Abell 2256, in a “true color” radio image made with the VLA.
Credit: Owen et al., NRAO/AUI/NSF
Researchers using the Karl G. Jansky Very Large Array (VLA) have produced the most detailed image yet of a fascinating region where clusters of hundreds of galaxies are colliding, creating a rich variety of mysterious phenomena visible only to radio telescopes.
The scientists took advantage of new VLA capabilities to make a “true color” radio image. This image shows the region as it would appear if human eyes were sensitive to radio waves instead of light waves. In this image, red shows where longer radio waves predominate, and blue shows where shorter radio waves predominate, following the pattern we see in visible light.
The image shows a number of strange features the astronomers think are related to an ongoing collision of galaxy clusters. The region is called Abell 2256, and is about 800 million light-years from Earth and some 4 million light-years across. The image covers an area in the sky almost as large as the full moon. Studied by astronomers for more than half a century with telescopes ranging from radio to X-ray, Abell 2256 contains a fascinating variety of objects, many of whose exact origins remain unclear.
With monikers such as “Large Relic,” “Halo,” and “Long Tail,” the features in this region are seen in greater fidelity than ever before, said Frazer Owen, of the National Radio Astronomy Observatory (NRAO). “The image reveals details of the interactions between the two merging clusters and suggests that previously unexpected physical processes are at work in such encounters,” he said.
Owen worked with Lawrence Rudnick of the University of Minnesota; Jean Eilek of New Mexico Tech; and Urvashi Rau, Sanjay Bhatnagar, and Leonid Kogan of NRAO. The researchers presented their results in the Astrophysical Journal.
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The NRAO operates a complementary, state-of-the-art suite of radio telescope facilities for use by the scientific community, regardless of institutional or national affiliation: the Very Large Array (VLA), the Robert C. Byrd Green Bank Telescope (GBT), and the Very Long Baseline Array (VLBA)*.
The NRAO is building two new major research facilities in partnership with the international community that will soon open new scientific frontiers: the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA), and the Expanded Very Large Array (EVLA). Access to ALMA observing time by the North American astronomical community will be through the North American ALMA Science Center (NAASC).
*The Very Long Baseline Array (VLBA) comprises ten radio telescopes spanning 5,351 miles. It’s the world’s largest, sharpest, dedicated telescope array. With an eye this sharp, you could be in Los Angeles and clearly read a street sign in New York City!
Astronomers use the continent-sized VLBA to zoom in on objects that shine brightly in radio waves, long-wavelength light that’s well below infrared on the spectrum. They observe blazars, quasars, black holes, and stars in every stage of the stellar life cycle. They plot pulsars, exoplanets, and masers, and track asteroids and planets.