The Angry Red Galaxy

By Phil Plait | January 14, 2011 10:59 am

[Bonus points to any middle-aged readers who recognize the title*.]

I still get a thrill every time I see a particularly beautiful image of an astronomical object. But there are some that transcend that beauty, adding a dimension of what-the-what? that makes them just that much cooler.

Like, say, this amazing image of the core of the nearby galaxy M51, taken using Hubble:

[Click to enwhirlpoolenate, or grab the high-res 2 Mb version.]

That is not the swirling drain of despair and fear leading into the mouth of hell. Just to be clear.

What it actually shows is the dust in the inner region of M51, clearly tracing the spiral arms of this magnificent galaxy. The image is false-color, and where it’s brighter there’s more dust (or the dust is being lit up more brightly by nearby stars). You can see the dust is clumpy, too, showing where there are clusters of stars illuminating the dust. Astronomers expected the dust distribution to be somewhat clumpier, but the galaxy had a different idea. It may be smoother due to a close pass by a companion galaxy (well off-screen in this close up shot — we’re seeing the inner 18,000 or so light years here) which disturbed it and prevented dust clouds from getting too big.

How this image was made is interesting, too. Above is a side-by-side shot of the same region. The left image is a visible light picture taken by the Advanced Camera for Surveys (ACS), and on the right is the infrared one, taken using the NICMOS camera. The ACS image shows stars, gas, and some dust at the core of the galaxy. The original NICMOS infrared image had stars in it too, but by carefully aligning and scaling the ACS image, astronomers could subtract the stars from the NICMOS picture, leaving just the dust behind (in the bigger version you can see the black dots where stars were removed). I’ve done this sort of work myself with Hubble pictures, and to say it’s painstaking is severely underestimating the pain that is staked.

The infrared image was taken at a wavelength of 1.6 microns — a little more than twice the wavelength of the reddest light the eye can see — where warm dust glows well. M51 is a bright, nearby galaxy, easily seen in even smallish telescopes, so it’s a very well studied object. The thumbnail image here (from Hubble, and was one of my Top 14 pictures of 2010) shows the whole thing, and you can see it’s a big ol’ spiral, with a yellowish irregular galaxy nearby — it’s that little galaxy with which the spiral is interacting, as mentioned earlier.

I’ve seen M51 through a good ‘scope, and the spiral pattern can be seen pretty well. What’s amazing is how well-ordered the spiral arms are, traceable in the Hubble image right down to the very heart of the galaxy! I’m used to the visible light images (like the ACS one above) where you kindof lose the arms in the general glow of the stars in the galactic nucleus. Once that’s removed, you can see the spiral pattern goes all the way down. I imagine this observation will be a boon to theoretical astronomers, who are still having headaches over how spiral arms form and maintain their shape. The basics are pretty well-understood, but details are always a problem, and such a fine, high-resolution image will help the theoreticians constrain their models.

Image credits: NICMOS Image: NASA, ESA, M. Regan and B. Whitmore (STScI), and R. Chandar (University of Toledo); ACS Image: NASA, ESA, S. Beckwith (STScI), and the Hubble Heritage Team (STScI/AURA); full image: NASA, Hubble Heritage Team, (STScI/AURA), ESA, S. Beckwith (STScI). Additional Processing: Robert Gendler

Related posts about M51 and spiral arms:

Revisiting the Whirlpool
Herschel opens its eye
Barred for life
Top 14 astronomy pictures of 2010

* Bonus points only redeemable in M51.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Astronomy, Pretty pictures

Comments (34)

  1. That is not the swirling drain of despair and fear leading into the mouth of hell. Just to be clear.

    Crap! I already called Buffy. Now I’ll have to explain that I jumped the gun. Umm…Phil, you may want to reinforce your door, just in case I can’t reach her.

  2. Dennis

    I would argue that the pains are taked* rather than a pain is staked.

    * “taken”

  3. khan

    Shouldn’t that be “pain that is stook”?

  4. I swear if I look close enough I can see the USS Cygnus floating there. Watch out for that nasty Nazi robot with the rotating knives and the flavens!

  5. davidlpf

    Nope don’t get the title at all and never ever will.

  6. angry red planet… ?

  7. I may have seen M51 through the same scope you used. After the public had left for the night at a Spring Fan Mountain Observatory Open House a few years ago my eldest daughter & I saw it through the 31″ Tinsley. Absolutely fantastic view! M51 was near the Zenith, so the atmosphere was cooperating and the galaxy looked like a photograph! The clumps in the arms were plainly visible, stunning!

    Galaxies are what people MOST want to see through our telescopes, but they’re very unrewarding since they just appear as a fuzzy blob. It’s just the core of the galaxy they see and the arms are lost “in the black” (gratuitous Firefly reference). But with a big enough scope you can see it very well.

  8. QuietDesperation

    Looks like we can’t direct link pictures anymore. :- Seemed a harmless thing.

    Angry Red Planet:

    Actually one of the more imaginative movie monsters from that era. Kind of a bat-spider. It is not happy.

    And thanks for reminding me I’m middle aged. :-(

  9. Yojimbo

    “The hell with radiation. Let’s go!”

  10. Gerry

    And every galaxy you see might contain several hundred to tens of thousands of advanced civilizations, just like our own galaxy…. so wave ‘hi’ to our cousins in the sky….

