Credit: NASA and The Hubble Heritage Team (STScI/AURA)

Star clouds sweep around a spectacular spiral “S” in this NASA Hubble Space Telescope image of the heart of M51, the Whirlpool Galaxy.

This image is one of the sharpest views of our near neighbor galaxy M51, also known as NGC 5194. The distinct spiral arms are likely triggered by gravity’s pull of a companion galaxy NGC 5195 (not seen in this image). Explore the spiral arms as they arc away from the bright core. Bright clusters glow in the clouds of reddish hydrogen gas that gave them birth. The interaction with the companion helps give birth to new stars in the galaxy. Dark dust lanes along the spiral arms may one day brighten as new stars form in these areas. Look for dust “spurs” spiking out from the dust lanes. These puzzling features are causing astronomers to rethink how spiral galaxies form. Astronomers believe there may be a huge black hole churning away at the center of the galaxy.

M51 is found toward the constellation Canes Venatici, the hunting dogs of Bootes the hunter. The light from this face-on spiral galaxy has been traveling 31 million years to reach our eyes on Earth. A light-year is the distance light travels in a year; nearly 6 trillion miles.