Scientists have discovered that a barred spiral galaxy located 212 million light-years from the Earth is the largest-known spiral, measuring five times the size of our Milky Way galaxy.
Using archival data from NASA’s Galaxy Evolution Explorer (GALEX) mission, scientists found that measuring tip-to-tip across its two outsized spiral arms, NGC 6872 spans more than 522,000 light-years, making it more than five times the size of our Milky Way galaxy.
“Without GALEX’s ability to detect the ultraviolet light of the youngest, hottest stars, we would never have recognised the full extent of this intriguing system,” lead scientist Rafael Eufrasio, a research assistant at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Centre in Greenbelt said in a statement.
The galaxy’s unusual size and appearance stem from its interaction with a much smaller disk galaxy named IC 4970, which has only about one-fifth the mass of NGC 6872.
The odd couple is located 212 million light-years from Earth in the southern constellation Pavo.
Astronomers think large galaxies, including our own, grew through mergers and acquisitions. Intriguingly, the gravitational interaction of NGC 6872 and IC 4970 may have done the opposite, spawning what may develop into a new small galaxy.
“The north-eastern arm of NGC 6872 is the most disturbed and is rippling with star formation, but at its far end, visible only in the ultraviolet, is an object that appears to be a tidal dwarf galaxy similar to those seen in other interacting systems,” said team member Duilia de Mello.