Radio Galaxy Zoo: a close-up look at one example galaxy
We hope everyone’s been excited about the first few days of Radio Galaxy Zoo; the science and development teams certainly have been. As part of involving you, the volunteers, with the project, I wanted to take the opportunity to examine and discuss just one of the RGZ images in detail. It’s a good way to highlight what we already know about these objects, and the science that your classifications help make possible.
For an example, I’ve chosen the trusty tutorial image, which almost everyone will have seen on their first time using RGZ. We’ll be focusing on the largest components in the center (and skipping over the little one in the bottom left for now).
The data in this image comes from two separate telescopes. Let’s look at them individually.
The red and white emission in the background is the infrared image; this comes from Spitzer, an orbiting space telescope from NASA launched in 2003 (and still operating today). The data here used its IRAC camera at its shortest wavelength, which is 3.6 micrometers. As you can see, the image is filled with sources; the round, smallest objects are either stars or galaxies not big enough to be resolved by the telescope. Larger sources, where you can see an extended shape, are usually either big galaxies or star/galaxy overlaps that lie very close together in the sky.
Overlaid on top of that is the data from the radio telescope; this shows up in the faint blue and white colors, as well as the contour lines that encircle the brightest radio components. The telescope used is the Australia Telescope Compact Array (ATCA) in rural New South Wales, Australia. This data was taken as part of the ATLAS survey, which mapped two deep fields of the sky (named ELAIS S1 and CDF-S) in the radio at a wavelength of 20 cm.
So, what do we know about the central sources? From their shape, this looks like what we would call a classic “double lobe” source. There are two radio blobs of similar size, shape, and brightness; almost exactly halfway between them is a bright infrared source. Given its position, it’s a very good candidate as a host galaxy, poised to emit the opposite-facing jets seen in the radio.
This object doesn’t have much of a mention in the published astronomical literature so far. Its formal name in the NASA database is SWIRE4 J003720.35-440735.5 — the name tells us that it was detected as part of the SWIRE survey using Spitzer, and the long string of numbers can be broken up to give us its position on the sky. This is a Southern Hemisphere object, lying in the constellation Phoenix (if anyone’s curious).
The only analysis of this galaxy so far appeared in a paper published by RGZ science team member Enno Middelberg and his collaborators in 2008. They made the first detections of the radio emission from the object, and matched the radio emission to the central infrared source by using an automatic algorithm plus individual verification by the authors. They classified it as a likely AGN based on the shape of the radio lobes, inferring that this meant a jet. It’s also one of the brighter galaxies that they detected in the survey, as you can see below – brighter galaxies are to the right of the arrow. That might mean that it’s a particularly powerful galaxy, but we don’t know that for sure (for reasons I’ll get back to in a bit).
So what we know is somewhat limited – this object has only ever been detected in the radio and near-infrared, and each of those only have two data points. The galaxy is detected at both at 3 and 4 micrometers in the infrared, but the camera didn’t detect it using any of its longer-wavelength channels. This makes it difficult to characterize the emission from the host galaxy; we need more measurements at additional wavelength to determine whether the light we see (in the non radio) is from stars, from dust, or from what we call “non-thermal processes”, driven by black holes and supernovae.
One of the biggest barriers to knowledge, though, is that the galaxy doesn’t currently have a measured distance. Distances are so, so important in astronomy – we spend a massive amount of time trying to accurately figure out how far away things are from the Earth. Knowing the distance tells us what the true brightness of the galaxy is (whether it’s a faint object nearby or a very bright one far away), what the true physical size of the radio jets are, at what age in the Universe it likely formed; a huge amount of science depends critically on this.
Usually distances to galaxies are obtained by taking a spectrum of it with a telescope and then measuring the Doppler shift (redshift) of the lines we detect, caused by the expanding Universe. The obstacle is that spectra are more difficult and more expensive to obtain than images; we can’t do all-sky surveys in the same way we can with just images. This is one reason why these cross-identifications are important; if you can help firmly identify the host galaxy, we can effectively plan future observations on the sources that need it.