Since prehistoric times humanity has stood in awe of the celestial bodies that populate the vastness of the night sky. Yet the vast majority of these bodies, particularly other galaxies, lie too far away from Earth for the human eye to observe with any level of detail. It is only recently, with the invention of powerful telescopes, in particular space telescopes such as Hubble, that we can see these entities not as mere specks of light but as the immense, intricate formations that they actually are. These are the 10 most beautiful galaxies that populate the known universe.
10. Bode’s Galaxy (NGC 3031 or M81)
Bode's Galaxy (named after its discoverer, Johann Elert Bode), also known as Messier 81, has been called a lesson in perfection when it comes to spiral galaxies. Located only 12,000,000 light years from Earth in the constellation Ursa Major and featuring a bright active nucleus, Messier 81 is one of the most conspicuous galaxies in the sky, even to the naked eye. For anyone saddened at not finding NGC 5457 (Messier 101) on this list, I can assure you that "The Pinwheel" was a close runner up.
9. "The Black Eye" (NGC 4826 or M64)
The Black Eye Galaxy (also called the Sleeping Beauty Galaxy, the Evil Eye Galaxy, or Messier 64) is of the spiral type and is located only 24 million light years from Earth in the Coma Berenices constellation. Its most notable feature is the dark band of absorbing dust in front of the bright nucleus, which gives the galaxy the ominous appearance its nicknames refer to. Bright blue young stars as well as fluorescent pink clouds of hydrogen are also very noticeable in the image. The galaxy's most interesting but not immediately visible characteristic is that the disk's outer region (93% of the radius) rotates in the opposite direction from the inner region. This opposing rotation triggers the creation of many new stars in the shear region, where gases collide and compress.
8. Hercules A (3C 348)
In visible light Hercules A, a staggering 2100 million light years from Earth, appears to be a normal elliptical galaxy. However, when imaged in radio waves, two jets of plasma one million light years long appear. Though the physics behind the formation of these jets is poorly understood, scientists theorise that the gravity of the black hole (which is 1,000 times more massive than the one at the center of the Milky Way) at the center of Hercules A provides the energy source.
7. "The Mice" (NGC 4676A/NGC 4676B)
The Mice Galaxies are both of the spiral type and lie 290 million light years away in the constellation Coma Berenices. The pair collided relatively recently and are in the process (or rather were in the process 290 million years ago) of merging until they are one. The nickname refers to the long tails of matter ripped from the galaxies by the interaction of their galactic tides, i.e. the forces caused by their gravitational fields. The unusual colours, which include dark markings, pale blues, and yellows, make the Mice two of the most striking celestial bodies.
6. "The Cigar" (NGC 3034 or M82)
The Cigar Galaxy, also known as Messier 82, is of the starburst type and lies but 12 million light years away from Earth in the constellation Ursa Major. This galaxy's unique bipolar outflow is fueled by the energy of a super massive star going supernova, a phenomenon which occurs roughly once every ten years. The starburst clusters formed are thought to be the least obscured ones out there from our vantage point, though one must keep in mind that the bright colours in the image above are from the visible, infrared, and X-ray spectrums. Messier 82 is also affected by its closeby (a mere 300 thousand light years away) and larger neighbour, Messier 81 (#10 on this list). The gravitational interaction between these two galaxies has decupled the rate of star formation in the former.
5. Andromeda (NGC 224 or M31)
The Andromeda Galaxy, also known as Messier 31, is of the spiral type and is the closest spiral galaxy to Earth, located just 2,500,000 light years away in the Andromeda constellation, from which the galaxy gets its name. The Andromeda constellation itself is named after the mythological Greek princess who was chained to a rock as a sacrifice to the sea monster Cetus. The strikingly bright bands of blue-white young stars (visible to the naked eye) that make up the galaxy's rings show up starkly against the cooler areas of dark blue-grey dust. In 3.75 billion years Andromeda and the Milky Way are expected to collide and eventually merge, forming an immense elliptical galaxy.
4. "The Antennae" (NGC 4038/NGC 4039)
These two colliding galaxies, 45 million light years from Earth and members of the Corvus constellation, are merging to form one huge elliptical galaxy in exactly the same way that the Milky Way and Andromeda are predicted to collide and combine in a few billion years. The merging of the two galaxies in "The Antennae" has progressed further than the merging of the pair in The Mice (#7 on this list) and is in a phase of starburst. Indeed, 600 million years ago NGC 4038 and NGC 4039 would have looked similar to The Mice. The Antennae Galaxies gets their nickname from the two long tails of gas, dust, and stars ripped from them by the collison and which resemble the antennae of an insect.
3. "The Tadpole" (UGC 10214)
This stunning barred spiral galaxy, part of the Draco constellation, lies much farther from Earth than the last three, about 400 million light years away. The source of its nickname is obvious; a tail of stars 280 thousand light years long stretches out behind it, the result of a collision with another galaxy (the remnants of which can be seen through the spiral arms at the upper right). The Tadpole Galaxy also features large clusters of bright blue stars, particularly visible in its tail, though this appendage will be lost as the galaxy ages.
2. "The Sombrero" (NGC 4594 or M104)
This absolutely amazing galaxy is, surprisingly, of the spiral type, though it looks nothing like Bode's Galaxy or Andromeda (some astronomers believe it is of the elliptical type). The Sombrero Galaxy, also known as Messier 104, is located in the Virgo constellation and lies 28 million light years from Earth. The galaxy is characterised by the prominent dust lane that surrounds it, and where most of the star formation occurs, as well as by its bright, bulging nucleus, which is powered by a supermassive black hole (one billion times heavier than our Sun).
1. "The Rose" (UGC 1810/UGC 1813 or Arp 273)
The particularly photogenic Rose Galaxy, like "The Antennae" and "The Mice", is made up of two interacting spiral galaxies. This pair is part of the Andromeda constellation and is located 300 million light years from Earth. It is believed that the smaller galaxy, UGC 1813 (the stem), passed through UGC 1810, distorting the disk of the latter into a rose-like shape with its gravitational tidal pull.