Hubble for the Holidays: Have a Cigar!

“Equipped with his five senses, man explores the Universe around him and calls the adventure Science.” –Edwin Hubble


I promised you, this week, we’d be taking a look at the power of the Hubble Space Telescope. Yesterday, we looked at Eta Carinae, but today, I decided to look a little farther. Have a listen to a little classic Pink Floyd as a treat today, and their hit,

Have a Cigar.

Sketch credit: Patrick Van Beeck.

Yes, I know Hubble was a pipe man, but I’m talking about the Cigar Galaxy, otherwise known as M82. Visible with a small telescope or even good binoculars, M82 has been studied since at least the 1700s.

Image credit: Jerry Lodriguss, 1996.

And together in the sky with it’s neighbor, M81, it forms one of the closest pairs of galaxies to us in the Universe. (M81 is its own story of mild embarrassment for me.) M81 is the big spiral, M82 is the smaller, cigar-shaped object. (Although it turns out to be an edge-on spiral in its own right.)

Image credit: Graeme Coates, 2007.

Of course, amateur telescopes have gotten amazingly good at photographing this object, improving dramatically over the last two decades.

But if you go from looking in just the visible to also looking in the infrared, you discover something amazing about this galaxy.

With thanks to the Spitzer Space Telescope.

At its core, there are wisps of stars emanating in both directions, perpendicular to the galaxy! Why? Because M82 and M81 are gravitationally interacting; in fact, they’re near the beginning of a long process of merging together! Separated by only a few hundred thousand light years, they’re estimated to have passed close by one another just 200 million years ago; the distortions we see in both galaxies are due to that recent encounter!

We didn’t even need to go to space to see that.

Image credit: Subaru.

An infrared telescope will actually see M82 as the brightest galaxy in the night sky! The galactic winds in M82 are still somewhat of a mystery, but it certainly makes for a beautiful sight.

And all that said, let’s see what additional light the Hubble Space Telescope can shed on this cosmic cigar.

This image, taken in 2005 by Hubble, blows all the others away in terms of resolution and detail. While this thumbnail doesn’t really do it justice, you can click here and see details down to individual stars in this galaxy!

And luckily for you, I already did. Have a look at the outskirts, at the very edge of the disc of this galaxy,

or take a look at the infrared wind, driving what appear to be dim stars out of the plane of the galaxy,

or take a look at the “red plumes,” as far as they rise out of the galaxy,

or simply dive in to the core — the heart — of the Cigar Galaxy.

You can easily waste the whole day away on this image, including looking at forgotten, uninteresting regions away from M82 itself, and finding ultra-distant galaxies!

Thanks Hubble; when you look at even our most familiar objects, it’s like seeing them for the first time.