ESO Photo Release | VLT | 2017 Jul 05
VLT) has captured a magnificent face-on view of the barred spiral galaxy Messier 77. The image does justice to the galaxy’s beauty, showcasing its glittering arms criss-crossed with dust lanes — but it fails to betray Messier 77’s turbulent nature.
This picturesque spiral galaxy appears to be tranquil, but there is more to it than meets the eye. Messier 77 (also known as NGC 1068) is one of the closest active galaxies, which are some of the most energetic and spectacular objects in the Universe. Their nuclei are often bright enough to outshine the whole of the rest of the galaxy. Active galaxies are among the brightest objects in the Universe and emit light at most, if not all, wavelengths, from gamma rays and X-rays all the way to microwaves and radiowaves. Messier 77 is further classified as a Type II Seyfert galaxy, characterised by being particularly bright at infrared wavelengths.
This impressive luminosity is caused by intense radiation blasting out from a central engine — the accretion disc surrounding a supermassive black hole. Material that falls towards the black hole is compressed and heated up to incredible temperatures, causing it to radiate a tremendous amount of energy. This accretion disc is thought to be enshrouded by thick doughnut-shaped structure of gas and dust, called a “torus”. Observations of Messier 77 back in 2003 were the first to resolve such a structure using the powerful VLT Interferometer (eso0319).
This image of Messier 77 was taken in four different wavelength bands represented by blue, red, violet and pink (hydrogen-alpha) colours. Each wavelength brings out a different quality: for example, the pinkish hydrogen-alpha highlights the hotter and younger stars forming in the spiral arms, while in red are the fine, thread-like filamentary structures in the gas surrounding Messier 77 . A foreground Milky Way star is also seen beside the galaxy centre, displaying tell-tale diffraction spikes. Additionally, many more distant galaxies are visible; sitting at the outskirts of the spiral arms, they appear tiny and delicate compared to the colossal active galaxy. ...