The latest imagery from the European Southern Observatory (ESO) is in, and it's stunning. But ESO experts say that, while it may look placid in its portrait, the spiral galaxy Messier 77 is anything but chill.
Messier 77 is one of 110 celestial objects named for the 18th-century French astronomer Charles Messier. Messier was a hilariously single-minded man who really only cared about finding comets with his telescope. But in order to do so, he had to look at, and past, a lot of other stuff in the sky.
To spare himself and other comet hunters the boring chore of examining every gorgeous, glittering object in the sky, Messier began compiling a list of dazzling nebulae and star clusters—or, as he liked to call them, "time-wasting objects to avoid."
The 77th item on the list was discovered in 1780 by Pierre Méchain, who frequently collaborated with Messier. Méchain thought the bright object was a nebula; Messier, in his list, called it a nebulous cluster. Later astronomers with better telescopes would eventually learn that both men were wrong: Messier 77 is a galaxy. A whirling, enormous galaxy measuring more than 120,000 light-years across.
The galaxy is located in the constellation Cetus (the sea monster), about 47 million light-years from Earth.
Pretty though it may be, Messier 77 is a rough customer. It's so big and hefty that its gravity twists and warps other galaxies nearby. And the calm dark spot that looks like the eye of a storm is actually a supermassive black hole. Star stuff that ventures too close to the blackness gets squashed and superheated and begins radiating huge amounts of energy.
Like many space photos, the VLT image above is a composite of four different images, each from a different wavelength. Hot young stars in the galaxy's spiral arms show up here as pink, while the red lines are strand-like structures in the surrounding gas.
You can find more gorgeous images of celestial objects at the ESO's Cosmic Gems website.