  11. dre

    I’ve got an Angry Red Planet poster hanging right here in my dining room.

    “An adventure beyond time and space as never before seen by the human eye.
    SEE the strange mile-high city of Mars!
    SEE the gigantic Bat-Rat-Spider!
    SEE the dead river where only the monster amoeba can live!
    Spectacular adventure beyond time and space…
    In magnificent color… as cinemagic takes you to

    When Sid Pink and Ib Melchior put a flick together, they go all out…

    Everyone should absolutely see that movie. You may regret it. It may even make you angry. But you should still see it.

  12. Zucchi

    Thanks, Dennis. Painstaking = taking pains. What the hell would “staking pain” mean?

    Thanks, Phil. The pictures are fantastic, but even more enjoyable when you’ve explained what we’re looking at.

  13. dave cortesi

    DAE find that pic strongly reminiscent of images from within the Mandelbrot set? Something about the self-similar spiraling just yells “fractal” to me…

  14. Pete Jackson
  15. ProfessorEldritch

    Darn! I though NASA had finally captured a picture of the Eye of Terror.

    Speaking of nerdy references…

  16. This was always my favorite galaxy, with Sombrero a close second. Nice to see it never ceases to amaze.

    Have you ever been to Philocetes in NYC? Halfway up the stairs from street level they have a 10 foot print of the Whirlpool. Museums should be so lucky. Thank you, Phil.

  17. Sam H

    HOLY CRAP!! 😮 Memo to Aragorn, Hobbits, remaining Elves and all the friends of Gondor – SAURON HAS RETURNED!!!

    Well, maybe that wasn’t funny but I couldn’t help myself :) Anyway, there seems a slight clearance of dust in an oval shape around the core region roughly 2000 ly or so lengthwise. Could the dust clearance be due to the black hole? Maybe that another thing our galactographers are still working on…

    @dave cortesi: the moment I read your comment I thought of “The Fractal Universe” by Mat Zo. Dang great song, would go along nice with an image of the universe :)

  18. Peter Eldergill

    The first thing I thought was can you overlay a golden rectangle/spiral onto that image?

    It would be be pretty cool


  19. R

    Hi everyone,

    This query is completely unrelated to the topic but I was wondering if any of you guys could explain it to me.

    What does this mean? ‘Makar Sankranti (A day celebrated in some cultures) is the day when the sun moves from Sagittarius into Capricorn during the winter solstice in the northern hemisphere’.

    I’m afraid the only thing I know about zodiac signs is that they’re hokum and would be grateful if someone could clarify this…:)

  20. JB of Brisbane

    Cat: Is that what I think it is?
    Lister: What do you think it is?
    Cat: An orange whirly thing in space!

  21. Messier Tidy Upper

    Incredible, awe-inspiring, fascinating image – well worth the pains that were taken to get it. :-)

    @13.Zucchi : What the hell would “staking pain” mean?

    The last pain a vampire ever feels? 😉

    @ 1. Todd W. : I already called Buffy

    Wait; you know Buffy the vampire slayer – and have her number!? 😮 8)

    Or were you meaning the community of wiser, super-advanced elder beings living on the ice dwarf world “Buffy” (2004 XR190) instead? 😉

  22. Tail

    Looks remarkably like a tissue specimen under a microscope….

  23. I’m the proud owner of an Angry Red Planet T-shirt:

    Unbelievably, not even the nerdiest shirt I own.

  24. Dave W (24): That shirt is AWESOME. Where did you get it?

    And stupid as it is, that bat spider scared the pee out of me when I was a kid.

  25. WJM

    Is that the spider that eats patrons as they exit the National Gallery of the Canada?

  26. Messier Tidy Upper

    Wow, Dave W. you could be a doppleganger of my brother .. 😉

    Thinking of resemblences, I see a certain similarity with this :

    there. Fewer legs maybe but quite reminiscent still. 8)

  27. Daniel J. Andrews

    War of the Worlds (the old one, not the Cruise one) is what scared me when I was a little kid. I was 5. What the heck was my aunt thinking in letting me watch it? I had nightmares for years about big monsters towering over buildings and forests, coming after me.

  28. Brian Rose

    What I think is interesting is the hole with a bright dot right around the core. I’m guessing that is the central black hole and it has devoured much of the dust in its area.

  29. Aleina

    The New York Times on March 15th 2009 brought out another sensation. The above noted Chinese official, Mao Kan mentioned that he has obtained more than 1000 secret photographs which reveal not only human footprints but a human dead body on the surface of the moon. It was also stated by the said official that some bones from that dead body was missing. It is believed that the human dead body have been dropped on the moon from alien spaceship and extraterrestrials kept few tissues for research.

  30. Firemancheesehead

    Anyone else notice that in the IR picture, the black hole is actually, well, black?

    Just reread Brians comment at #29…

    So I’m not the only one

  31. Wil

    The body on the moon was later identified as missing Chinese Olympic high jumper Wang Pow.

    Man, could that guy jump!

  32. CB

    What I think is interesting is the hole with a bright dot right around the core. I’m guessing that is the central black hole and it has devoured much of the dust in its area.

    Or, it’s just where the star-subtracting process Phil discussed resulted in a black spot large enough to see on the scaled image. After all, that’s the brightest (so most star-filled) spot in the visible light image.

  33. very scary and cool at the same time. i think it would be cool to find out more about it. do you all.


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