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Scientists Discover Bizarre 'Frankenstein' Cannibal Galaxy Unlike Any Other

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At left, in optical light, UGC 1382 (the "Frankenstein" galaxy) appears to be a simple elliptical galaxy. But spiral arms emerged when astronomers incorporated ultraviolet and deep optical data (middle). Combining that with a view of low-density hydrogen gas (shown in green at right), scientists discovered that UGC 1382 is gigantic. (Photo courtesy of JPL)
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Surprise! A couple of scientists in Pasadena accidentally discovered a massive, utterly bizarre new "Frankenstein" galaxy that is unlike anything previously known to us earthlings. Located about 250 million light-years away from us, the galaxy in question has been catalogued since the 1960s, but everyone always thought it was a small, relatively boring galaxy in "a neighborhood of our universe that astronomers had considered quiet and unremarkable," according to a NASA press release. It turns out everyone was wrong.

The Frankenstein galaxy is not just colossal, it's also thought to be formed from cannibalized parts of other galaxies—hence the name. Scientists have apparently known about the phenomenon of galaxy cannibalization for a while now; what distinguishes Frankenstein is that it's inverted, meaning that it's younger on the inside than outside, which is basically unheard of as far as galaxies go. "This is like finding a tree whose inner growth rings are younger than the outer rings," Mark Seibert, a senior research analyst at Pasadena's Observatories of the Carnegie Institution for Science, said in a NASA press release.

Seibert, who co-authored a paper on the new findings, spoke to LAist about the discovery and what it means. Basically, way back when the Frankenstein galaxy was still referred to as UGC 1382 and had yet to warrant a special nickname, scientists mistakenly thought it was an elliptical galaxy (i.e. a round-ish blob of old, red stars without a spiral structure, unlike our beautiful, spiraling Milky Way galaxy).

Elliptical galaxies are the most common form of galaxy and are shaped roughly like a football, as opposed to disk galaxies, which are more complex and frisbee shaped. A scientist named Lea Hagen had begun studying elliptical galaxies as an undergraduate, working at the Carnegie Institute between her junior and senior year of college. Hagen's interest in science had begun early: she told her third grade classmates that she wanted "to be the first person on Mars, and then work for the Weather Channel."

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Lea Hagen working at a satellite NASA Mission Center in Pennsylvania earlier this year. (Photo courtesy of Lea Hagen)
She continued her research with the team after she left for graduate school in Pennsylvania, returning to spend summers in a basement office in Pasadena. Three years ago, she was still working on the same project, studying those run-of-the mill elliptical galaxies when she noticed something kind of strange. "Okay, next galaxy, next galaxy, next galaxy, let's get through all these galaxies," she remembered thinking at the time, having made her way through pictures of something like 6,000 galaxies over the course of the project. But looking at an image of UGC 1382 in ultraviolet light, Hagen saw spiral arms extending from the galaxy. This was something no one had noticed before, and definitely not something an elliptical galaxy should have.

"She pulled it up and we were like, 'Whoa, thats kind of crazy, because of those huge extended spiral arms sticking out of it," Mark Seibert told LAist.

That was just the beginning.

"Once we realized exactly how huge this thing was, we just spent the time trying to collect all the different data that we possibly could, and every little step of the way I was a little bit more surprised by this thing," Seibert said.

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"I specifically remember Barry [Madore, another senior researcher at Carnegie] and Lea and I sitting in a room and going over some of the information on this thing early on in the project. Barry is one of the world's foremost experts on galaxy morphology, and we were giving him the details of the weird things we were finding out about this, and he's the one who initially was like 'What? It's how big?' And so we told him the number and he was like, 'Oh my god, that's insane, that's one of the biggest galaxies ever."

"It was one of those moments where you just all look around the table at each other and go 'Whoa, holy crap,'" Seibert said.

Not only was this one of the largest disk galaxies that had ever been detected, but because it happened to be "close" enough for us for the scientists to obtain so much data on it, they were able to perform all sorts of models on it. It was during this modeling that they found the second thing that was, as Seibert put it, "really, really bizarre."

It's widely accepted that galaxies grow from the inside out, building up stars and getting bigger and bigger, with the outside always being younger than the inside, according to Seibert.

"There might be a little bit of mixing," Seibert said, "but typically the outside is obviously of much younger material than the inside." Anything else, especially a galaxy that was younger in the middle, is essentially unheard of. That just not how galaxies grow.

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And yet UGC 1382 seemed to have evolved in exactly that matter, with the bulgy part in the middle being younger than its outer spiral arms. The team initially thought that what they were seeing had to be wrong.

"It was a long, drawn-out process of modeling, and thinking that all of your models couldn't possibly be correct, and just spending months and months going over it and checking it and comparing it to other things," Seibert explained.

Through incredibly specific circumstances in an isolated corner of the universe, a galactic structure unlike any we humans had previously studied had formed over some 3 billion years, as the Frankenstein galaxy slowly subsumed its neighbors. Stitched together from the pieces of several other galaxies, the Frankenstein galaxy is a massive 718,000 light-years in diameter, and by understanding it we might get clues that will help us understand how galaxies form on a larger scale.

"All of the credit really has to go Lea," Barry Madore said over the phone.

Though not unprecedented, it's always exciting to see a major scientific discovery being credited to a woman, especially a relatively young one. Asked about the representation of women in her field, Hagen said that "astronomy was slowly getting better, but there is still a lot of work to do." She said that she spends a lot of time thinking about how astronomy can be more inclusive of women and other underrepresented groups.

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She has faced little overt sexism, but unconscious bias remains an issue. There's still this thing, she said, "Where people unconsciously assume that me as a woman, or someone else who doesn't fit the stereotype of a scientist, isn't as good at what they do."

"How do we train people to look at two resumes, one that's from a man, and one that's from a woman; or somebody who's white and somebody who's not white, [and see them in the same light]?" she asked. "They're the same, but we tend to interpret them as different. Which is not okay: we are scientists, we should know better!"

Hopefully, discoveries like Hagen's will help the science community do just that.