A NEW galaxy close to our own has been spotted by astronomers hunting through photographs of the night sky.
The Antlia Galaxy appears so dim relative to the night sky that until now astromoners thought the region of space in which it is was void of galaxies.
But now two research students, Alan Whiting and George Hau from Cambridge University, and Mike Irwin of the Royal Greenwich Observatory, have pinpointed a dwarf galaxy, one of only 30 galaxies close to our own.
The Antlia galaxy, which contains a million or so stars, is three million light years away, making it one of the most distant galaxies within the Local Group. To find the next nearest set of galaxies, astronomers have to look four times further away in space.
Most small galaxies in the Local Group are satellites of our own Milky Way or the Andromeda Galaxy, which are much larger spiral galaxies.
Being on its own, Antlia has not been distorted by the gravity of a massive neighbour and astronomers hope it will be able to tell us more about dwarf galaxies and shed light on questions about the formation, structure and evolution of galaxies.
It may also help astronomers, who believe that all the material making up the Local Group of galaxies was close together at the time of the Big Bang, to decide how old the universe is.
Knowing the present distance and velocities of galaxies, as well as their masses, may make it possible to work backwards to decide a date for the universe's creation.