Take a moment to just soak in a beautiful spiral

By Phil Plait | June 2, 2010 9:25 am

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

eso_ngc6118

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


CATEGORIZED UNDER: Astronomy, Pretty pictures, Science
MORE ABOUT: ESO, NGC 6118, spiral galaxy, VLT

Comments (32)

  1. Messier Tidy Upper

    Love this photo! I’d reckon it should be in – maybe even the winner of – this years top ten astro-pictures. Course that’s up to the BA not me. :-D

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

    I like the way you see things & couldn’t agree with this more. 8)

    That sort of thing is called a “spur”, and they can form as the gas in the galaxy interacts with the arms.

    Did I read somewhere that our Sun is located in the Orion spur of our Milky Way Galaxy right? So this would be similar except that our Galaxy is a*barred* spiral versus this grand design spiral which lacks any obvious central bar.

    A trio of questions for y’all if I may please :

    1.What’s the Hubble class of NGC 6118?

    2. What constellation is NGC 6118 in and what is its rough location either /and star hopping or co-ordinates?

    3. Is it visible easily through backyardscopes? What magnitude is it? Anyone here spotted it themselves?

    Anyone care to enlighten us with answers to those please?

    Again a stunningly gorgeous image – Thanks BA. :-)

  2. That is an amazing picture.

  3. Firemancarl

    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?

    I always ask myself the same thing. It really shows just how small and insignificant we humans turly are.

    Thanks again for posting these awesome photos.

  4. oldamateurastronomer

    At magnitude 12 NGC6118 would be near the lower limit of the 8-inch F/5 Newtonian I used to have, but I would have made an effort to try to observe when I was able to go out underneath the starry skies!

    Galaxies were always my favorite targets and once I had seen all of the Messier objects, I started on the list that Herschel created during his searches of the sky he could see from England! How I loved to go out and observe!! I miss it so.

  5. chabo yax

    1 dunno
    2 ophiuchus RA: 16m hr 22min 21sec dec -2deg 18` 26″
    3 mag 12 not seen with my poxy little 6″ newt
    hope this helps i really dont even know what a hubble class means sorry very new to astronomy just looked on stelleriam for these bits

    regards

  6. Russell

    Are the arms of a spiral galaxy being flung out centrifugally,
    or are they spiraling into the center of the galaxy,
    or are they being smeared around in a dragging like motion?

  7. Jon Hanford

    Wow, the 4.4Mb tiff is well worth looking at, as Phil notes.

    “you can also see dozens of small galaxies”

    The upper left portion of the image appears to catch part of a rich galaxy cluster that meanders out of the top of the field!

    The ESO PR notes that a supernova in NGC 6118 is also visible.

    “In 2004, regular observers of this galaxy saw a “new star” appear near the edge of the galaxy (above the centre of the image). Far from being a new star, this object, supernova 2004dk, is in fact the final, powerful burst of light emitted by the explosion of a star.”

  8. Messier Tidy Upper

    Off topic sorry but is there any updated news on the SpaceX Dragon capsule /rocket launch BA – is that still scheduled for June 2nd / 3rd 2010 – i.e. today or tomorrow?

    @ 6. chabo yax Says:

    1 dunno
    2 ophiuchus RA: 16m hr 22min 21sec dec -2deg 18` 26″
    3 mag 12 not seen with my poxy little 6″ newt
    hope this helps i really dont even know what a hubble class means sorry very new to astronomy just looked on stelleriam for these bits. Regards

    Thanks. Much appreciated. :-)

  9. Matt T

    is someone else out there looking back at us, and marveling at the beauty of the Milky Way?
    Or, given the finite speed of light, wioll haven been looking back at us. 8-)

  10. Jon Hanford

    #1 MTU:

    NGC 6118 is in Serpens (according to the PR). NED (NASA/IPAC Extragalactic Database) lists its Hubble type SA(s)cd. All sorts of info here (esp ‘images’ ,coordinates): http://nedwww.ipac.caltech.edu/cgi-bin/nph-objsearch?objname=NGC+6118&extend=no&hconst=73&omegam=0.27&omegav=0.73&corr_z=1&out_csys=Equatorial&out_equinox=J2000.0&obj_sort=RA+or+Longitude&of=pre_text&zv_breaker=30000.0&list_limit=5&img_stamp=YES

  11. chabo yax

    messier tidy upper

    i looked today on space x website and they say fri 4th is launch date now

  12. Williestyle

    “The galaxy is tilted severely…”

    May be a silly question but does he mean just in the picture, or are most galaxies more or less on the same plane?

  13. oldamateurastronomer

    For those interested in locating objects such as NGC6118 a good program to use is Stellarium.

    It’s an open source program and is quite good. It’s available for Windows, Mac and Linux at http://www.stellarium.org/

  14. RobinS

    @ Messier Tidy Upper: the launch is scheduled for Friday @ 1100 EST (1500 GMT) with a 4 hour launch window. SpaceX has also reserved a window on Saturday for the same time(s) in case the launch is a n0-go on Friday.

    RE: the NGC 6118 image. It’s stunning, and it makes me revved up to see what sort of images will come out of GMT (The Giant Magellan Telescope) when it eventually goes online. Right now the first of seven 8.4m mirror segments for GMT is being finished just a few hundred yards away.

    It’s too bad that major media outlets typically don’t pick up these sorts of images/stories. Astronomy, and science in general, could certainly use the publicity and the money that can follow.

  15. Messier Tidy Upper

    @11. Jon Hanford & 12. chabo yax : Thanks. :-)

  16. mike burkhart

    You fooled me ,I thought this was the Andromeda galaxy . It looks a lot like it. As for is anybody looking back at us ,I think they are and are asking the same question. P.S. Human beings are not ” insignificant” we may be small but we are a part of the universe and are made of the same things the universe is .As the Vulcans say : infenit diversety and infenit combantions .

