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UP researcher uses MeerKAT to discover large gas-rich galaxy group hiding in plain sight

A study led by a University of Pretoria (UP) master’s student using South Africa’s MeerKAT telescope has led to the discovery of a group of 20 galaxies. This large galaxy group is likely the most neutral hydrogen gas-rich group ever discovered, and it is the first time this group has been identified, despite residing in a very well-studied area of the sky.

The research was led by Shilpa Ranchod, an MSc student in the University of Pretoria’s (UP) Department of Physics, supervised by Professor Roger Deane, Founder of the UP Radio Astronomy Research Group, and now Extraordinary Professor. “The distribution of neutral hydrogen gas in these galaxies has revealed interesting, disturbed morphologies suggesting that these galaxies are group members and are being influenced by their cosmic neighbours in the group,” Ranchod said. “For example, we found an interacting pair of galaxies that will potentially merge to form a new galaxy with a completely transformed appearance.”

Ranchod added that the MeerKAT observations show a galaxy group in its early stages of formation, which is extremely rare. “Through this, we are able to understand how galaxy groups are assembled and evolve. This group inhabits an area of sky that has been studied by many other telescopes, but the group structure has been revealed for the first time due to MeerKAT’s excellent sensitivity.”

Optical image of the galaxy group with three-colour optical images of each member galaxy. The red outline indicates the extent of the neutral hydrogen gas around each galaxy. The central image, also showing the many thousands of background galaxies, is one degree on each side, large enough to fit four full moons. (Shilpa Ranchod/MIGHTEE/HSC project)

Most star-forming galaxies are embedded within a cloud of cold neutral hydrogen gas, which acts as the raw fuel from which stars can eventually form. This gas is extremely faint, and can only be detected in radio wavelengths. It is diffuse, and extends beyond the visible part of the galaxy. By observing this hydrogen gas, astronomers are able to understand the evolutionary processes that take place in galaxies.

The majority of galaxies in the Universe reside in groups. However, it is rare to detect a group with such a large number of group members with so much neutral hydrogen. This suggests that the group is still in the process of assembly, as it has not undergone evolutionary processes that would remove this gas from the galaxies.

This galaxy group was discovered by the MeerKAT International Gigahertz Tiered Extragalactic Exploration (MIGHTEE) survey. It is one of the large survey projects in progress using South Africa’s MeerKAT telescope, and involves a team of South African and international astronomers.

The MeerKAT radio telescope in the Northern Cape, South Africa’s precursor to the Square Kilometre Array (SKA), aims to answer fundamental questions about the formation and evolution of galaxies. Its exceptional sensitivity provides astronomers with further insight into the drivers of galaxy evolution.

Ranchod’s galaxy group was found in a survey that produces hundreds of terabytes of data, which are processed via the cloud computing facility hosted by the inter-university Institute of Data-Intensive Astronomy (IDIA), a partnership between the Universities of Pretoria, Cape Town, and the Western Cape. DM

This discovery was published in the Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society. 

For more information visit www.up.ac.za  



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