Galactic Ballet recorded with the most modern dark energy camera

Galaxy NGC 1512

The interacting pair of galaxies NGC 1512 and NGC 1510 occupies a central place in this image from the Dark Energy Camera, a superb wide-field image from the 4-meter Víctor M. Blanco Telescope at the Cerro Tololo Inter-American Observatory, NSF’s NOIRLab program. NGC 1512 has been in the process of merging with its smaller galactic neighbor for 400 million years, and this long-lasting interaction ignited waves of star formation and distorted both galaxies. Credit: Dark Energy Survey / DOE / FNAL / DECam / CTIO / NOIRLab / NSF / AURA, Image Processing: TA Rector (University of Alaska Anchorage / NSF’s NOIRLab), J. Miller (Gemini Observatory / NSF’s NOIRLab), M Zamani & D. de Martin (NSF’s NOIRLab)

A DOE-funded dark energy camera at NSF’s NOIRLab in Chile captures a pair of galaxies performing a gravitational duet.

The interacting pair of galaxies NGC 1512 and NGC 1510 occupies a central place in this image from a dark energy camera created by the US Department of Energy, a superb 570 megapixel broadband image on the Víctor M. Blanco 4-meter Telescope at the Cerro Tololo Inter-American Observatory. NSF’s NOIRLab program. NGC 1512 has been in the process of merging with its smaller galactic neighbor for 400 million years, and this long-lasting interaction has ignited waves of star formation.

The spiral galaxy NGC 1512 (left) and its small neighbor NGC 1510 were captured in this observation (pictured at the top of the article) from the 4-meter Víctor M. Blanco telescope. In addition to revealing the intricate internal structure of NGC 1512, this image shows the thin outer tendrils of the galaxy that stretch and seem to envelop their tiny companion. The stellar flow of light that connects the two galaxies is proof of the gravitational interaction between them – a magnificent and graceful connection that has lasted for 400 million years. The gravitational interaction of NGC 1512 and NGC 1510 affected the rate of star formation in both galaxies, as well as the distortion of their shapes. Finally, NGC 1512 and NGC 1510 will merge into one larger galaxy – a long-standing example of galactic evolution.

Galaxy NGC 1512 wide

Expands image cropping NGC 1512. Credit: Dark Energy Survey / DOE / FNAL / DECam / CTIO / NOIRLab / NSF / AURA, Image Processing: TA Rector (University of Alaska Anchorage / NSF’s NOIRLab), J. Miller, Gemini Observatory / NSF NOIRLab), M. Zamani & D. de Martin (NSF NOIRLab)

These interacting galaxies lie in the direction of the constellation Horologium in the southern celestial hemisphere and are about 60 million light-years from Earth. The wide field of view of this observation shows not only intertwined galaxies, but also their surroundings with stars. The frame is inhabited by bright stars in the foreground inside[{” attribute=””>Milky Way and is set against a backdrop of even more distant galaxies.

The image was taken with one of the highest-performance wide-field imaging instruments in the world, the Dark Energy Camera (DECam). This instrument is perched atop the Víctor M. Blanco 4-meter Telescope and its vantage point allows it to collect starlight reflected by the telescope’s 4-meter-wide (13-foot-wide) mirror, a massive, aluminum-coated, and precisely shaped piece of glass roughly the weight of a semi truck. After passing through the optical innards of DECam — including a corrective lens nearly a meter (3.3 feet) across — starlight is captured by a grid of 62 charge-coupled devices (CCDs). These CCDs are similar to the sensors found in ordinary digital cameras but are far more sensitive, and allow the instrument to create detailed images of faint astronomical objects such as NGC 1512 and NGC 1510.

Galaxy NGC 1512 Wider

An even wider crop of the NGC 1512 image. Credit: Dark Energy Survey/DOE/FNAL/DECam/CTIO/NOIRLab/NSF/AURA, Image processing: T.A. Rector (University of Alaska Anchorage/NSF’s NOIRLab), J. Miller (Gemini Observatory/NSF’s NOIRLab), M. Zamani & D. de Martin (NSF’s NOIRLab)

Large astronomical instruments such as DECam are custom-built masterpieces of optical engineering, requiring enormous effort from astronomers, engineers, and technicians before the first images can be captured. Funded by the US Department of Energy (DOE) with contributions from international partners, DECam was built and tested at DOE’s Fermilab, where scientists and engineers built a “telescope simulator” — a replica of the upper segments of the Víctor M. Blanco 4-meter Telescope — that allowed them to thoroughly test DECam before shipping it to Cerro Tololo in Chile.


DECam was created to conduct the Dark Energy Survey (DES), a six-year observation campaign (2013-2019) involving over 400 scientists from 25 institutions in seven countries. This international joint effort is aimed at mapping hundreds of millions of galaxies, discovering thousands of supernovae and discovering delicate patterns of cosmic structure – all to provide much-needed details about the mysterious dark energy that is accelerating the expansion of the Universe. Today, DECam is still used for programs by scientists from around the world continuing its legacy of cutting-edge science.

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