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ESO 325-G004: Detailing the Big Picture

Evident from the Hubble image is the fact that ESO 325-G004 is home to thousands of globular clusters, small compact groups of hundreds of thousands of stars that are gravitationally bound systems. These clusters are dispersed spherically and uniformly in the outer halo of the elliptical and make their way around the center of the galaxy over the course of millions of years. Several foreground stars and background galaxies are also visible within the halo of this bright galaxy.

In the course of analyzing this Hubble image, astronomers discovered that the galaxy ESO325-004 is actually a "gravitational lens." This means that the focusing power of the enormous mass making up the galaxy causes the light from some background object, probably a distant "dwarf" galaxy, to be deflected and magnified. As a result, the more distant galaxy appears brighter, and distorted into the shape of an arc, or ring, known as an "Einstein ring" because the phenomenon was first predicted by Albert Einstein. Although the universe is filled with galaxies, gravitational lensing is a rare occurrence because it requires an almost perfect alignment of a distant galaxy with an intervening one that has enough mass to gravitationally focus the light.

Illustration Credit: NASA, ESA, and Z. Levay (STScI)

This particular system is unique because it is closest known example of strong gravitational lensing. The galaxy is close enough that the dynamics of its stars can be studied in detail using spectrographs on large ground-based telescopes. The spectrographs reveal how fast the stars in the galaxy are moving, and this allows astronomers to estimate how much mass must be present in the center of the galaxy. This estimate can in turn be compared to the amount of mass needed to produce the observed gravitational lensing effect. In this way, astronomers can build up a detailed, self-consistent picture of the matter distribution and dynamics of this unique nearby lensing system.

Seeing the Gravitational Rings Through the Galaxy

This image shows the infrared image (F814W) of the nucleus of ESO 325-G004 after subtracting a smooth boxy-elliptical profile model. This subtraction removes all of the smooth distribution of the elliptical galaxy, leaving only the residual gravitational rings. This method is commonly used for intrepreting such features of astronomical objects that overlap.

 

Image courtesy of
J. Blakeslee (Washington State University)