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 tutorial image for Radio Galaxy Zoo

The tutorial image for Radio Galaxy Zoo

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).

The brightnesses (measured in radio) of galaxies in ATLAS-SWIRE. From Middelberg et al. (2008).

The brightnesses (measured in radio) of galaxies in ATLAS-SWIRE. From Middelberg et al. (2008).

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.

About Kyle Willett

Kyle Willett is a postdoc and astronomer at the University of Minnesota. He works as a member of the Galaxy Zoo team, and gets to study galaxy morphology and evolution, AGN, blazars, megamasers, citizen science engagement, and many other cool things.

4 responses to “Radio Galaxy Zoo: a close-up look at one example galaxy”

  1. Jean Tate says :

    Wonderful blog post Kyle! 🙂 And a terrific project too; it’s almost as addictive as the AP 😉

    … brighter galaxies are to the left.” shouldn’t that be ‘right’?

  2. John Selwyn Gilbert says :

    A non-astronomer, non-scientist’s comment – it is SUCH a pleasure to eavesdrop on this sort of informal research report, clearly written with commitment and enthusiasm, teetering on the edge of our areas of knowledge. I have been working with and helping a boy who is deeply dyslexic recently – this is the sort of material I paraphrase and rave on about to try to get him to realize what wonderful things there are to discover – out there in the cosmos and within himself. Thank you.

  3. Graham Dungworth says :

    Exciting news Kyle.

    “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).”

    It is always vital to provide accurate celestial coordinates.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: