Space & Innovation

Hubble Spies on a Beautifully Messed-Up Galaxy

The space telescope has captured a stunning view of a galaxy that just won't conform to a regular shape.

Galaxies come in all shapes and sizes, but can generally be grouped into easily identifiable regular shapes, such as the elegant spirals or run-of-the-mill ellipticals. And then there are the irregular galaxies, which account for roughly a quarter of known galaxies, that are just kinda messy.

ANALYSIS: Galaxy Grows Monstrous X-Ray Tail

In this recent Hubble Space Telescope observation, one such irregular galaxy, located around 16 million light-years from Earth, has been observed. It looks like a loose collection of stars that have been thrown together and shuffled, like my end-of-semester university dorm room. But this galaxy, called NGC 5408, isn't just a scattering of stars, it's a whole galaxy and it's a galaxy with some interesting astronomical history.

Originally discovered by British astronomer and mathematician John Herschel in June 1834, NGC 5408 was presumed to be a planetary nebula -- a gaseous cloud of gas generated by a dying star. But as astronomical optics improved, its true nature was revealed; NGC 5408 is an entire galaxy living by its own rules, refusing to conform to a regular shape.

ANALYSIS: Requiem for a Weeping, Doomed Galaxy

According to a NASA news release, NGC 5408 is notable for its ultraluminous X-ray source, known as NGC 5408 X-1. This class of object could be the signature of an intermediate-mass black hole, one of the most sought-after astrophysical objects in the cosmos.

Intermediate-mass black holes (or IMBHs) are the "middleweight" black holes that are thought to be the missing evolutionary link between puny stellar mass black holes and the gargantuan supermassive black holes. They are, however, very hard to find and astronomers are currently keeping tabs on ultraluminous X-ray sources in the hope that they may signal the presence of these mid-sized black holes.

Source: NASA

Using data from the Hubble Space Telescope's famous Ultra-Deep Field (UDF) observation,

astronomers have been able to deduce at what age spiral galaxies acquire their spiral structure

. Since its launch in 1990, the veteran observatory has studied countless galaxies, but some of the most striking images are that of the majestic spirals that pervade the entire observable universe. In this celebration of spiral galaxies and Hubble's prowess at imaging them, we've collected some of our favorite galactic views from the space telescope's archives.

NEWS: When Did Galaxies Get Their Spirals?

In this majestic image, phenomenal detail in galaxy

NGC 2841

's spiraling dust lanes have been captured.

Spiral galaxy

NGC 5866

as seen nearly edge-on from Hubble's perspective. The dark galactic dust silhouettes the bright galactic core.

An

unnamed spiral galaxy

located deep within the Coma Cluster of galaxies, around 320 million light-years away in the northern constellation Coma Berenices, shows off some intricate detail in its arms.

The famous

Sombrero galaxy

(Messier 104) is an edge-on spiral galaxy -- the "rim" of the sombrero is thick lanes of dust obscuring the galaxy's starlight.

M81

is another spiral galaxy not too dissimilar to our Milky Way. Young, bluish stars track along the galaxy's majestic arms, while older, redder stars cluster in its bright core.

This unique view of

M106

is a combination of Hubble data and photographs taken by astrophotographer Robert Gendler.

The 'classic' spiral

Whirlpool Galaxy

gravitationally interacts with a neighboring galaxy, refining its very clear spiral arms.

To celebrate Hubble's 21st year in space, astronomers released this striking image of a pair of interacting galaxies called

Arp 273

. (Image rotated)

The 3 galaxies of

Arp 274

appear to be very close to one another, but astronomers believe that they are far apart and only overlapping from our perspective.

Galaxy

UGC 10214

is undergoing some violent gravitational disturbances after a suspected galactic collision. The creation of the stream of stars post-collision appear as a tail, giving the galaxy "The Tadpole" moniker.

To see full-resolution images and more detail on the galaxies showcased here, browse the mindblowing online Hubble album.