Hubble Finds "Relic Galaxy" NGC 1277 Is Smaller Than Milky Way

NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope has uncovered a strange kind of galaxy surprisingly close to home.

A new study published Monday in Nature reports that Hubble scientists have found a “relic galaxy” called NGC 1277 about 240 million light-years away near the Perseus cluster. The galaxy is only a quarter the size of the Milky Way, but in its early days, scientists think NGC 1277 could crank out stars about 1,000 times faster than our own galaxy.

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At some point, NGC 1277 stopped producing stars, and the aging ones became reddish lights that Hubble could spot. The galaxy has remained roughly the same for the last 10 billion years or so, hence its nickname. It’s basically a museum of itself. In a press release, Hubble says NGC 1277 is in a state of “arrested development,” but no, not like the show. Sadly.

Galaxy NGC 1277

NASA, ESA, M. Beasley (Instituto de Astrofísica de Canarias), and P. Kehusmaa

Scientists found NGC 1277 because frankly, it’s a weirdo. For one thing, it doesn’t have the same kinds of globular clusters that other large galaxies have. According to Hubble, “massive galaxies tend to have both metal-poor (appearing blue) and metal-rich (appearing red) globular clusters,” but NGC 1277 has no blue clusters.

NGC 1277 also has a black hole at its center that’s absurdly large for such a small galaxy. It’s possible that although the galaxy’s black hole grew in size, NGC 1277 didn’t have the gases and materials it needed from outside its cluster to grow. That might explain why it stopped being able to produce stars.

Relative location of NGC 1277 

NASA, ESA, M. Beasley (Instituto de Astrofísica de Canarias), and P. Kehusmaa

Hubble has spotted relic galaxies before, but this one is by far the closest.

“We can explore such original galaxies in full detail and probe the conditions of the early universe,” the study’s co-author Ignacio Trujillo of the Canary Islands Institute of Astrophysics at the University of La Laguna says in a statement.

The James Webb Space Telescope expected to launch in spring 2019, could provide unprecedented insights into NGC 1277 and relic galaxies like it. Talk about breathing new life into some seriously old stuff.

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