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Credit: CTIO/NOIRLab/DOE/NSF/AURA. Acknowledgment: M. Soraisam (University of Illinois). Image processing: Travis Rector (University of Alaska Anchorage), Mahdi Zamani & Davide de Martin

Dark energy camera captures awe-inspiring image of nearby Pinwheel Galaxy

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Feb 10, 2021, 4:27 PM EST

Ever wonder what an extraterrestrial traveler might see when targeting the Milky Way in search of habitable galaxies and suitable planets to dominate and conquer? 

Check out this jaw-dropping new image of the breathtaking spiral galaxy officially catalogued as Messier 83, but better known as the Southern Pinwheel galaxy for obvious reasons.

Behold the brilliance of this cosmic snapshot obtained via the 520-megapixel Dark Energy Camera (DECam) instrument engineered by the US Department of Energy and installed on the Victor M. Blanco Telescope at the Cerro Tololo Inter-American Observatory (CTIO) in Chile. 

Credit: CTIO/NOIRLab/DOE/NSF/AURA. Acknowledgment: M. Soraisam (University of Illinois). Image processing: Travis Rector (University of Alaska Anchorage), Mahdi Zamani & Davide de Martin

A program run by the NSF’s NOIRLab, DECam’s primary objective had been to map the structures of hundreds of millions of galaxies between 2013-2019 to hopefully glean new data on the mysterious phenomenon known as dark energy. This invisible force remains an enigma to astrophycists who believe it to be a guiding hand in accelerating the rate of expansion in the universe. 

Rendered in vibrant colors, this gorgeous, face-on spiral galaxy is located approximately 15 million light-years away in the southern constellation of Hydra. Its sprawling arms are infused with dark channels of dust and sprinkled with reddish, star-forming clouds of hydrogen gas. Extreme ultraviolet light shoots out from the surfaces of these stellar nurseries where it's absorbed by adjacent hydrogen clouds, causing them to cast an eerie galactic glow.

Hang on tight and watch this trippy new zoom-in video delivering us straight to Messier 83!

With a combined exposure time of over 11 hours, this is by far one of the most detailed images ever obtained of the neighboring Southern Pinwheel.

"What makes this image so special is the amount of telescope time we had," Dr. Travis Rector of the Department of Physics and Astronomy at the University of Alaska Anchorage tells SYFY WIRE. "Typically we have only an hour or two to make an image.  For this image we had about 50 hours of data to use, making it one of the deepest (and possibly the deepest) image of M83 ever made. There’s a ton of background galaxies visible, including a few really nice ones to the left of M83."

Since DECam was retired in 2019, the instrument is now available to both professional and amateur astronomers to take full advantage of its incredible gaze. Using six filters this hypnotic image of the Southern Pinwheel galaxy was created using 163 separate exposures and its size spans nearly 50,000 light-years from end to end.