Lauranne Lanz spied Jupiter through a telescope when she was just 4 years old, the first celestially significant moment in her life but not the last: The budding astronomer would eventually help identify a new class of galaxies.
Super spirals, discovered in 2016 by a team of four astronomers including Lanz, assistant professor of physics, challenge scientists’ understanding of galaxy formation. Bigger, brighter, and more massive than average spiral-shaped galaxies like the Milky way (imagine up to 10 times the mass), super spirals somehow survive intergalactic collisions without changing into mature, oval-shaped galaxies. The question is: how?
Lanz and her colleagues recently discovered a clue that may help them solve the mystery behind the longevity of these super spirals. The team’s latest research indicates that they spin exceptionally fast, up to 350 miles per second. The surprising zip of these giants revealed that the spin is likely accelerated by their perch within a cloud of dark matter, the invisible matter that comprises most of the universe’s mass.
“This research is important because it shows that super spirals aren’t just extreme in size, but also in how fast they spin,” says Christine Pulliam, news director at the Baltimore-based Space Telescope Science Institute. “That tells us that they’re strongly influenced by the gravity of dark matter.”
The news blitzed across the scientific world and an image from the team’s paper was even tweeted by NASA’s wildly popular Astronomy Picture of the Day website to its 1.3 million followers.
“A lot of papers get published, but it’s not every day that one gets picked up and shared with the non-astronomer part of the world,” says Lanz. “That was really cool.”
— Liz Leyden for TCNJ Magazine