An observatory in northern Chile has captured a stunning view of Messier 83, also known as the Spiral of the Southern Pinwheel.
Messier 83 is an almost perfect illustration of what a spiral galaxy is stereotypically supposed to look like. This is because we have the fortune of seeing it from a practically perfect overhead, or face-on, perspective.
The new image was acquired with the Dark Energy Camera (DECam) attached to the Víctor M. Blanco telescope at the Cerro Tololo Inter-American Observatory (CTIO) in northern Chile. DECam, having already fulfilled its primary duty as the Dark Energy Survey from 2013 to 2018, is now being used for other purposes, like gazing upon nearby celestial wonders.
Messier 83 is 15 million light-years away, which is actually quite close as far as neighbouring galaxies are concerned. The spiral is about 50,000 light-years in diameter, making it about two-fifths as big as our Milky Way, another spiral galaxy. The Southern Pinwheel, as it’s also called, “probably gives a good approximation of how our Milky Way would look to a distant alien civilisation,” according to the U.S. National Science Foundation’s NOIRLab, which manages the CTIO program.
Six light filters were used to make the image, all highlighting specific features within the galaxy. For example, the dark channels coursing through the spirals are large accumulations of dust, while the red spots are regions rich in hydrogen gas, within which new stars are being born. In total, the image is the product of 163 DECam exposures taken across 11.3 hours of observation time.
For those of you wanting to make this image your wallpaper, go here to download the version of your choosing.
Work done with DECam will inform future observations made by the new Vera C. Rubin Observatory, which should see first light later this year and become fully operational in 2023.
“The Messier 83 observations are part of an ongoing program to produce an atlas of time-varying phenomena in nearby southern galaxies in preparation for Rubin Observatory’s Legacy Survey of Space and Time,” Monika Soraisam, an astronomer at the University of Illinois and principal investigator for DECam’s observations of Messier 83, explained in the NOIRLab statement.
Incredibly, the Rubin Observatory will capture 1,000 images each night, which it will do continuously for an entire decade. So get ready for the next amazing chapter in astronomy, as scientists literally create a colour motion picture of the cosmos.