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Burçin's galaxy

Speed read
  • Astronomer Burçin Mutlu-Pakdil plays instrumental role in discovery and analysis of an entirely new type of galaxy
  • ‘Burçin’s galaxy’ possesses features never before observed in any other galaxy
  • Mutlu-Pakdil hopes to inspire girls and minorities to pursue a career in STEM

As a little girl growing up in Turkey, Burçin Mutlu-Pakdil loved the stars.

Burçin's galaxy, AKA PGC 1000714, is a unique, double-ringed, Hoag-type galaxy exhibiting features never observed before. Courtesy North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences.

“How is it possible not to fall in love with stars?” wonders Mutlu-Pakdil. “I find it very difficult not to be curious about the Universe, about the Milky Way and how everything got together. I really want to learn more. I love my job because of that.”

<strong>Young or old?</strong> The object's blue outer rings suggests it may have formed more recently than the center.Her job is at The University of Arizona’s Steward Observatory, one of the world’s premier astronomy facilities, where she works as a postdoctoral astrophysics research associate.

Just a few years ago, while earning her Ph.D. at the University of Minnesota, Mutlu-Pakdil and her colleagues  discovered PGC 1000174, a galaxy with qualities so rare they’ve never been observed anywhere else. For now, it’s known as Burçin’s Galaxy.

The object was originally detected by Patrick Treuthardt, who was observing a different galaxy when he spotted it in the background. It piqued the astronomers’ attention because of an initial resemblance to Hoag’s Object. This rare galaxy is known for its yellow-orange center surrounded by a detached outer ring.

“Our object looks very similar to Hoag's Object. It has a very symmetric central body with a very symmetric outer ring,” explains Mutlu-Pakdil. “But my work showed that there is actually a second ring on this object. This makes it much more complex.”

Through extensive imaging and analysis, Mutlu-Pakdil found that, unlike Hoag’s Object, this new galaxy has two rings with no visible materials attaching them, a phenomenon not seen before. It offered the first-ever observation and description of a double-ringed elliptical galaxy.

<strong>Eye on the universe.</strong> Sophisticated instruments like the 8.2 meter optical-infrared Subaru Telescope on the summit of Mauna Kea in Hawaii allow astronomers to peer ever further into the stars--and into the origins of the universe.Since spotting the intriguing galaxy, Mutlu-Pakdil and her team have evaluated it in several ways. They initially observed it via the Irénéé du Pont two-meter telescope at the Las Campanas observatory in Chile. And they recently captured infrared images with the Magellan 6.5-meter telescope, also at Las Campanas.

The optical images reveal that the components of Burçin’s Galaxy have different histories. Some parts of the galaxy are significantly older than others. The blue outer ring suggests a newer formation, while the red inner ring indicates the presence of older stars.

Mutlu-Pakdil and her colleagues suspect that this galaxy was formed as some material accumulated into one massive object through gravitational attraction, AKA an accretion event.

However, beyond that, PGC1000174’s unique qualities largely remain a mystery. There are about three trillion galaxies in our observable universe and more are being found all the time.

“In such a vast universe, finding these rare objects is really important,” says Mutlu-Pakdil. “We are trying to create a complete picture of how the Universe works. These peculiar systems challenge our understanding. So far, we don't have any theory that can explain the existence of this particular object, so we still have a lot to learn.”

Challenging norms and changing lives

In a way, Mutlu-Pakdil has been challenging the norms of science all her life.

Though her parents weren’t educated beyond elementary school, they supported her desire to pursue her dreams of the stars.

“When I was in college, I was the only female in my class, and I remember I felt so much like an outsider. I felt like I wasn’t fitting in,” she recalls of her time studying physics at Bilkent University in Ankara, Turkey.

<strong>Astronomical ambassador.</strong> Mutlu-Pakdil believes in sharing her fascination for space and works to encourage students from all backgrounds to explore astronomy and other STEM fields.Throughout her education and career, Mutlu-Pakdil has experienced being a minority in an otherwise male-dominated field. It hasn’t slowed her down, but it has made her more passionate about promoting diversity in science and being a mentor to young people.

“I realized, it is not about me, it is society that needs to change,” she says. “Now I really want to inspire people to do similar things. So kids from all backgrounds will be able to understand they can do science, too.”

That’s why she serves as an ambassador for the American Astronomical Society and volunteers to mentor children in low-income neighborhoods to encourage them to pursue college and, hopefully, a career in STEM.

She was also recently selected to be a 2018 TED Fellow and will present a TED talk about her discoveries and career on April 10.

Through her work, Mutlu-Pakdil hopes to show people how important it is to learn about our universe. It behooves us all to take an interest in the night sky and the groundbreaking discoveries being made by astronomers like her around the world.

“We are a part of this Universe, and we need to know what is going on in it. We have strong theories about how common galaxies form and evolve, but, for rare ones, we don't have much information,” says Mutlu-Pakdil. “Those unique objects present the extreme cases, so they really give us a big picture for the Universe's evolution — they stretch our understanding of everything.”

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