Galactic Heavyweight

Credit: NASA, ESA and the Hubble Heritage (STScI/AURA)-ESA/Hubble Collaboration. Acknowledgement: Davide De Martin and Robert Gendler

Strange things have happened to the monster galaxy, M66, in the Leo Triplet. As spiral galaxies go, with matching majestic arms swirling toward a clear core, M66 has misshapen arms and the core is off-center. Scientists studying this image from NASA‘s Hubble Space Telescope think that gravity fro the two other galaxies of this triplet are throwing M66 off balance.

Explore the image. Follow the spiral arms that seem to sweep over the galaxy. Light, traveling at the absolute speed limit in the universe of nearly 6 trillion miles a year, takes 100,000 years to travel across the disk of M66. This makes is about the same size as our Milky Way Galaxy. The galaxy features thick and striking dust lanes, areas of bright blue star clusters and pinkish clouds of dust and gas. Star clusters are important tools, helping astronomers learn how the galaxy formed over time. What other features strike you in this image? Share your comments.

The Leo Triplet is a trio of interacting galaxies. The three galaxies include M66, NGC 3628 and M65. Waves of gas and dust concentrate in the spiral arms of M66, sparking the formation of new stars. Although, M66 is being misshapen by close encounters with other galaxies, new star formation continues. M66 also is home to three supernovae explosions since 1989; the latest in 2009. Supernovae are the ultimate end of stars that are five to ten times more massive than our Sun (don’t worry, our Sun will probably end up as a planetary nebula in another 4 billion years). These stellar explosions obliterate the star, giving off more energy than our Sun radiates during its entire 10 billion year lifetime. For short periods of time, supernovae outshine entire galaxies. The only thing left behind is a tiny, dense neutron star and an expanding shell of star stuff.

We find M66 toward the constellation Leo, the Lion. The galaxies of the Leo Triplet are fairly close to Earth galactically speaking; only about 35 million light-years away.

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