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The VLT Survey Telescope (VST) at ESO’s
Paranal Observatory in Chile has captured a beautifully detailed image
of the galaxy Messier 33. This nearby spiral, the second closest large
galaxy to our own galaxy, the Milky Way, is packed with bright star
clusters, and clouds of gas and dust. The new picture is amongst the
most detailed wide-field views of this object ever taken and shows the
many glowing red gas clouds in the spiral arms with particular clarity.
otherwise known as NGC 598, is located about three million light-years
away in the small northern constellation of Triangulum (The Triangle).
Often known as the Triangulum Galaxy it was observed by the French comet
hunter Charles Messier in August 1764, who listed it as number 33 in
his famous list of prominent nebulae and star clusters. However, he was
not the first to record the spiral galaxy; it was probably first
documented by the Sicilian astronomer Giovanni Battista Hodierna around 100 years earlier.
Although the Triangulum Galaxy lies in the northern sky, it is just
visible from the southern vantage point of ESO’s Paranal Observatory in
Chile. However, it does not rise very high in the sky. This image was
taken by the VLT Survey Telescope (VST), a state-of-the-art 2.6-metre
survey telescope with a field of view that is twice as broad as the full
Moon. This picture was created from many individual exposures,
including some taken through a filter passing just the light from
glowing hydrogen, which make the red gas clouds in the galaxies spiral
arms especially prominent.
Among the many star formation regions in Messier 33’s spiral arms, the giant nebula NGC 604
stands out. With a diameter of nearly 1500 light-years, this is one of
the largest nearby emission nebulae known. It stretches over an area 40
times the size of the visible portion of the much more famous — and much
closer — Orion Nebula.
The Triangulum Galaxy is the third-largest member of the Local Group of galaxies, which includes the Milky Way, the Andromeda Galaxy,
and about 50 other smaller galaxies. On an extremely clear, dark night,
this galaxy is just visible with the unaided eye, and is considered to
be the most distant celestial object visible without any optical help.
Viewing conditions for the very patient are only set to improve in the
long-term: the galaxy is approaching our own at a speed of about 100 000
kilometres per hour.
A closer look at this beautiful new picture not only allows a very
detailed inspection of the star-forming spiral arms of the galaxy, but
also reveals the very rich scenery of the more distant galaxies
scattered behind the myriad stars and glowing clouds of NGC 598.
ESO is the foremost
intergovernmental astronomy organisation in Europe and the world’s most
productive ground-based astronomical observatory by far. It is supported
by 15 countries: Austria, Belgium, Brazil, the Czech Republic, Denmark,
France, Finland, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Portugal, Spain,
Sweden, Switzerland and the United Kingdom. ESO carries out an ambitious
programme focused on the design, construction and operation of powerful
ground-based observing facilities enabling astronomers to make
important scientific discoveries. ESO also plays a leading role in
promoting and organising cooperation in astronomical research. ESO
operates three unique world-class observing sites in Chile: La Silla,
Paranal and Chajnantor. At Paranal, ESO operates the Very Large
Telescope, the world’s most advanced visible-light astronomical
observatory and two survey telescopes. VISTA works in the infrared and
is the world’s largest survey telescope and the VLT Survey Telescope is
the largest telescope designed to exclusively survey the skies in
visible light. ESO is the European partner of a revolutionary
astronomical telescope ALMA, the largest astronomical project in
existence. ESO is currently planning the 39-metre European Extremely
Large optical/near-infrared Telescope, the E-ELT, which will become “the
world’s biggest eye on the sky”.