The Sciences

Take a moment to just soak in a beautiful spiral

Bad AstronomyBy Phil PlaitJun 2, 2010 6:25 PM


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The way I see it, every now and again you just need to look at a beautiful image of a spiral galaxy:

Oh yes, you want to click that image. That's NGC 6118 as seen by the European Southern Observatory's 8-meter wide Very Large Telescope in this newly-released image. The VLT's 500,000 square centimeters (78,000 square inches) of mirror really suck down the light, giving us a stunning near-true-color view of this spiral. Even from 80 million light years away we can trace the positions of pinkish star factories, the dark dust lanes, and see the reddish-yellow glow of old stars in the galactic hub. I was drawn to how tightly wound the galaxy is, and how long the arms are. Starting at the nucleus you can trace the two major arms all the way around more than once. The galaxy is tilted severely, so it's hard to say what's going on at the lower right; does the arm split there? That sort of thing is called a "spur", and they can form as the gas in the galaxy interacts with the arms. All the stars you see in the picture are in the foreground, in our galaxy. It's like looking out a dirty window at a tree outside; the spots are close by, the tree much farther. But you can also see dozens of small galaxies, too, which are not small at all, but in reality other majestic and grand objects diminished by their even greater distance. NGC 6118 is about 100,000 light years across, making it the same size as our own galaxy. And when I see something like this, I always ask myself the same thing I did when I was just a kid: is someone else out there looking back at us, and marveling at the beauty of the Milky Way? Image credit: ESO

Related posts: - Ten Things You Don't Know About the Milky Way - Barred for life (explains why galaxies have spiral arms) - Spiral harms

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