The giant eye of an infrared galaxy

By Phil Plait | July 23, 2009 10:02 am

It’s been a while since I’ve posted a drop-dead gorgeous galaxy image. So if you’re Jonesing, here you go:

Spitzer view of the galaxy NGC 1097


That’s a Spitzer Space Telescope image of the face-on spiral galaxy NGC 1097. Located about 50 million light years away, this image is in the infrared, where light from warm dust is shown as red, and starlight shines as blue. The spiral arms are lousy with dust, created both when stars are born and when massive stars die.

Invisible in the exact middle of this galaxy is a supermassive black hole, and boy oh boy does that adjective fit: it’s about 100 million times the mass of the Sun! We have one in the core of our own Milky Way galaxy, but ours is a paltry 4 million solar masses. So NGC 1097 has a bruiser in its heart. The intense point of light in the center is probably from gas and dust swirling around the black hole, matter on its way down an infinite drain.

This black hole is surrounded by a ring of star formation thousands of light years across, which you can see as that perfect circle of white light in the middle. Material from the bar — the long lines of gas and dust stretching across the middle of the galaxy — is feeding that ring, and stars there are being born in prodigious numbers.

Also cool is the little elliptical galaxy poking through NGC 1097 on the left. Probably by coincidence it happens to appear to be between the arms of the closer galaxy, giving us a relatively clear view of it. Or is it coincidence? The arms of 1097 are distorted and broken up there. Maybe they’re related…

When I stand back a bit and look at this image, the overall picture I get looks like an eye in space, staring back at me. The eye is such a simple shape that it’s no surprise to see its doppelganger, even one millions of light years away. Still, I wonder… NGC 1097 is an entire galaxy, fully equipped with hundreds of billions of stars. Do any of those stars have planets, and do those planets have life, and does that life have eyes (or their equivalent), and do those eyes look back at us?

Sometimes when you stare into the abyss, you have to wonder if maybe the abyss really is staring back.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Astronomy, Pretty pictures

Comments (44)

  1. Gary Ansorge

    Looking back at us,,,as a matter of fact,,,yes, I am,,,

    Cool pic. Love the contrast. All that gas/dust flowing into the center must be creating about a gazillion new stars. Surely there is at least ONE that’s home to a star gazing critter.

    GAry 7

  2. Kristin

    Awesome pic – but where can I find the original? The link on the pic only links to Spitzer’s website.

  3. Icelander

    Blackhole or the Eye of Sauron…?

    NGC 1097’s astronomers are probably looking back at us thinking: “LOL, N00bs!”

  4. Is it just me, or does NGC 1097 sound like a Federation Starship ID?


  5. Hmmm. Do you suppose Visine gets the infrared out?

  6. dhtroy

    Wow. A black hole with a 100 million solar masses!?!?

    That sucks.



  7. Junkit

    It’s a pretty cool image. It almost looks like it is in mid-collision with a much smaller galaxy. Notice the bluish object on the left with the red ‘clouds’ around it?

    And, yeah, it probably does have an star gazing life form in it someplace. Or rather, it did, or will have. It is 50 million years away. Perhaps it was destroyed by a sun going super nova like in Star Trek… Okay, joking… Sort of…

  8. This place was really rocking – 50 million years ago. Now it’s all hyper-intelligent Reptiloids – but we won’t see it till it’s too late.

  9. havoc

    Life? Probably not. Surely your math is at least that good.

    Gorgeous, yes. Looking back, statistically: no.

    Do take a look at the requirements for life-bearing planets.

  10. You’re waxing poetic today.

  11. It’s the Eye of Ra!!!

  12. What an amazing sight!

  13. JD

    “11. havoc Says:
    July 23rd, 2009 at 11:12 am
    Life? Probably not. Surely your math is at least that good.

    Gorgeous, yes. Looking back, statistically: no.

    Do take a look at the requirements for life-bearing planets.”

    Not sure what math you’re referring to, but the Drake Equation would say there’s a pretty decent chance that there’s at least one or two advanced civilizations currently, and there may have been several more that have already lived and died, with several more yet to come.

    Source: The inteweb’s most irrefutible knowledge base for anything, ever. (Kidding of course, but the math there is right.)

  14. It looks like the Eye of Horus…


    No? Ah, pareidolia…

  15. “Do any of those stars have planets, and do those planets have life, and does that life have eyes (or their equivalent), and do those eyes look back at us?”

    I think about that a lot when I look at the sky.

  16. To quote Bugs Bunny: “Did ya ever have the feelin’ you was being watched?”

  17. khms

    > 11 havoc

    Life? Probably not. Surely your math is at least that good.

    Gorgeous, yes. Looking back, statistically: no.

    Do take a look at the requirements for life-bearing planets.

    So you know what those are? And here I thought all we had was wild guesses based on a sample size of one.

    And the same, incidentally, as to the distribution of planets with that property, for the exact same reason.

