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YSU prof co-authors paper on a galaxy far, far away

YOUNGSTOWN — A Youngstown State University astronomer co-authored an academic paper about strange star clusters in a distant location, known as Galaxy AM 1054-325.

An image of the galaxy was featured in a Feb. 8 news release by the NASA Hubble Space Telescope team.

Dr. Patrick Durrell, professor of astronomy and director of YSU’s Ward Beecher Planetarium, worked on the paper led by Dr. Michael Rodruck of Penn State University. The research group uses imaging data from Hubble to identify and study the effects of galaxy collisions on the formation of star clusters.

By combining multiple images of the galaxy through filters to eliminate interfering data, one member of the team generated a colorized image of the galaxy, more than 172 million light years away.

“Some of the projects I’m involved with, the data can be turned into a colorful image that people can enjoy,” Durrell said. “In a personal sense, it’s like I can post a pic and say this is some of what I do.”

Durrell has been a group member for the past 10 to 15 years. He said he and his colleagues want to understand what happens when galaxies interfere with one an other. When they come too close together or even collide, gravity causes galaxies — often composed in nice spiral shapes like the Milky Way — to become misshapen.

“Gravity is always pulling, and many of those stars have their own orbits in their galaxy, and then because of the tugs, their orbits start going a different way, so the galaxies look distorted,” Durrell said. “It permanently messes up the orbit. They may have collided hundreds of millions of years ago, and they’re still messed up.”

In many cases, the galaxies then form extraneous tails, and this is where anomalies in the composition and concentration of gasses will often cause new star clusters to form.

In the image of AM 1054-325, the outer portions are polka-dotted with blue points, which are all new star clusters.

“At this distance, it is too far away to see the individual stars, but those are all clusters where new stars have been born,” Durrell said.

This galaxy, about 50,000 light years across and between 10 million and 100 million years old, had almost 100 of these clusters, hundreds or even hundreds of thousands of times larger than the area and mass of the sun. These new stars, Durrell said, expire after a few million years. The gold areas in the image are an older part of the galaxy where no new stars are forming.

The image was created by Jayanne English at the University of Manitoba in Canada.

“She’s very knowledgeable about how to take the data to make beautiful color images,” he said.

While many NASA images that become popular on the web tend to be dramatically — and often unrealistically — colorized, Durrell said the AM 1054-325 image is close to how it would appear to a person’s naked eye, because of the quality of the filters used to organize the data.

“You combine the images later from different filters to make those images, and use all kinds of computer programs to see how to remove the background stuff from other galaxies or bodies that would contaminate the image and the sample we’re interested in.”

Durrell said this galaxy was “a nice spiral galaxy a few billion years ago,” and studying it and others like it helps his group pursue answers toward one of the biggest questions astronomers have:

“How do you make a galaxy like ours? What are the steps?” he said. “One thing we have been learning is that in the early universe, galaxies formed by little objects merging with bigger objects. Collisions are how you make a galaxy. Things like this are examples of that process, and this one is just near enough that we can get a beautiful image from it.”

Durrell said that for as long as he has been doing this work, his sense of near childlike awe and wonder at the images never diminishes.

“So many of these images just show what an incredible universe we have and what amazing objects are out there,” he said.

Durrell said using images from Hubble is one of his favorite parts of teaching and never fails to elicit “oohs” and “aahs” from his classes.

The Hubble, it’s easy to forget, is a scientific instrument. People have been making discoveries with it for more than 33 years, he said.

Every year, hundreds of proposals are made by astronomers around the world to obtain Hubble data.

“I’m a co-author or co-investigator on three or four separate projects using Hubble data,” he said.

Durrell said the data on this galaxy was 5 years old. His group has applied to Hubble for more time to obtain more data for seven more galaxies. Durrell said he also expects more images in April and May from a different project with a different group studying other space oddities.

While the Ward Beecher Planetarium remains under reconstruction from a January 2023 fire, work is on schedule for a grand reopening in fall, when Durrell said the AM 1054-325 image and other new ones will be shown.

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