VV191: from Galaxy Zoo to JWST
Almost 15 years ago, what first attracted me to be involved with Galaxy Zoo was the ability of participants to pick out rare galaxy types, especially silhouetted or overlapping galaxy systems. These highlight the effects of dust in the foreground galaxy on passing light, and offer ways to study the dust which are complementary to, for example, observations in the deep infrared where the dust itself shines, giving off the energy it absorbs from starlight. Visible-light measurements of backlit galaxies show us the dust no matter how cold it might be, where it can hide from IR detection, and at the high resolution available to optical telescopes (including the Hubble Space Telescope) rather than the more modest, wavelength-limited resolution we can achieve at longer wavelength. Better measurements of dust in galaxies affect our understanding of their energy output, stellar content, and even our view of the more distant Universe. Galaxy Zoo volunteers contributed to a catalog of nearly 2000 suitable galaxy pairs from the first iteration of the project, since expanded from Galaxy Zoo 2, GZ Hubble, and the most recent examinations using the Legacy Survey data. We have used this list for number of followup studies – although, truth be told, I have also been distracted by other rare systems found by volunteers (cough, Hanny’s Voorwerp and the Voorwerpjes, for example).
The backlit-galaxy system VV191 was first reported in the Galaxy Zoo forum as a possible galaxy merger, by user Goniners on November 2, 2007. Despite its near-perfect geometry for study of foreground dust, VV191 had eluded our earlier searches because the inner regions, where one can see that this is a superposition of undisturbed galaxies rather a merging galaxy pair, are saturated in prints of the Palomar Sky Survey, which was the best visible-light survey before the Sloan Digital Sky Survey. At the time VV191 was selected for further study, catalogs showed a substantial redshift difference between the two galaxies, which is desirable so the two galaxies are unlikely to be physically interacting with each other, and light from the background galaxy scattered by the dust becomes much fainter. That has been revised by later data which put the redshifts closer; we can’t win them all, though the two galaxies are very symmetric and undisturbed in all our later data.
(Hubble red-light image of VV191, showing silhouetted dust in the foreground spiral arms)
We got a closer look with the STARSMOG project led by colleague Benne Holwerda, which was a Hubble snapshot program – one where short exposures are inserted into gaps in the telescope schedule, much like the Zoo Gems gap-filler project. STARSMOG drew promising overlapping-galaxy pairs from Galaxy Zoo forum posts and the GAMA (Galaxy And Mass Assembly) project. Over several years, it acquired images of 55 galaxy pairs of interest. Among those was VV191, generating a very detailed map of the dust silhouette of the spiral galaxy. This was one of the galaxy pairs analyzed in a project based on the master’s thesis work by Sarah Bradford at the University of Alabama which went into a poster presentation at the January 2017 meeting of the American Astronomical Society in Texas. In fact, I used a low-contrast version of the VV191 image as the poster background. (The poster should still just be legible in this compressed PNG version):
The data quality for VV191 stood out, because the background elliptical galaxy has its brightest region right behind the edge of the dust in the spiral. We then had a 2-dimensional map of how much light gets through the dust in the spiral at the wavelengths included in that single observation. The poster was viewed by my longtime collaborator Rogier Windhorst, who is one of the interdisciplinary scientists with the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) project. In this capacity, he had an allocation of so-called GTO (guaranteed-time) observations, asked what we could do with JWST. Rogier was struck by these images, and wondered what we could add to the science output with a little bit of JWST observing time.
This led to a plan of tracking the dust signature from ultraviolet to infrared in a single galaxy with a single technique. First Hubble had to do its part with more data, using not only its high resolution but UV sensitivity. We got Hubble images in filters around 2250 and 3360 Angstroms (0.22 and 0.34 microns) , with the short end limited mostly by the elliptical galaxy being so faint in the deeper UV that we couldn’t detect its light well enough in reasonable exposure times. These data have been processed, so we are ready for the next step – JWST. Its near-infrared camera (NIRCAM) will observe this system in four filters from 0.9-4.0 microns wavelength (two at a time since the camera can use short- and long-wavelength channels simultaneously). The wavelengths are chosen to trace the way the dust effects fall off toward longer wavelengths, which is affected both by the sizes of the interstellar dust grains and how strongly they are clumped together. One filter matches one of the wavelengths at which small grains (or indeed large molecules, so-called PAH particles) emit, so we might be able to tell how they correlate with the larger particles blocking most of the light.
Because of the enormous sensitivity of JWST and NIRCAM, each filter is exposed for only 15 minutes to get very high measurement accuracy. (The telescope will probably take longer than that to point to VV191, depending on what it’s doing beforehand). Based on when JWST can view this part of the sky, these observations are most likely to be made between December 2022-March 2023, or May-July of 2023 (we should know more in a couple of weeks when the first year’s observation schedule is released). Watch this space…