Beautiful Spiral Galaxy Bares Its Secrets In New VLT Photo


A gorgeous photo released today by the European Southern Observatory (ESO) reveals “stunning details” of a spiral galaxy 65 million light-years away.

Nestled within the Crater constellation (the “Cup”), this particular spiral galaxy is known as NGC 3981 and belongs to the NGC 4038 group of galaxies, found inside the larger Crater Cloud.

According to ESO, the Crater Cloud itself is a smaller component of the Virgo Supercluster, a “titanic collection of galaxies” that stretches some 110 million light-years across and also includes the Milky Way and its next-door neighbor, the Andromeda galaxy.

What makes galaxy NGC 3981 interesting is its position in respect with our planet, explain ESO officials.

“The galaxy is inclined towards Earth, allowing astronomers to peer right into its heart and observe its bright center, a highly energetic region containing a supermassive black hole.”

This beautiful spiral galaxy was recently photographed by ESO’s Very Large Telescope (VLT) in the Atacama Desert of Chile — the most advanced visible-light astronomical observatory in the entire world, notes Newsweek.

Observatory officials describe the galaxy as “a galactic gem” — a reference to the ESO Cosmic Gems Programme, the educational initiative that made the snapshot possible. This program uses ESO’s telescopes to take memorable photos of the southern skies whenever viewing conditions aren’t suitable for scientific observations.

Captured in May with the VLT’s FORS2 instrument, short for FOcal Reducer and low dispersion Spectrograph 2, the photo unveils not only exquisite details of the galaxy’s structure, but also a chance sighting of an asteroid passing by, as well as bits and pieces of our Milky Way.

Galaxy NGC 3981
Featured image credit: ESO

“This wonderful image shows the resplendent spiral galaxy NGC 3981 suspended in the inky blackness of space,” ESO officials stated in the photo release.

The VLT snapshot is actually a composite of three different exposures, taken in blue, green, and red light, and showcases the spiral arms of galaxy NGC 3981, “strewn with vast streams of dust and star-forming regions.”

An in-depth look toward the center of NGC 3981 reveals “a prominent disk of hot young stars,” while a glance at the galaxy’s outlying spiral structure shows streaks of stretched-out material that seem to have been pulled outward, most likely by the gravity of a passing galaxy.

Milky Way Stars And A ‘Rogue’ Asteroid

But “the sensitive gaze” of the FORS2 instrument — nicknamed the “Swiss Army Knife” of the Paranal Observatory due to its versatility, notes ESO — has managed to capture the galaxy’s impressive surroundings as well.

The foreground of the new VLT photo is actually populated with several stars belonging to the Milky Way. At the same time, the telescope has also spotted “a rogue asteroid” speeding across the sky right above galaxy NGC 3981, imaged as a colored faint line at the top of the photo.

The three colors that make up the streak of the asteroid are the same used for the three exposures and show the space rock’s movement across the image field.

To take a closer look at the spiral galaxy, check out the pan video below, uploaded today by ESO.