The Geometric Distance and Proper Motion of M33

We measured the angular rotation and proper motion of M33 with the Very Long Baseline Array by observing two H2O masers on opposite sides of the galaxy (Fig. 1). This allows a comparison of the angular rotation rate (as measured by the VLBI observations) with the known inclination and rotation speed of the HI gas disk. This gives a geometric distance of

D = 730 ± 100 ± 135 kpc.

The first error indicates the statistical error from the proper motion measurements while the second error is the systematic error from the rotation model. This distance is consistent, within the errors, with the most recent Cepheid distance to M33.

[photo will come]

Fig.1: Position of two regions of maser activity in M33. Also shown are predicted motions due to rotation of the HI disk. The image of M33 was provided by T.A.Rector (NRAO/AUI/NSF and NOAO/AURA/NSF), David Thilker (NRAO/AUI/NSF), and Robert Braun (ASTRON).

Since all position measurements were made relative to a very distant extragalactic background source, the proper motion of M33 has also been measured. This provides, after correcting for the rotation of M33 and the motion of the Sun in our own Milky Way a three dimensional velocity vector of M33, showing that this galaxy is moving with a velocity of

v = 190 +/- 59 km/s

relative to the Milky Way and towards Andromeda (M31). This indicates that M33 is on a highly eccentric orbit around M31.

More than 80 years after van Maanen's observation, we have measured the rotation and proper motion of M33. These measurements promise a new handle on dynamical models for the Local Group that can distinguish between different scenarios for the mass and dark matter halos of Andromeda and the Milky Way.

Published in:

Brunthaler A., Reid M.J., Falcke H., Greenhill, L.J., Henkel, C. 2005, Science, 307, 1440 (04 March 2005)
Brunthaler A., Reid M.J., Falcke H., Henkel C., Menten K.M., 2007, A&A 462, 101

See also:

Press release Joint Institute for VLBI in Europe (JIVE)

Press release Max-Planck-Institut für Radioastronomie (Germany)

Press release Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics (USA)

Press release National Radio Astronomy Observatory (USA)

[photo will come]

Movie (14 MB, mpeg): A simulation of the Andromeda - Milky Way merger by M. Steinmetz (AIP)

Last modified: 13-July-2012