Face on Beauty

By Phil Plait | November 29, 2007 7:01 am

I will never, ever get tired of Hubble stunners.

That’s M74, a relatively nearby spiral galaxy in Pisces. Even at the terrifying distance of 100 30 million light years, this object can be seen with binoculars. It’s about 100,000 light years across, the same size as the Milky Way, and spirals that massive are rare in the Universe.

It’s face on to us; with almost no tilt at all. If you could transport yourself to M74 and look back toward home, we’d be tilted about 45 degrees with respect to your view.

This image is lush with treasure (click it to get the bigger versions; this compressed view I have here really drains the quality away). Where you see blue are regions where there are bright stars (which tend to be blue). The red areas are gas clouds of hydrogen (which glow at a characteristic red wavelength). Stars are being born there as you look. The yellowish center is where stars have not been born for billions of years; the majority of stars there are older, less massive, cooler, redder. The dark regions are dusty, filled with complex organic compounds which are very efficient at absorbing visible light. Like a city shrouded by fog, the galaxy’s starlight is hidden where dust lingers.

In M74 in 2002, a massive star, 20 times our Sun’s mass at least, detonated in a titanic explosion. It was an epic blast, and astronomers wondered if it might be a hypernova, a particularly energetic supernova. It had many of the same characteristics of a hypernova, though not all of them. Still, how big is such an explosion? Think on this: in the event, the thermonuclear heat and pressure were so high that alchemy took place. Lighter elements fused into heavier ones. The amount of nickel alone created was about 0.07 times the mass of the Sun. That is more than 20,000 times the mass of the Earth. It’s far more massive than all the planets, moons, and asteroids in our solar system combined. That nickel was ejected from the explosion at many kilometers per second, and will be scattered into the gas and dust in M74, where it will get mixed in and become part of a new generation of solar systems.

That image above is, at first glance, one of serene beauty and eminent permanence. But there are layers to it, veiled dangers beneath the luminescence, struggles between forces beyond our experience. Sometimes these struggles result in birth: stars, planets, even more basic building blocks. Sometimes they result in the destruction of these same things. But seen from the vast remoteness of a hundred million light years, they simply combine to form the magnificence of a grand design spiral galaxy.


Comments (30)

  1. Sergeant Zim

    You’re waxing poetic again, Dr. Plait!

    But, like the post yesterday, about ‘why explore Space,’ the poetry is justified, nay, almost reqired in the discussion.

    From what I’ve seen the ‘religious right’ tend to have far too shallow a view of the Universe. If they would look – really LOOK at the Universe they would feel a lot less smug about their own place in it, yet far more priveledged to be a part of this incredible place.

  2. dannyness


    And some religious folk I’ve come across say that science takes away from the beauty and wonder of the universe. Such a statement is baffling after looking at something like this.

  3. Edward C

    This is one of the most beautiful space photos
    that I have seen!!!

  4. BigBadSis

    Wow. That’s my new wallpaper. Thanks for the link and the “talk.”

  5. Carey

    Great post – but what does the 2002 hypernova have to do with the picture? Can its remnants be seen in M74? Or were you posting about two different topics?

  6. Anne

    I can’t match your poetry, but if you’d like to get a little mystical, that super- or maybe hyper-nova was an example of both creation and destruction: a star, and maybe a planetary system, was torn apart, obliterated with almost unimaginable violence – and the ashes are heavy elements. Every carbon atom in our bodies was made in just such a titanic detonation… “We are all stardust,” as it was famously put.

  7. Thanks for the link, Phil. I downloaded the 12MB image and downsized it by half (it’s a honking big image) and re-compressed it in PhotoShop to 1.1MB. It’s on my hard drive now. Ya never know when you’ll need it for outreach presentations.

    BTW, use all the poet’s wax ya want! They’ll make more! ;-D

  8. D’oh! The supernova was indeed in M74. I somehow neglected to mention that. :-) I added it in.

  9. Chkiron


    I wrote you an email, if you could please read and reply it, I would be very glad :)

    best regards and keeps the wonderful work! :)

  10. Quiet_Desperation

    I think I’m tired of Hubble stunners.

