Uncovering True Distances in Space

NGC 1356, LEDA 467699, LEDA 95415, and IC 1947

Hubble Space Telescope captured this image showcasing the spiral galaxies NGC 1356, LEDA 467699, LEDA 95415, and IC 1947. Credit: ESA/Hubble & NASA, J. Dalcanton, Dark Energy Survey/DOE/FNAL/NOIRLab/NSF/AURA, Acknowledgment: L. Shatz

This week’s Hubble Picture highlights a collection of fascinating spiral galaxies. On the right side of the image, we have the large and prominent spiral galaxy called NGC 1356. Positioned above NGC 1356 is the seemingly smaller spiral galaxy named LEDA 467699, while LEDA 95415 is located very close to its left. Finally, along the left side of the image, we find IC 1947.

This image provides an intriguing example of the challenges involved in determining whether two galaxies are actually close companions or simply appear that way from our perspective on Earth. At first glance, one might assume that NGC 1356, LEDA 467699, and LEDA 95415 are all closely interacting. However, it’s important to remember that two-dimensional images, like this one, only convey angular separation, indicating how objects are spread across the night sky. They do not accurately represent the distance between these objects and Earth.

For instance, even though NGC 1356 and LEDA 95415 appear to be in close proximity, NGC 1356 is approximately 550 million light-years away from us, and LEDA 95415 is roughly 840 million light-years distant. This means there is an astounding separation of nearly 300 million light-years between them. Consequently, LEDA 95415 is likely not as much smaller than NGC 1356 as it seems.

In contrast, while NGC 1356 and IC 1947 appear to be distantly separated in this image, IC 1947 is actually only about 500 million light-years away from Earth. The apparent angular distance between them in this image translates to less than four hundred thousand light-years, making them much closer neighbors in three-dimensional space than NGC 1356 and LEDA 95415!

Understanding the true nature and distances between these galaxies adds to our appreciation of the vastness and complexity of the universe.

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