Press Release

Dying Stars Indicate Lots of Dark Matter in Giant Galaxy

15 April 1994

Very difficult and time-consuming observations performed with the ESO 3.5-metre New Technology Telescope (NTT) in November 1993 by an international team of astronomers [1], indicate that up to 90 percent of the matter in a distant giant galaxy maybe of a kind that cannot be seen by normal telescopes.

The astronomers were able to observe the individual motions of 37 extremely faint Planetary Nebulae [2] in the outskirts of the giant elliptical galaxy NGC 1399 that is located at the centre of the southern Fornax cluster of galaxies, at a distance of about 50 millionlight-years. The mass of the galaxy can be inferred from these motions: the faster they are, the more massive is the galaxy. Surprisingly, the total mass of NGC 1399 found from these new measurements is about ten times as large as the combined mass of the stars and nebulae seen in this galaxy.

These new results also have important implications for the current ideas about the formation of giant galaxies.


Galaxies are the basic building blocks of the Universe. Some look like spinning spirals, like our own Milky Way galaxy, with its several hundreds of billions of stars in a flat, rotating disk. Some galaxies lead a comparatively quiet life, others are violent and explosive. But perhaps the most enigmatic of them all are the largest ones, the giant elliptical galaxies. They are huge collections of stars and hot gas, 100 times brighter than the Milky Way and in many of them, the hot gas is a powerful emitter of radio waves and X-rays. The giant galaxies are mostly found at the centres of vast clusters of hundreds or thousands of smaller galaxies, like swarms of bees about the central hive.

How did these great galaxies form at the centres of their clusters? Astronomers who make computer simulations of the early Universe believe they know the answer. In their simulations, they see these giant galaxies forming by gradual aggregation of small clumps of matter falling towards the centre, thereby making larger and larger bodies as time progresses. But how sure can we be that this theory is correct? It turns out that a crucial test is to measure how the matter now moves in the outskirts of these huge galaxies, at distances of 100,000 light-years or more from their centres.


Swirling motion, or rotation, in galaxies comes originally from clumps of matter raising tides on each other through their gravitational pull, just as the Moon raises tides on the Earth. The tug of these tides makes the clumps spin. When the swirling clumps come together in computer simulations of what is going on in a newborn galaxy, they keep interacting, and the amount of swirling motion ("angular momentum") is gradually shifted outward into the far outer regions of the new galaxy.

If this theory is correct, we should therefore now see slow swirling motion or rotation in the inner parts of the giant galaxies, but quite rapid motion in their far outer regions. The first part is not so difficult to check observationally: the inner parts of giant galaxies are relatively bright and we can easily measure their rotation from the observed Doppler shift of the light from the stars and nebulae which are located here. However, to measure the rotation in the outer parts has, until now, proved impossible, because out there the light from the galaxy is just too faint to be observed, even with large astronomical telescopes.


Fortunately, a few years ago it was realised that there are some excellent beacons that we can use to measure the swirling motion far out in giant galaxies. These are the planetary nebulae that are created during the last dying act of stars like the Sun. Such objects are rare, because the planetary nebula phase does not last long in astronomical terms, but in these huge galaxies a few hundred of them may still be present in the outer regions at any time.

The shining gas in a planetary nebula emits most of its light at one particular wavelength in the green part of the spectrum [3]. This fortunate concentration of the light energy makes it possible to see them and to measure the velocities of individual planetary nebulae in galaxies, even at relatively large distances.

The present team of astronomers had earlier used planetary nebulae to study the motions in several nearby galaxies (closer than 20 million light-years), but never before had they attempted to investigate a giant elliptical galaxy. This is because even the nearest of these rare objects is so far away (50 million light-years) that the light from its planetary nebulae is extremely faint and therefore in principle out of range for existing astronomical telescopes.


Still, the team decided to try. As Magda Arnaboldi, the leader of the team puts it: "We thought that such an observation may just be possible with one of the best optical telescopes in the world, the ESO 3.5-metre New Technology Telescope (NTT) at La Silla in Chile. So we applied for observing time and were pleased to obtain three nights in November 1993.''