    The only thing we do know something about, is the part about there being any planets at all. Based on what we see close to us, it seems that it’s a fairly reasonable bet that there’ll be a very large number of planets.

    And based on the old rule that the smaller the bodies, the more there are, the many Jovians we find suggest there’ll be even more earth-sized planets … whatever that turns out to be worth wrt. life.

  18. RickJ

    Since I’ve undertaken the project to photograph all Arp galaxies (see BAUT astrophotography forum) visible from my 47N location (this one is too far south for me) I have to point out this pair, NGC 1097 and NGC 1097A are Arp 77. They have about the same red shift, 1271 km/s and 1368 km/s per NED. Close enough that they are likely related and possibly interacting. Arp classed the pair under “Spiral Galaxies with Companions on Arms: Small, high surface brightness companions.” His photo taken in the 50’s with the 200″ telescope is at:

  19. Tobin Dax

    Is anyone else scared now that Sauron has gone intergalactic?

  20. Britt

    What is the theorized size of the event horizon of a black hole 100 million times the mass of the sun?? Can you give it in relative size to the sun itself?

  21. havoc

    JD: The Drake Equation has one known (R*), and 6 degrees of freedom (arbitrary terms). That’s not helpful.

    khms: It is true that we could expect to find some planets around some of the stars, but it is also true that only a tiny fraction of the stars (still an enormous number) will be
    – life-suitable
    – have life-suitable planetary systems (more than an “earth” is required)
    – be in a life-suitable location of the galaxy
    – etc.
    – etc.

    Making matters infinitely worse, NGC 1097 is not a life-suitable galaxy due in no small part to the super-massive black hole at it’s core.

    Rare Earth ( scratches the surface.

    I’m not saying there is no other life in the universe, I’m just skeptical.

  22. IVAN3MAN


    Awesome pic – but where can I find the original?

    Here: NGC 1097 Full Resolution TIFF* (2056 x 2056; 6.52 Mb).

    *Tip: Right click and “Save Target As…” (Internet Explorer) or “Save Link As…” (Firefox).

  23. Torbjörn Larsson, OM

    That companion – Spitzer found “The Mote in God’s Eye “!

    Oh, and earlier Chandra captured “The Gripping Hand” too. Niven and Pournelle must be frantic over the prescient use of space commercials!

    Now, if I can only think of a book with an obvious title connection to astronomical objects…

  24. John Phillips, FCD

    @Kristin: Scroll down to the bottom of the page linked to by Phil’s image and Click/Right Click on the words JPEG or Mac TIFF to Open/Save whichever of the high res image type you want.

  25. Torbjörn Larsson, OM

    @ havoc:

    Life? Probably not.

    Life, probably.

    Last week scientists published evidence that puts the earliest stromatolites of 3.45 Ga as biological, which was the likeliest but not tested explanation for early such formations.

    [Beyond 2.7 Ga stromatolites typically have been thermally modified so contains carbon instead of organics, enough for problems with eliminating the possibility that it is foreign inclusions. Not so with the latest research.]

    So now there are both isotopic, Raman spectroscopic and textural evidence for life that early. In fact there is isotopic evidence as far back as there are rocks or even mineral grains, but these findings aren’t unequivocal.

    [Again with the thermal modification and inclusion problematics.]

    Even if there are now first order models where any preexisting life survived the early bombardment tail or any late heavy bombardment, we can now claim from evidence that life developed very early, at the latest between 0.4 – 1.1 Gy after Earth coalesced.

    If life would originate by an unlikely process we would expect it to happen late, not early. Conversely most scientists seem to believe it is an easy process, as organics are so easy to come by in the universe. The observation of early life tested that idea.

  26. Jamie

    Awesome! Eye-like galaxies always look so captivating to me.

  27. MadScientist

    Oh no, Horus is watching!

  28. Speaker To Third Graders

    Beautiful! This is what the Milky Way should look like! Years ago I fell in love with Barred Spiral Galaxies. Years later I was thrilled to learn that the Milky Way was one. Recently I was disappointed to find that the Milky Way bar was a dinky little thing, barely discernible from the rest of the galactic center.
    The Milky Way is a kid who thinks he’s ‘Emo’ but only has a tube of black lipstick buried deep in his sock drawer. NGC 1097 wears the clothes, wears the make up and writes the bad poetry!!

  29. Crudely Wrott




  30. Is it just me, or does NGC 1097 sound like a Federation Starship ID?


    Depends on the Trekkies Trekkers reading.
    I recall from an early “Making of” book from TOS that the NCC-1701 was to mean “Naval Construction Contract”.
    Or not.. we’re talking late 1960’s here.


  31. Jess Tauber

    Somebody forgot the time issue. Nobody in that galaxy is staring at US. They’ll have to wait a couple of million years before they get the current light output, on the one hand, and then, when they finally do, and stare, our galaxy will have moved anyway, and might not any longer be in the line of sight.