  17. Denni Medlock

    To answer Williestyle’s question about galaxy tilt: the tilt is in reference to our own view outward from the Milky Way. For an observer looking outward from NGC 6118 at us, *WE* would be the tilted galaxy. If you want to see the various ways a galaxy can present, just take a look at the Hubble Deep Field image!

  18. Just me

    Beautiful pic. Thanks Phil!!

    @7. Russell:
    Are the arms of a spiral galaxy being flung out centrifugally,
    or are they spiraling into the center of the galaxy,
    or are they being smeared around in a dragging like motion?

    Lee Smolin addressed this nicely. I don’t have his book in front of me, so I may butcher the explanation. The formation of spirals is essentially a propagation wave of the life-cycles of stars. Think of a hundred thousand people doing “the wave” in a sports stadium. The people themselves don’t move, but you can see the wave move very clearly. The people standing up would be analogous to the bright/short-lived stars, and the people sitting down would be analogous to the dark lanes. It’s not that there aren’t stars in the dark lanes, it’s just that they’re not as bright as the “hot, young, sexy stars”. Not only that, but the dark lanes include the dust & gas left over from the aftermath of exploded hot, massive stars, which further obscures the older stars. Over time, this gas and dust coalesces to form new stars which is the propagation of the next “bright” spiral arm. The actual distribution of stars in a galactic disk is pretty uniform.

  19. Brian

    It may also be worth noting that the process of trying to figure out how galaxies keep their shape while rotating is what first forced folks to postulate that 90% of a galaxy’s mass was not visible.

  20. Jon Hanford

    Found a 2004 image of the supernova SN2004dk (arrowed) in NGC 6118 that appears in the image above (note: same scope, different image stack, I think): http://www.eso.org/public/archives/images/screen/eso0436b.jpg

  21. Greg in Austin

    Photoshopped!

    Just kidding. That totally reminds me of the ending scene of Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back. I can even hear the music!

    V, III, VI, IV, II, I… and Han shot first.

    8)

  22. Chet Twarog

    Phil,
    80 mly away from us?!? Perhaps they’d be looking at T-Rex, most certainly not us.

  23. Just me

    @23: Greg in Austin:

    … and Han shot first.
    Ya. I hated that it was re-edited to make him into a “good guy”—or to make it a justified killing.

    @24: Chet Twarog
    Right. In order to see us, they’d have to wait another 80 million years. I’ll have a few more gray hairs by then.

    Speaking of light speed, is there a formula that calculates how much time slows down as a traveler approaches the speed of light? I mean, if one got sufficiently close to the speed of light, could one survive a trip to nearby planetary systems? to the center of the Milky Way? To Andromeda?

  24. Sikay

    @25: Yup, there is such a formula. It’s called the Lorentz transformation and goes something like

    t’=t/(√1-(v^2/c^2)), where:

    t’= time as measured by one observer
    t= time as measured by the other observer
    v= the relative velocity of the two observers
    c= the speed of light (≈300’000’000 m/s)

    You can probably find a better-looking image of the formula elsewhere on the Internet, but that’s as good as I can do right now ;) As the speed of light is gigantously huge, the term (v^2/c^2) is close to zero in every-day situations, giving (√(1-(v^2/c^2))) an approximate value of 1 and makes t’≈t/1, in other words, the measured times will appear the same.

    Concerning @24: If they are looking at T-rex now, then someone, somewhere in that galaxy may be looking at us in 80 million years. Now that gives me at least some sense of immortality ;D

  25. Just me

    @26: Thanks! So, in other words, if you wanted to survive a trip to Andromeda, you’d have to go approximately ((really fast)*(ludicrous speed))^2 ;)
    Or, you’d have to figure out how to create a stable wormhole. I suppose.

  26. The galaxy is tilted severely…

    What?!? Phil, I know I am not a hot shot astronomer like you, but you are dead, dead, dead wrong. If you are so wrong about this, I’m pretty sure you are wrong about everything else such as vaccinations, global warming and whether or not you really got a tattoo.

    Everyone knows that it is us that is severely tilted!

  27. JGlanton

    That’s a gorgeous galaxy!

    It’s too bad that the foreground stars are overexposed and then oversaturated to compensate. They look artificial. But that may be what their sensor gives them at their preferred exposure lengths. I would have used more shorter exposures instead of fewer longer ones.

  28. chad

    @25,@26:
    The closest star with a planet (Epsilon Eridani) is about 10.5 light years away. If we were able to travel at 1/2 the speed of light, it would take 21 years on earth to get there. For the people on such a craft it would only take 18 years, 2 months, 8 days.

    So I would say that one could survive, age-wise anyway, to a trip to Epsilon Eridani b if we could travel at 1/2 the speed of light.

    You don’t need the Lorentz transformation though to figure out how fast you need to go to reach someplace within a workable lifetime. If you say the maximum a person could reliably be considered to be able to survive in a trip is 50 years, how fast would one have to travel to get to the nearest part of Andomeda at 2,500,000 light years away? It’d have to travel at 50,000x the speed of light. Though plugging a number greater then c for v in the Lorentz formula above results in an imaginary number (square-root of a negative) so I don’t know what that means for how time would pass on earth.

  29. Well, if we are going ahead and presuming we can fly 50K times the speed of light, why limit ourselves to a life span to get anywhere. Lets make it work for a flight to Andromeda lasting, well, how about a couple of hours? That would be nice, then I can get back for lunch.

  30. Charles Sullivan

    I can see the Starship Enterprise. Once you enlarge, it’s right next to the blue ball of light at the 8 o’clock position (as if the galaxy were a clock face).

    You barely have to squint to make it out. It’s NCC 1701 version.

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