Can an Entire Galaxy Be Lonely?

This image, captured by ESO’s OmegaCAM on the VLT Survey Telescope, shows a lonely galaxy known as Wolf-Lundmark-Melotte, or WLM for short. Although considered part of our Local Group of dozens of galaxies, WLM stands alone at the group’s outer edges as one of its most remote members. In fact, the galaxy is so small and secluded that it may never have interacted with any other Local Group galaxy — or perhaps even any other galaxy in the history of the Universe.

(Caption Credit ESO) This image, captured by ESO’s OmegaCAM on the VLT Survey Telescope, shows a lonely galaxy known as Wolf-Lundmark-Melotte, or WLM for short. Although considered part of our Local Group of dozens of galaxies, WLM stands alone at the group’s outer edges as one of its most remote members. In fact, the galaxy is so small and secluded that it may never have interacted with any other Local Group galaxy — or perhaps even any other galaxy in the history of the Universe.

From the European Southern Observatory comes a series of images of what is described as a “lonely galaxy,” a description which may be as fitting as it is evocative. The images, which were taken by ESO’s OmegaCAM on the VLT Survey Telescope, shows the dwarf galaxy Wolf-Lundmark-Melotte (WLM) which was first discovered in 1909 but not identified as a galaxy at all until 1926.

A part of the “local group” of galaxies which includes our own Milky Way, and located some 3,000,000 million light years away, diminutive WLM spans a mere 8,000 light years, and included some extremely old stars on its periphery, as well as a cluster of younger stars near its core. What makes it particularly noteworthy however, is the fact that astronomers believe it may have never interacted with another galaxy in any way. In this regard it seems to be an isolated experiment, separated in time and space from the rest of the universe.

From a human perspective, the vast distances between galaxies render them all effectively beyond any conceivable means of reach other than as distant sources of light from eras that have long passed. They should all be equal in this regard. And yet like orphaned planets ejected from their own solar systems and journeying alone through space, there is somehow something particularly haunting about an entire galaxy which is much the same. If life arose there, did entire civilizations rise, fall and finally perish without leaving any remaining trace they once existed?

Sometimes the vastness of space is simply overwhelming. And yet we are so eager to go.

The full writeup, complete with ESO’s gloriously expandable images, is here.

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