  32. RyanMonk

    This should be named the Lateralus Galaxy.

  33. T. Poe


    You know, whenever I see images of other galaxies I get this little shiver of awe. How many stars must make up that galaxy and how many planets must there be? So much we must have missed and are missing right now, as uncounted stars drift through space.

    Heck, we don’t even know half the stuff that’s knocking about in our own galaxy yet and just to imagine that there are many, many more out there is overwhelming, but in a good way.

    And, if there should be life outside our world, I wonder if there is anyone else looking up at their night sky and thinking the same thing.

  34. KD in KC

    There better be other life out there somewhere…. Even in that galaxay ‘across the way’ (WONDERFUL pic BTW).

    Becuase if there isn’t, whatever entity, or process that got US here is EXTREMELY inefficient. 1 galaxy with life out of 500+ Billion = FAIL.

    That or there is and other life so advanced that they’ve put out the neighborhood watch on us and our keeping their distance. “Hey, they’re white, brown, tan, red and yellow and can’t even get along, we’re blue with orange spots, they’ll FREAK”

  35. havoc

    Comment #23 still waiting in moderation….

    Torbjörn Larsson, OM: Probably irrelevant due to requirements for life, especially advanced life.

    Again, I’m not saying there’s no life out there, I’m just saying it’s high improbably based on what we know. I’m just skeptical.

  36. Messier Tidy-Upper

    NGC = New Galactic Catalogue (or was it New General Catalogue? Yes it was! -ed.)

    “New” because it was once additional to the original deep sky object listings, the Messier (M) objects catalogue. Of course, it is now hardly “new” being compiled around the 1880’s by Henry Draper .. 😉

    “General” because it included a whole lot of nebula – galaxies, planetary nebula, Wolf-Rayet stellar shells, dark nebulae, star clusters both open and globular, etc .. all Catalogued.

    I’ve just wiki’ed it – see :

    I think we don’t know enough about extraterrestrial life yet to have an accurate idea on how likely it is.

    We know for sure of only one inhabitable planet and one sentient (or okay technological) life form – ourselves. Too much guesswork when it comes to how often life actually forms & often it develops beyond bacteria and into complex animals and then intelligent ones.

    Astronomically, it seems probable that life exists beyond our solar system in that there are a vast number of stars suitable for hosting life and we have a few planets or hypothetical moons of known exoplanets located in the stars habitable zone that imply life could be there.

    Biologically, OTOH, we have the problem of a huge number of unknowns and a very restricted actual data set – only one living planet. (Plus maybe Mars, maybe Europa but not for sure yet.) In that planet’s existence to date – as best we know today – only one life form – Homo sapiens – has developed technology capable of communicating with extraterrestrial creatures and appreciating astronomy from a scientific viewpoint. Throughout most of its history esp. its early billennia Earth hosted only bacteria or micoscopic life.

    Then too there’s the Fermi paradox – if aliens exist where are they?

    My verdict – insufficent data as yet to say how common life and esp. intelligent life is in our cosmos.

    My best guess is that we may find life to be quite common but intelligent & technological life to be extremely rare.

    My hope – that I’m proven wrong & soon! 😉

    Whatever the case may be, it is an awesome and beautiful photo. :-)

  37. Messier Tidy-Upper

    Oops – NOT Henry Draper but John Dreyer was the astronomer who compiled the New General Catalogue :

    Wikipedia NGC page quote :

    The catalogue was compiled in the 1880s by J. L. E. Dreyer using observations mostly from William Herschel and his son John, for total of 7,840 objects.

    Henry Draper, for the record, catalogued stars and their spectra in the HD catalogue which a lot of faint (usually below unaided eye visibility) stars use as their “name” eg. HD set of numerals.

    Sorry – I didn’t realise my stuff up there until I’d run out of time to correct it. :-(

    @ 20. RickJ Says:

    … Arp classed the pair under “Spiral Galaxies with Companions on Arms: Small, high surface brightness companions.” His photo taken in the 50’s with the 200″ telescope is at:

    Thanks for that. :-)

    Looking at Arp’s old photo there I’d be tempted to call this a barred spiral galaxy rather than merely a spiral one. SBb or c on the Hubble classification type maybe?

    Does anyone have a recent true colour visual light image of this galxy for comparison?

  38. Acronym Jim

    Say NGC 1097, ya need some help with those bags?

    Seriously, it’s a beautiful picture. Thanks for posting, Phil.

  39. Messier Tidy Upper

    Link to get back to the other thread where I posted my questions here about

    – spiral Vs barred spiral class here


    – has anyone got any recent, true-colour images of NGC1097 :

    Again, sorry for going off topic in the other (linked above) volcano image thread but there haven’t been any replies here for ages & I’d really like to know what folks think so ..

  40. ToPik oNe

    that is a sweeeeeeeeeeeeet ass galaxy


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