The object of their investigation was the giant elliptical galaxy NGC 1399, the supposedly nearest galaxy of its type and located at the very centre of one of the largest clusters of galaxies in the southern sky, the Fornax cluster (referring to the constellation towards which it is seen). The visual magnitudes of the planetary nebulae in NGC 1399 are around 27, i.e., they are 250,000,000 times fainter than what can be seen with the unaided eye. It is not too difficult to record direct point-like images of each of them with the NTT. However, the measurement of their motions implies that this sparse light must be dispersed and spectrally analysed, an almost impossible feat for such faint objects.

For this daunting task, the astronomers used the ESO Multi-Mode Instrument (EMMI), which incorporates a multi-object spectrograph that allows to measure the velocities of many planetary nebulae at once. In view of the very long exposure times needed, this is an absolute must in order to perform these observations within the available telescope time.

Before the observations can begin, the exact positions of the planetary nebulae are measured. A metal mask is then prepared with holes that permit the light from these objects to pass into EMMI, but at the same time blocks most of the much brighter, disturbing light emitted the by Earth's atmosphere. With an additional optical filter, all but the green light is effectively filtered out; this further "removes" unwanted light and improves the chances of effective registration of the faint light from the planetary nebulae in NGC


The careful preparations paid off and this observational strategy was successful. During two of the allocated nights (the third was lost due to bad weather), the Australian observers (Magda Arnaboldi and Ken Freeman) were able for the first time to measure individual velocities for 37 planetary nebulae in NGC 1399. Some of these are indicated on the picture that accompanies this Press Release. The difficulty of this observation is illustrated by the fact that in order to catch enough light from these faint objects, the total exposure time was no less than 5 hours and only one field on either side of the galaxy could be observed per night.

Already at the telescope the astronomers realised that the new results are very exciting; this was fully confirmed by the following long and complicated process of data reduction. In fact, although the inner parts of this galaxy rotate quite slowly, the planetary nebulae in the outer regions are in rapid motion and clearly indicate a fast rotation of these parts of the galaxy.

This new observation is just as expected from the above described theory for the formation of giant galaxies and therefore provides very strong support for this theory.


Perhaps the most exciting result is that these measurements also allow an estimate of how much of this giant galaxy is in the form of dark matter. From the large spread in the observed velocities of the 37 planetary nebulae, it is apparent that the total mass of NGC 1399 must be very large, and that no more than 10 percent of this mass is contained in the stars and gas we observe in it. In other words: the remaining 90 percent of the mass of NGC 1399 must consist of dark, "invisible'' matter.

This is another very clear observational confirmation of the apparent presence of dark matter in the Universe, already indicated by various other types of astronomical investigations. Although many suggestions have been made about the nature of this dark matter, nothing is known for sure at this moment.

The most important implication of the existence of dark matter is that its gravitational attraction may be sufficient to ultimately stop the current expansion of the Universe. If so, the Universe will later begin to contract and probably end its present phase in a "Big Crunch", many billions of years from now.

1 Magda Arnaboldi Gnidica and Ken C. Freeman (Mt. Stromlo Observatory, Canberra ACT, Australia), Xiaohui Hui (Astronomy Department, California Institute of Technology, Pasadena, California, U.S.A.), Massimo Capaccioli (Dipartimento di Astronomia, Universita' di Padova, Padova, and Osservatorio Astronomico di Capodimonte, Napoli, Italy) and Holland Ford (Physics and Astronomy Department, The Johns Hopkins University, Baltimore, Maryland, U.S.A.)

2 Planetary Nebulae are formed when stars like our Sun are about to die and throw off a great shining shell of gas. This gives them the appearance of a small nebula surrounding a central star, and this is why they are called "planetary'', although they have nothing to do with planets.

3 This light is emitted at wavelength 500.7 nm by doubly ionised oxygen atoms ([O III])

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About the Release

Release No.:eso9405
Legacy ID:PR 05/94
Name:NGC 1399
Type:Local Universe : Galaxy : Type : Elliptical
Facility:New Technology Telescope


Planetary nebulae in NGC 1399
Planetary nebulae in NGC 1399