People with an interest in astronomy may already be aware by now of one of the more recently famous galaxies, NGC 4151, which bears an appearance reminiscent of the “Eye of Sauron” from J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings trilogy. While that galaxy is currently taking the spotlight, it is an opportune time to present a visual tour of a few other notable galaxies and nebulae with memorable names and faces, to appreciate the awe-inspiring beauty of the universe so far discovered.
First up is the aptly named “Fireworks Galaxy,” officially bearing the designation NGC 6946. Located 22 million light years from earth, it is a spiral galaxy that is oriented to face towards earth directly, rather than sideways. It is that orientation that allows it to be seen in such a way as to appear like a burst of holiday fireworks. Helping it to earn the name are eight different supernovas which have exploded in its arms over the past century, which are visible in the image as the larger, blue-ish bright spots spattered around it. This galaxy also contains three of the oldest discovered supernovas ever detected.
The next “heavenly body” on the list is the Pinwheel Galaxy. With the scientific name of M101, the Pinwheel Galaxy of one of many spiral-type galaxies, although it exhibits a visually unique character with its tighter-than-usual spirals, which contain a healthy mix of both old and young stars. The Pinwheel Galaxy is in the same area of the night sky as Ursa Major, or more familiarly, the Big Dipper. It is a very similar distance from earth as the Fireworks Galaxy, measuring only one million light years closer, and it is significantly larger than the Milky Way in which earth resides.
Transitioning from galaxies to nebulae, the Flame Nebula, also known as NGC 2024 or Sh2-277, is a striking example of an emission nebula that calls Orion home. Much of the glow from which is derives its name is the effect of radiation from the easternmost star that makes up Orions’ belt, Alnitak. Along with its neighbor, the Horsehead Nebula, it is part of a region of space known as the Orion Molecular Cloud Complex, a star-forming cloud of gases and dust spanning hundreds of light years in diameter that is roughly 1,400 light years away from earth. Other nebulae in the complex, including one which borrows the name of the surrounding constellation of Orion, are visible by the naked eye.
Last, but anything other than the least of these collected galaxies and nebulae, is the Eagle Nebula. More specifically, a feature of the Eagle Nebula which has come to be called “The Pillars of Creation” for their dramatic appearance and the fact that stars are actually born in them. The Pillars are a type of phenomenon referred to as “elephant trunks” by astronomers for their long, roughly cylindrical shape. They are believed to be carved out of clouds of interstellar matter by “stellar winds,” or the streams of radiation streaming out of the stars.
There are many more awe-inspiring edifices hung throughout the cosmos. As much as the human species has discovered so far, orders of magnitude of other galaxies and nebulae exist beyond current technologies’ ability to see. The entire planet upon which humanity is precariously perched is only a speck of dust on the canvas of the night sky, a thought worth thinking the next time a person finds themselves outside on a clear night.
By Brian Whittemore
Header Photo – flickr License
Top Left Inset – flickr License
Upper Right Inset – flickr License
Lower Left Inset – flickr License
Bottom Right Inset – flickr License