M87 Galaxy Reconstructed in Thrilling 3D

A photo of the huge elliptical galaxy M87 [left] is compared to its three-dimensional shape as gleaned from meticulous observations made with the Hubble and Keck telescopes [right]. Image Credit: NASA, ESA, J. Olmsted (STScI), F. Summers (STScI)C. Ma (UC Berkeley); CC BY 4.0

In astronomy, we speak casually of extremely large numbers and extremely vast distances as if they’re trivial. A supermassive black hole can have several billion solar masses, a distant quasar is 500 million light-years away, etc. Objects like galaxies that are mere tens of millions of light years away start to seem familiar.

But even though our Wikipedia pages are full of data on distant objects, there’s a deceptive lack of understanding of some of their basic properties. Take Messier 87, for example, a galaxy often talked about and seen in images. It’s noteworthy for being home to the first black hole ever imaged.

It’s so far away that astronomers have no real idea what its three-dimensional shape is.

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Messier 87 – the Virgo A Supergiant Galaxy

M87 and the jet streaming away from its central supermassive black hole. Credits: NASA, ESA and the Hubble Heritage Team (STScI/AURA); Acknowledgment: P. Cote (Herzberg Institute of Astrophysics) and E. Baltz (Stanford University)

Welcome back to Messier Monday! Today, we continue in our tribute to our dear friend, Tammy Plotner, by looking at the supergiant elliptical galaxy known as Messier 87 (aka. Virgo A)!

During the 18th century, famed French astronomer Charles Messier noticed the presence of several “nebulous objects”  while surveying the night sky. Originally mistaking these objects for comets, he began to catalog them so that others would not make the same mistake. Today, the resulting list (known as the Messier Catalog) includes over 100 objects and is one of the most influential catalogs of Deep Space Objects.

One of these objects is the supergiant galaxy Messier 87, also known as the Virgo A (or the Smoking Gun) galaxies. Located at a distance of about 53.5 million light years from Earth, this galaxy is home to several trillion stars, 15,000 globular clusters, and a supermassive black hole. It is one of the brightest galaxies in the northern part of the Virgo Cluster, second only to Messier 49, and the dominant member of that group.

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