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Galactic ballet photography by Modern Dark Energy Camera

The interactive galaxy pair NGC 1512 and NGC 1510 are the focus of this image from the Dark Energy Camera, the latest wide-field imager on the Víctor M. Blanco 4-meter telescope at the Cerro Tololo Inter-American Observatory, NSF’s NOIRLab program. NGC 1512 has been merging with its smaller galactic neighbor for 400 million years, and this long-term interaction has unleashed waves of star formation and distorted both galaxies. Credit: Dark Energy Survey/DOE/FNAL/DECam/CTIO/NOIRLab/NSF/AURA, Image processing: TA Rector (University of Alaska Anchorage/NSF NOIRLab), J. Miller (Gemini Observatory/NSF NOIRLab), M. De Martin (NSF’s NOIRLab)

The Department of Energy-funded Dark Energy Camera at NSF’s NOIRLab in Chile images a pair of galaxies with gravitational binoculars.

The interactive galaxy pair NGC 1512 and NGC 1510 are the focus of this image from the US Department of Energy’s Dark Energy Camera, the latest 570-megapixel wide-field image taken by the Víctor M. Blanco 4-meter telescope at the Cerro Tololo Inter-American Observatory, It is a NSF NOIRLab affiliate program. NGC 1512 has been merging with its smaller galactic neighbor for 400 million years, and this long-term interaction has unleashed waves of star formation.

The barrier spiral galaxy NGC 1512 (left) and its small galaxy NGC 1510 in this observation (image at top of article) were imaged with the 4-meter Víctor M. Blanco telescope. This image not only reveals the complex inner structure of NGC 1512, but also shows the galaxy’s faint outer tendrils, which appear to be expanding and surrounding its small companion. The stream of starlight connecting the two galaxies is evidence of the gravitational interaction between them – a luxurious and graceful union that has lasted 400 million years. Gravitational interactions between NGC 1512 and NGC 1510 affected the rate of star formation in both galaxies and distorted their shapes. Eventually, NGC 1512 and NGC 1510 will merge into a single larger galaxy – a long example of galactic evolution.

Galaxy NGC 1512 wide

Larger crop of image of NGC 1512. Credit: Dark Energy Survey/DOE/FNAL/DECam/CTIO/NOIRLab/NSF/AURA, Image Processing: TA Rector (University of Alaska Anchorage/NSF’s NOIRLab), J. Miller (Gemini Observatory/NSF’s NOIRLab), M. de Martin (NOIRLab by NSF)

These interacting galaxies are located toward the Horologium constellation in the southern celestial hemisphere, about 60 million light-years from Earth. The wide field of view of this observation reveals not only the tangled galaxies but also their starry surroundings. The frame is full of bright front stars inside[{“ attribute=““>Milky Way and is set against a backdrop of even more distant galaxies.

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The image was taken with one of the highest-performance wide-field imaging instruments in the world, the Dark Energy Camera (DECam). This instrument is perched atop the Víctor M. Blanco 4-meter Telescope and its vantage point allows it to collect starlight reflected by the telescope’s 4-meter-wide (13-foot-wide) mirror, a massive, aluminum-coated, and precisely shaped piece of glass roughly the weight of a semi truck. After passing through the optical innards of DECam — including a corrective lens nearly a meter (3.3 feet) across — starlight is captured by a grid of 62 charge-coupled devices (CCDs). These CCDs are similar to the sensors found in ordinary digital cameras but are far more sensitive, and allow the instrument to create detailed images of faint astronomical objects such as NGC 1512 and NGC 1510.

Galaxy NGC 1512 WiderGalaxy NGC 1512 Wider

An even wider crop of the NGC 1512 image. Credit: Dark Energy Survey/DOE/FNAL/DECam/CTIO/NOIRLab/NSF/AURA, Image processing: T.A. Rector (University of Alaska Anchorage/NSF’s NOIRLab), J. Miller (Gemini Observatory/NSF’s NOIRLab), M. Zamani & D. de Martin (NSF’s NOIRLab)

Large astronomical instruments such as DECam are custom-built masterpieces of optical engineering, requiring enormous effort from astronomers, engineers, and technicians before the first images can be captured. Funded by the US Department of Energy (DOE) with contributions from international partners, DECam was built and tested at DOE’s Fermilab, where scientists and engineers built a “telescope simulator” — a replica of the upper segments of the Víctor M. Blanco 4-meter Telescope — that allowed them to thoroughly test DECam before shipping it to Cerro Tololo in Chile.


DECam was set up to conduct the Dark Energy Survey (DES), a six-year (2013-2019) observational campaign involving more than 400 scientists from 25 institutions in seven countries. This international collaborative effort aimed to map hundreds of millions of galaxies, detect thousands of supernovae, and uncover subtle patterns of cosmic structure – all to provide much-needed details about the mysterious dark energy accelerating the expansion of the universe. Today, DECam is still used by scientists from around the world for software to continue its legacy of cutting-edge research.

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