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Hubble Spies an Active Galaxy in Circinus

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Image: NASA, ANDREW S. WILSON (University of Maryland); PATRICK L. SHOPBELL (Caltech,); CHRIS SIMPSON (Subaru Telescope); THAISA STORCHI-BERGMANN and F.K.B. BARBOSA (UFRGS, Brazil); and MARTIN J. WARD (University of Leicester, U.K.)

Scientists led by Andrew Wilson of the University of Maryland are now using visible light images (such as the one shown here), along with infrared data, to unlock the secrets of this powerful type 2 Seyfert galaxy, located some 13 million light-years away in the southern constellation Circinus. Despite its relative proximity, scientists found this galaxy only some 25 years ago because it is hidden by dust. Type 2 Seyfert galaxies--which belong to a larger class of objects called Active Galactic Nuclei (AGN)--are typically spiral and thought to house massive black holes at their cores. AGN spew gases sucked from their centers out into space at tremendous speeds, and this galaxy appears to be no exception.

In this composite image, taken by NASA's Hubble Space Telescope, it is clear that much of the gas in Circinus's disk swirls in one of two rings--both areas of hot starburst activity. Earlier observations spotted the larger outer ring, which has a diameter of 1,300 light-years. In this picture, it extends off the edges in the plane of the galaxy's disk. The smaller ring, some 260 light-years wide, appears for the first time in this picture, on the inside of the green disk. In the middle of both rings, the galaxy's black hole is shooting out gas seen here as magenta streamers. Another V-shaped structure of gas, colored pale pink, is also visible in the center of the rings. It contains gas that has been heated by radiation from the black hole. Although it is not visible here, scientists believe that there is a counter cone extending in the opposite direction. Both cones glow with gas excited by ultraviolet radiation.

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