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Ten billion years of brightest cluster galaxy alignments

A Publisher Correction to this article was published on 12 March 2019


A galaxy’s orientation is one of its most basic observable properties. Astronomers once assumed that galaxies are randomly oriented in space; however, it is now clear that some have preferred orientations with respect to their surroundings. Chief among these are giant elliptical galaxies found in the centres of rich galaxy clusters. Numerous studies have shown that the major axes of these galaxies often share the same orientation as the surrounding matter distribution on larger scales1,2,3,4,5,6. Using Hubble Space Telescope observations of 65 distant galaxy clusters, we show that similar alignments are seen at earlier epochs when the Universe was only one-third of its current age. These results suggest that the brightest galaxies in clusters are the product of a special formation history, one influenced by development of the cosmic web over billions of years.

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Figure 1: HST images of four distant galaxy clusters.
Figure 2: Orientations of 2,137 galaxies in CLASH clusters.
Figure 3: Alignments of BCGs.
Figure 4: Galaxy alignments at the highest redshifts.


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The authors are indebted to C. Sifón for insightful comments and recommendations that strengthened our results and their presentation. This work is based on observations made with the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA)/European Space Agency (ESA) Hubble Space Telescope, obtained from the data archive at the Space Telescope Science Institute. The Space Telescope Science Institute is operated by the Association of Universities for Research in Astronomy, Inc. under NASA contract NAS 5-26555. M.J.W. thanks the Finnish Centre for Astronomy with the European Southern Observatory (FINCA) and Tuorla Observatory for their support and hospitality during this research. We thank M. McIntosh for her assistance. The Image Reduction and Analysis Facility package is distributed by the National Optical Astronomy Observatories, which are operated by the Association of Universities for Research in Astronomy, Inc., under cooperative agreement with the National Science Foundation.

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R.D.P., M.N.B. and S.P. identified red sequence galaxies in the Hubble Space Telescope images and R.D.P. measured their major axis orientations. M.J.W. measured cluster position angles and performed the statistical analysis of the alignments between galaxies and clusters. All authors contributed to the interpretation and presentation of the results.

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Michael J. West.

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West, M., De Propris, R., Bremer, M. et al. Ten billion years of brightest cluster galaxy alignments. Nat Astron 1, 0157 (2017).

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