The Whirlpool Nebula by Robert Gendler
Looking up into the midnight sky, with a faint cool breeze at your neck and the stars scattered like shards of glass caught in a spotlight, you can gain a sense of serenity. From gazing on the face of forever, your contemplations move from this bright star to that planet overhead. Yet, the universe is filled with routine violence on a scale that is unimaginably powerful and vast.
For example, untold numbers of objects fall to earth and are vaporized in a flash; mammoth tongues of flame leap from the Sun that would instantly incinerate our world we were any closer; and stars in the process of ending their useful lives suddenly implode and rip themselves into pieces during titanic blasts that briefly outshine the combined luminance of their home galaxy. These and many other events just as spectacular are common throughout the Universe. Safely tucked in our docile corner of the Milky Way galaxy, sequestered by a protective sea of air it’s easy to consider these events as abstractions that are curious but irrelevant to everyday life.
Perhaps our perspective would be quite different if our home planet was nestled within a galaxy that ventured too close to its neighbor, such as The Whirlpool Nebula (M51) or its yellow companion, NGC5195, pictured here. Our viewpoint about the nature of the Universe would most likely be quite different and we might quickly learn the consequences of trees falling in a forest even when no one was listening .
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Placed within the northern constellation of Canes Venatici, this pair of entwined galaxies, 60 million light years distant, is one of nighttime’s most mesmerizing icons and a favorite target for sky gazers with binoculars or small telescopes. It’s a showpiece but light polluted skies wash away the view and render it unremarkable. But under dark skies hints of spiral structuring can be glimpsed with telescopes as small as 4 inches diameter.
The intense spiral arms of the larger galaxy are the result of its proximity to the smaller, more distant associate. When the two grew closer, the gravity of NGC 5195 induced ripples within the larger member. As these waves moved throughout the big spiral, the edge of each arm was squeezed and their original enormity was further accentuated. This energy formed storm clouds of gas and dark dust that eventually collapsed under their own gravity into dense areas of new star formation that are notably red. The stars these areas produced included massive short-lived members that terminated as supernovas. The winds blown from their massive explosions dissipated the clouds to reveal other new, bright clusters of stars that gave the arms a characteristic blue glow.
Meanwhile, the smaller galaxy became disrupted as its material was both thrown into intergalactic space and pulled into the larger spiral. Over time, these two will further distort and eventually merge through an ongoing spectacle of events that would capture the attention of any civilization possibly existing within either.
This exceptional picture of The Whirlpool Nebula was the result of an epic 42-hour exposure by Robert Gendler. Earlier this year, 21 hours was devoted to capturing black and white luminance data and the same amount of time was used gathering color information. Rob images from his Nighthawk Observatory located in the south central Sacramento Mountains of New Mexico using a 12 and 20 inch Ritchey-Chretien telescope equipped with an 11 mega-pixel camera.
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Written by R. Jay GaBany