The giant elliptical galaxy Centaurus A (NGC 5128) and its strange globular clusters
The strange galaxy Centaurus A in the constellation of Centaurus
Wide-field view of the giant galaxy Centaurus A
Panning across the giant elliptical galaxy Centaurus A (NGC 5128) and its strange globular clusters
VLT discovers new kind of globular star cluster
Observations with ESO’s Very Large Telescope in Chile have discovered a new class of “dark” globular star clusters around the giant galaxy Centaurus A. These mysterious objects look similar to normal clusters, but contain much more mass and may either harbour unexpected amounts of dark matter, or contain massive black holes — neither of which was expected nor is understood.
Globular star clusters are huge balls of thousands of stars that orbit most galaxies. They are among the oldest known stellar systems in the Universe and have survived through almost the entire span of galaxy growth and evolution.
Matt Taylor, a PhD student at the Pontificia Universidad Catolica de Chile, Santiago, Chile, and holder of an ESO Studentship, is lead author of the new study. He sets the scene: “Globular clusters and their constituent stars are keys to understanding the formation and evolution of galaxies. For decades, astronomers thought that the stars that made up a given globular cluster all shared the same ages and chemical compositions — but we now know that they are stranger and more complicated creatures.”
The elliptical galaxy Centaurus A (also known as NGC 5128) is the closest giant galaxy to the Milky Way and is suspected to harbour as many as 2000 globular clusters. Many of these globulars are brighter and more massive than the 150 or so orbiting the Milky Way.
Matt Taylor and his team have now made the most detailed studies so far of a sample of 125 globular star clusters around Centaurus A using the FLAMES instrument on ESO’s Very Large Telescope at the Paranal Observatory in northern Chile .
They used these observations to deduce the mass of the clusters  and compare this result with how brightly each of the clusters shines.
For most of the clusters in the new survey, the brighter ones had more mass in the way that was expected — if a cluster contains more stars it has greater total brightness and more total mass. But for some of the globulars something strange showed up: they were many times more massive than they looked. And even more strangely, the more massive these unusual clusters were, the greater the fraction of their material was dark. Something in these clusters was dark, hidden and massive. But what?
There were several possibilities. Perhaps the dark clusters contain black holes, or other dark stellar remnants in their cores? This may be a factor that explains some of the hidden mass, but the team concludes that it cannot be the whole story. What about dark matter? Globular clusters are normally considered to be almost devoid of this mysterious substance, but perhaps, for some unknown reason, some clusters have retained significant dark matter clumps in their cores. This would explain the observations but does not fit into conventional theory.
Co-author Thomas Puzia adds: “Our discovery of star clusters with unexpectedly high masses for the amount of stars they contain hints that there might be multiple families of globular clusters, with differing formation histories. Apparently some star clusters look like, walk like, and smell like run-of-the-mill globulars, but there may quite literally be more to them than meets the eye.”
These objects remain a mystery. The team is also engaged in a wider survey of other globular clusters in other galaxies and there are some intriguing hints that such dark clusters may also be found elsewhere.
Matt Taylor sums up the situation: “We have stumbled on a new and mysterious class of star cluster! This shows that we still have much to learn about all aspects of globular cluster formation. It’s an important result and we now need to find further examples of dark clusters around other galaxies.”
 Up to now astronomers have studied star clusters to this detail only in the Local Group. The relatively small distances make direct measurements of their masses possible. Looking at NGC 5128, which is an isolated, massive elliptical galaxy just outside the Local Group about 12 million light-years away, they were able to estimate masses of globular clusters in a completely different environment by pushing VLT/FLAMES to its limits.
 The FLAMES observations provide information about the motions of the stars in the clusters. This orbital information depends on the strength of the gravitational field and can hence be used to deduce the mass of the cluster — astronomers call such estimates dynamical masses. The light gathering power of a 8.2-metre VLT Unit Telescope mirror and FLAMES’s ability to observe more than 100 clusters simultaneously was the key to collecting the data necessary for the study.
This research was presented in a paper entitled “Observational evidence for a dark side to NGC 5128’s globular cluster system”, by M. Taylor et al., to appear in the Astrophysical Journal.
The team is composed of Matthew A. Taylor (Pontificia Universidad Catolica de Chile, Santiago, Chile; ESO, Santiago, Chile), Thomas H. Puzia (Pontificia Universidad Catolica de Chile), Matias Gomez (Universidad Andres Bello, Santiago, Chile) and Kristin A. Woodley (University of California, Santa Cruz, California, USA).
ESO is the foremost intergovernmental astronomy organisation in Europe and the world’s most productive ground-based astronomical observatory by far. It is supported by 16 countries: Austria, Belgium, Brazil, the Czech Republic, Denmark, France, Finland, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Poland, Portugal, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland and the United Kingdom, along with the host state of Chile. ESO carries out an ambitious programme focused on the design, construction and operation of powerful ground-based observing facilities enabling astronomers to make important scientific discoveries. ESO also plays a leading role in promoting and organising cooperation in astronomical research. ESO operates three unique world-class observing sites in Chile: La Silla, Paranal and Chajnantor. At Paranal, ESO operates the Very Large Telescope, the world’s most advanced visible-light astronomical observatory and two survey telescopes. VISTA works in the infrared and is the world’s largest survey telescope and the VLT Survey Telescope is the largest telescope designed to exclusively survey the skies in visible light. ESO is a major partner in ALMA, the largest astronomical project in existence. And on Cerro Armazones, close to Paranal, ESO is building the 39-metre European Extremely Large Telescope, the E-ELT, which will become “the world’s biggest eye on the sky”.
Matthew A. Taylor
Pontificia Universidad Catolica de Chile
Thomas H. Puzia
Pontificia Universidad Catolica de Chile
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