    Does that make me tired of life? :(

    And can those Hubble stunners be set to kill? :)

  11. tacitus

    Funny that this type of spiral galaxy (with well organized, clear spiral arms) is called a “grand design” galaxy.

    It’s almost enough to give the intelligent design nuts the vapors.

    Oh my…

  12. “It’s beautiful…should have…sent…a poet…”

  13. Redx

    Before I started coming here, I had all sorts of wallpaper there were cars, women, anime–all sorts of stuff. Now, my desktops are covered with giant obscenely high resolutions pics of star stuff, and it’s all your fault.

    Thanks a lot, BA.

  14. Joules

    Beautiful picture.

    Marvelous blurb. I enjoy reading about the vast shifts of existence.

  15. Max Fagin

    I love this image. It’s been my desktop pic for the last year.

  16. Rick Johnson

    “But seen from the vast remoteness of a hundred million light years…”

    I think it is only a third that distance. I doubt Hubble can get the resolution we see in that shot at 100 million light years.

    From the Hubble webpage: “A small segment of this image used data from the Canada-France-Hawaii Telescope and the Gemini Observatory to fill in a region that Hubble did not image.”

    Finding that part isn’t easy.

  17. Razorhog

    Great picture, great post.

  18. Razorhog

    I just looked it up, and it is 30 Million Light years away…according to APOD.

  19. MandyDax

    Yup, your readership even is skeptical about what you say. ~_^

    35MLY: http://www.absoluteastronomy.com/messier_objects/m74.htm
    30+/-6MLY: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Messier_74

    Still, the fact that it’s a Messier object means that its fuzziness can be seen with the keen naked eye or a small telescope. Beautiful pic, and beautiful post. I expect APoD to show this image in the next week or so. ~_^

  20. Hmmmm, the source I checked last night said 35,000 kiloparsecs, which is about 100 million light years. I should have dug a little deeper. Thanks folks!

  21. The amount of nickel alone created was about 0.07 times the mass of the Sun. That is more than 20,000 times the mass of the Earth. It’s far more massive than all the planets, moons, and asteroids in our solar system combined.


    Talk about a little spare change in the cushions…

  22. Sir Craig

    But…but…Answers in Genesis states without a shred of doubt that the universe is only 6-10 thousand years old! That galaxy has to be closer than 30 million light years, or else we shouldn’t be able to see it!

    And I see people here saying you can see it with the naked eye or binoculars, so that’s further proof it has to be closer than you say! You lie!!! Long live Ken Ham!!!

    (And yes, this is total snarkiness – the true magic of the universe is lost on pinheads like Ken Ham and all the clueless twits writing for AiG. The universe’s beauty has no need for another myth to explain it.)

  23. genesgalore

    imagine how many life forms in that one. wanna bet that there are civilizations a billion years older than ours??

  24. > wanna bet that there are civilizations a billion years older than ours??

    The Fermi Paradox makes me not a betting man, although the potential for civilizations a billion years deader than ours is a distinct possibility.

  25. Hey Phil!

    I’m making a belated addition to this entry to ask a question that you may be able to answer for the less astronomically enlightened among us. I know how you love a good question!

    Looking at this photo raised some questions about such galaxies in my mind. Firstly, what are we actually seeing in galaxies like this? (Apart from the bleeding-obvious!) Are the whitish areas simply clouds of squillions of stars, too numerous and distant to distinguish individually and what are the brownish laces intertwined through them composed of? Also, we often see a dazzlingly bright area at the centre of such galaxies. Is this just millions of bright stars condensed in a (comparatively) small area? If there is such a hugely bright area at the centre of the Milky Way, how come we don’t see a huge, great, dazzling light anywhere in the night sky? Even though we’re out in the “burbs” of the MW, I would have thought that, judging by the pictures, this area would be big and bright enough to be a significant and obvious feature in the night sky.

    Sorry if I’m being a bit plodding, but I did genuinely wonder! Thanks!

    Russ Brown


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