, completely free of obscuring dust.

What the astronomers found in the images was surprising: "There is a clear ring of stars and clusters hidden behind the dust lanes, and our images provide an unprecedentedly detailed view toward it," said Jouni Kainulainen, lead author of the paper reporting these results. "Further analysis of this structure will provide important clues on how the merging process occurred and what has been the role of star formation during it."

Video: Zoom in on a cosmic ‘cannibal’ (on this page) The technique used to observe Centaurus A could help scientists better understand star formation in galaxies.

"These are the first steps in the development of a new technique that has the potential to trace giant clouds of gas in other galaxies at high resolution and in a cost-effective way," said co-author João Alves. "Knowing how these giant clouds form and evolve is to understand how stars form in galaxies."

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Video: Zoom in on a cosmic ‘cannibal’

Photos: Month in Space: January 2014

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  1. Southern stargazing

    Stars, galaxies and nebulas dot the skies over the European Southern Observatory's La Silla Paranal Observatory in Chile, in a picture released on Jan. 7. This image also shows three of the four movable units that feed light into the Very Large Telescope Interferometer, the world's most advanced optical instrument. Combining to form one larger telescope, they are greater than the sum of their parts: They reveal details that would otherwise be visible only through a telescope as large as the distance between them. (Y. Beletsky / ESO) Back to slideshow navigation
  2. A balloon's view

    Cameras captured the Grandville High School RoboDawgs' balloon floating through Earth's upper atmosphere during its ascent on Dec. 28, 2013. The Grandville RoboDawgs’ first winter balloon launch reached an estimated altitude of 130,000 feet, or about 25 miles, according to coaches Mike Evele and Doug Hepfer. It skyrocketed past the team’s previous 100,000-feet record set in June. The RoboDawgs started with just one robotics team in 1998, but they've grown to support more than 30 teams at public schools in Grandville, Mich. (Kyle Moroney / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  3. Spacemen at work

    Russian cosmonauts Oleg Kotov, right, and Sergey Ryazanskiy perform maintenance on the International Space Station on Jan. 27. During the six-hour, eight-minute spacewalk, Kotov and Ryazanskiy completed the installation of a pair of high-fidelity cameras that experienced connectivity issues during a Dec. 27 spacewalk. The cosmonauts also retrieved scientific gear outside the station's Russian segment. (NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  4. Special delivery

    The International Space Station's Canadian-built robotic arm moves toward Orbital Sciences Corp.'s Cygnus autonomous cargo craft as it approaches the station for a Jan. 12 delivery. The mountains below are the southwestern Alps. (NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  5. Accidental art

    A piece of art? A time-lapse photo? A flickering light show? At first glance, this image looks nothing like the images we're used to seeing from the Hubble Space Telescope. But it's a genuine Hubble frame that was released on Jan. 27. Hubble's team suspects that the telescope's Fine Guidance System locked onto a bad guide star, potentially a double star or binary. This caused an error in the tracking system, resulting in a remarkable picture of brightly colored stellar streaks. The prominent red streaks are from stars in the globular cluster NGC 288. (NASA / ESA) Back to slideshow navigation
  6. Supersonic test flight

    A camera looking back over Virgin Galactic's SpaceShipTwo's fuselage shows the rocket burn with a Mojave Desert vista in the background during a test flight of the rocket plane on Jan. 10. Cameras were mounted on the exterior of SpaceShipTwo as well as its carrier airplane, WhiteKnightTwo, to monitor the rocket engine's performance. The test was aimed at setting the stage for honest-to-goodness flights into outer space later this year, and eventual commercial space tours.

    More about SpaceShipTwo on PhotoBlog (Virgin Galactic) Back to slideshow navigation
  7. Red lagoon

    The VLT Survey Telescope at the European Southern Observatory's Paranal Observatory in Chile captured this richly detailed new image of the Lagoon Nebula, released on Jan. 22. This giant cloud of gas and dust is creating intensely bright young stars, and is home to young stellar clusters. This image is a tiny part of just one of 11 public surveys of the sky now in progress using ESO telescopes. (ESO/VPHAS team) Back to slideshow navigation
  8. Fire on the mountain

    This image provided by NASA shows a satellite view of smoke from the Colby Fire, taken by the Multi-angle Imaging SpectroRadiometer aboard NASA's Terra spacecraft as it passed over Southern California on Jan. 16. The fire burned more than 1,863 acres and forced the evacuation of 3,700 people. (NASA via AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  9. Where stars are born

    An image captured by NASA's Spitzer Space Telescope shows the Orion Nebula, an immense stellar nursery some 1,500 light-years away. This false-color infrared view, released on Jan. 15, spans about 40 light-years across the region. The brightest portion of the nebula is centered on Orion's young, massive, hot stars, known as the Trapezium Cluster. But Spitzer also can detect stars still in the process of formation, seen here in red hues. (NASA / JPL-Caltech) Back to slideshow navigation
  10. Cygnus takes flight

    Orbital Sciences Corp.'s Antares rocket rises from NASA's Wallops Flight Facility on Wallops Island, Va, on Jan. 9. The rocket sent Orbital's Cygnus cargo capsule on its first official resupply mission to the International Space Station. (Chris Perry / NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  11. A long, long time ago...

    This long-exposure picture from the Hubble Space Telescope, released Jan. 8, is the deepest image ever made of any cluster of galaxies. The cluster known as Abell 2744 appears in the foreground. It contains several hundred galaxies as they looked 3.5 billion years ago. Abell 2744 acts as a gravitational lens to warp space, brightening and magnifying images of nearly 3,000 distant background galaxies. The more distant galaxies appear as they did more than 12 billion years ago, not long after the Big Bang. (NASA / NASA via AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  12. Frosty halo

    Sun dogs are bright spots that appear in the sky around the sun when light is refracted through ice crystals in the atmosphere. These sun dogs appeared on Jan. 5 amid brutally cold temperatures along Highway 83, north of Bismarck, N.D. The temperature was about 22 degrees below zero Fahrenheit, with a 50-below-zero wind chill.

    Slideshow: The Year in Space (Brian Peterson / The Bismarck Tribune via AP) Back to slideshow navigation
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