The giant eye of an infrared galaxy

Contributed by
Jul 23, 2009
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It's been a while since I've posted a drop-dead gorgeous galaxy image. So if you're Jonesing, here you go:

Coooool.

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.