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Giant cannibal galaxy caught in mid-gobble

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.
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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.

(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)Ho / NASA

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."

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."