The Big Picture: measuring the 'Eye of Sauron' galaxy

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The galaxy you see here (NGC 4151) may be best-known for looking a bit like the Eye of Sauron in the Lord of the Rings movies, but it's now much more important than that -- it may be the key to mapping the universe. Researchers at the Univerity of Southampton have developed a measurement technique that helped them gauge the distance of NGC 4151 (and possibly other galaxies) with greater precision than any previous method would allow. Instead of using the light from other galaxies as a rough yardstick, the team compared the physical size of the dust ring around NGC 4151's black hole against the apparent size taken from infrared readings. These relatively concrete pieces of information helped them narrow down the distance of the galaxy from a very broad range of 4 to 29 megaparsecs to 19, or about 62 million light years; even with 10 percent uncertainty, that's a vast improvement.

It's just one celestial body, but scientists believe that their approach should work with other galaxies, including those that couldn't be measured before. So long as the method holds up, it could give us not just a better sense of where things are in the universe, but the masses of black holes and thus the expansion rate of... well, everything. Don't be shocked if astronomers eventually have to tweak their theories of universe formation based on what they see in this picture.

[Image credit: NASA/CXC/CFA/J.Wang et. al./ING/JKT/NSF/NRAO/VL]

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