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Andromeda Galaxy: Scanned Using High-Energy X-Ray Vision

First Posted: Jan 13, 2016 02:12 PM EST

Scientists have captured one of the best high-energy X-ray views of a portion of Andromeda, which is one of the earth's closest and massive neighboring galaxies. The image was taken with NASA's Nuclear Spectroscopic Telescope Array, (NuSTAR). The mission researchers observed 40 "X-ray binaries," intense sources of X-rays composed of a black hole or a neutron star feeding on a stellar companion, according to a news release.

"Andromeda is the only large spiral galaxy where we can see individual X-ray binaries and study them in detail in an environment like our own," Daniel Wik, a researcher of the study, said in a news release. "We can then use this information to deduce what's going on in more distant galaxies, which are harder to see."

Researchers refer to Andromeda (also known as M31) as the big sister of the Milky Way galaxy. These galaxies are both spiral in shape, however, Andromeda is bigger than the Milky Way in size. During dark, clear skies Andromeda can be seen with the naked eye, even though it is 2.5 million light-years away.

X-ray binaries typically have a member that is a dead star or a remnant from the explosion of a star greater than the sun. A black hole or neutron stars may be produced from the explosion depending on the size and properties of the original star. Material from the companion star can fall into the edges of the black hole or neutron star. When the material falls, it is heated to high temperatures, which produces massive amounts of X-rays.  

"Studying the extreme stellar populations in Andromeda tells us about how its history of forming stars may be different than in our neighborhood," said Fiona Harrison, chief investigator of the NuSTAR mission.

The findings of this study can enable researchers to have a better understanding of X-ray binaries' role in the evolution of the universe.

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