To Catch a Galactic Thief: Galaxy 3C 326
A big galaxy is stealing gas right off the "back" of its smaller companion in this new image from NASA's Spitzer Space Telescope. The stolen gas is hot, but it might eventually cool down to make new stars and planets.
The robber galaxy, called 3C 326 North, and its victim, 3C 326 South, are located about a billion light-years away from Earth in the Serpens constellation. They are both called radio galaxies, because the relativistic jets streaming out of their centers give off a great deal of radio waves. Other dots in the picture are foreground stars and background galaxies.
When astronomers first collected data on the 3C 326 galaxies with Spitzer's infrared spectrometer, they were surprised to find that 3C 326 North is loaded with an enormous amount of hot gas, called molecular hydrogen gas, which is fuel for stars and planets. They then studied this archived picture taken with Spitzer's infrared array camera and noticed a tail of stars connecting 3C 326 North to 3C 326 South. This tail revealed that the galactic pair are gravitationally tangled and might eventually merge â and that 3C 326 North must be hoisting gas from its smaller companion.
How is 3C 326 stealing the gas? The answer is gravity. The larger 3C 326 North, which is about the same mass as our Milky Way galaxy, has more gravity so the gas from 3C 326 South falls toward it in the same way that water rolls down hill on Earth. Even in space, it seems the bullies are bigger!
This image shows infrared light of three wavelengths: 8-micron light is red; 4.5 microns is green; 3.6 microns is blue.