Hubble Space Telescope Explains Oddball Galaxy’s Missing Dark Matter

New data from the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope provides further evidence for tidal disruption in the galaxy NGC 1052-DF4. This result explains a previous finding that this galaxy is missing most of its dark matter. By studying the galaxy’s light and globular cluster distribution, astronomers have concluded that the gravitational forces of the neighboring galaxy NGC 1035 stripped the dark matter from NGC 1052-DF4 and are now tearing the galaxy apart. This image, created from images forming part of the Digitized Sky Survey 2, shows the sky around NGC 1052-DF4.
Credit: ESA/Hubble, NASA, Digitized Sky Survey 2; Acknowledgment: Davide de Martin

In 2018 an international team of researchers using the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope and several other observatories uncovered, for the first time, a galaxy in our cosmic neighborhood that is missing most of its dark matter. This discovery of the galaxy NGC 1052-DF2 was a surprise to astronomers, as it was understood that dark matter is a key constituent in current models of galaxy formation and evolution. In fact, without the presence of dark matter, the primordial gas would lack enough gravitational pull to start collapsing and forming new galaxies. A year later, another galaxy that misses dark matter was discovered, NGC 1052-DF4, which further triggered intense debates among astronomers about the nature of these objects.

Now, new Hubble data have been used to explain the reason behind the missing dark matter in NGC 1052-DF4, which resides 45 million light-years away. Mireia Montes of the University of New South Wales in Australia led an international team of astronomers to study the galaxy using deep optical imaging. They discovered that the missing dark matter can be explained by the effects of tidal disruption. The gravity forces of the neighboring massive galaxy NGC 1035 are tearing NGC 1052-DF4 apart. During this process, the dark matter is removed, while the stars feel the effects of the interaction with another galaxy at a later stage.

Until now, the removal of dark matter in this way has remained hidden from astronomers as it can only be observed using extremely deep images that can reveal extremely faint features. “We used Hubble in two ways to discover that NGC 1052-DF4 is experiencing an interaction,” explained Montes. “This includes studying the galaxy’s light and the galaxy’s distribution of globular clusters.”

Thanks to Hubble’s high resolution, the astronomers could identify the galaxy’s globular cluster population. The 10.4-meter Gran Telescopio Canarias (GTC) telescope and the IAC80 telescope in the Canary Islands of Spain were also used to complement Hubble’s observations by further studying the data.

“It is not enough just to spend a lot of time observing the object, but a careful treatment of the data is vital,” explained team member Raúl Infante-Sainz of the Instituto de Astrofísica de Canarias in Spain. “It was therefore important that we use not just one telescope/instrument, but several (both ground- and space-based) to conduct this research. With the high resolution of Hubble, we can identify the globular clusters, and then with GTC photometry we obtain the physical properties.”

Globular clusters are thought to form in the episodes of intense star formation that shaped galaxies. Their compact sizes and luminosity make them easily observable, and they are therefore good tracers of the properties of their host galaxy. In this way, by studying and characterizing the spatial distribution of the clusters in NGC 1052-DF4, astronomers can develop insight into the present state of the galaxy itself. The alignment of these clusters suggests they are being “stripped” from their host galaxy, and this supports the conclusion that tidal disruption is occurring.

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