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What a great way to start the day, with a gorgeous image like this one of the galaxy Messier 83, adorned with what looks like rubies on the spiral arms. This shot was captured by the Wide Field Imager at ESO’s La Silla Observatory, located high in the dry desert mountains of the Chilean Atacama Desert. Messier 83 lies roughly 15 million light-years away towards the southern constellation of Hydra. To make this image, the WFI stared at M83 for roughly 100 minutes through a series of specialist filters, allowing the faint detail of the galaxy to reveal itself. The brighter stars in the foreground are stars in our own galaxy, and behind M83 the darkness is peppered with the faint smudges of distant galaxies.
M83 stretches over 40,000 light-years, making it roughly 2.5 times smaller than our own Milky Way. However, in some respects, Messier 83 is quite similar to our own galaxy. Both the Milky Way and Messier 83 possess a bar across their galactic nucleus, the dense spherical conglomeration of stars seen at the centre of the galaxies.
The red, ruby like features are in fact huge clouds of glowing hydrogen gas. Ultraviolet radiation from newly born, massive stars is ionizing the gas in these clouds, causing the great regions of hydrogen to glow red. These star forming regions are contrasted dramatically in this image against the ethereal glow of older yellow stars near the galaxy’s central hub. The image also shows the delicate tracery of dark and winding dust streams weaving throughout the arms of the galaxy.
Messier 83 was discovered by the French astronomer Nicolas Louis de Lacaille in the mid 18th century. Decades later it was listed in the famous catalogue of deep sky objects compiled by another French astronomer and famous comet hunter, Charles Messier.