Elliptical Elegance – ESO Views Elliptical Galaxy NGC 5018

ESO Views Elliptical Elegance

This deep image of the area of sky around the elliptical galaxy NGC 5018 offers a spectacular view of its tenuous streams of stars and gas. These delicate features are hallmarks of galactic interactions, and provide vital clues to the structure and dynamics of early-type galaxies. Credit: ESO/Spavone et al.

A glittering host of galaxies populate this rich image taken with ESO’s VLT Survey Telescope, a state-of-the-art 2.6-m telescope designed for surveying the sky in visible light. The features of the multitude of galaxies strewn across the image allow astronomers to uncover the most delicate details of galactic structure.

Whereas ESO’s Very Large Telescope (VLT) can observe very faint astronomical objects in great detail, when astronomers want to understand how the huge variety of galaxies come into being they must turn to a different sort of telescope with a much bigger field of view. The VLT Survey Telescope (VST) is such a telescope. It was designed to explore vast swathes of the pristine Chilean night skies, offering astronomers detailed astronomical surveys of the southern hemisphere.

Elliptical Galaxy NGC 5018

This wider-area image around the elliptical galaxy NGC 5018 offers a different perspective on the cosmic vastness. If seen with the unaided eye it will look almost empty. Here the extremely sensitive detectors of the VST have captured a myriad of stars, galaxies, and even a few errant asteroids crossing this area of the sky during the long exposures need to obtain the image. Credit: ESO/Spavone et al.

The powerful surveying properties of the VST led an international team of astronomers to conduct the VST Early-type GAlaxy Survey (VEGAS) to examine a collection of elliptical galaxies in the southern hemisphere. Using the sensitive OmegaCAM detector at the heart of the VST, a team led by Marilena Spavone from INAF-Astronomical Observatory of Capodimonte in Naples, Italy, captured images of a wide variety of such galaxies in different environments.

One of these galaxies is NGC 5018, the milky-white galaxy near the centre of this image. It lies in the constellation of Virgo (The Virgin) and may at first resemble nothing but a diffuse blob. But, on closer inspection, a tenuous stream of stars and gas — a tidal tail — can be seen stretching outwards from this elliptical galaxy. Delicate galactic features such as tidal tails and stellar streams are hallmarks of galactic interactions, and provide vital clues to the structure and dynamics of galaxies.


The peerless surveying properties of the VST uncover exquisite details of the elliptical galaxy NGC 5018 and the delicate streams of gas and stars that surround it. Discover more in this episode of ESOcast Light.

As well as the many elliptical (and a few spiral) galaxies in this remarkable 400-megapixel image, a colourful variety of bright foreground stars in our own Milky Way Galaxy also pepper the image. These stellar interlopers, such as the vividly blue HD 114746 near the centre of the image, are not the intended subjects of this astronomical portrait, but happen to lie between the Earth and the distant galaxies under study. Less prominent, but no less fascinating, are the faint tracks left by asteroids in our own Solar System. Just below NGC 5018, the faint streak left by the asteroid 2001 TJ21 (110423) — captured over several successive observations — can be seen stretching across the image. Further to the right, another asteroid — 2000 WU69 (98603) — left its trace in this spectacular image.


This zoom video starts with a wide view of the Milky Way and ends with a close-up look at the elliptical galaxy NGC 5018 its surroundings in the constellation of Virgo.

While astronomers set out to investigate the delicate features of distant galaxies millions of light-years from Earth, in the process they also captured images of nearby stars hundreds of light-years away, and even the faint trails of asteroids only light-minutes away in our own Solar System. Even when studying the furthest reaches of the cosmos, the sensitivity of ESO telescopes and dark Chilean skies can offer entrancing observations much closer to home.


This pan video takes a closer look of the elliptical galaxy NGC 5018 and the tender streams of stars and gas left over from dramatic galactic collisions in the past. The extremely sensitive detectors of the VST have captured a myriad of stars, galaxies, and even a few errant asteroids crossing this area of the sky during the long exposures need to obtain the image. Credit: ESO, Spavone et al. Music: James Creasey

This research was presented in the paper “VEGAS: A VST Early-type GAlaxy Survey. III. Mapping the galaxy structure, interactions and intragroup light in the NGC 5018 group” by Marilena Spavone et al., to appear in the Astrophysical Journal.

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