VISTA Peeps at The Sculptor Galaxy

June 18, 2010

The Sculptor Galaxy (NGC 253) Credit: ESO

[Click to enlarge!]

WOW! Just take a minute to gaze at this spectacular image.

ESO has just released this beautiful image of The Sculptor Galaxy (NGC 253) there are a few foreground stars which belong to our galaxy.  This image  is taken by VISTA (Visible and Infrared Survey Telescope for Astronomy), a 4-metre telescope at the Paranal Observatory in Chile.

NGC 253 is intermediate spiral galaxy, it’s quite close about 13 million light-years away, it can easily be seen with a good pair of binoculars as it’s one of the brightest galaxies in the sky and it is the brightest member of a small collection of galaxies called the Sculptor Group, one of the closest such groupings to our own Local Group of galaxies. Seen from Earth, the galaxy is almost edge on, with the spiral arms clearly visible in the outer parts, along with a bright core at its centre. There is intense star formation going on in this galaxy. NGC 253 is very dusty, this dust absorbs most of the visible-light coming from inside of the galaxy. But VISTA has no problems looking past this dust, instead of looking at the stuff in visible-light, VISTA looks at stuff in infrared-light. Infrared-light easily passes through the think dust clouds. The picture above is amazing, you can pick out individual stars thanks to the high resolution power of VISTA! It’s even more awesome if you download the gigantic 44MB file…It’s worth it!

[Click to enlarge]

In the image above, you see the dust and gas which litters the galaxy in visible-light, just fades away to reveal a huge number of cooler stars. The majestic spiral arms look more defined in infrared. The thick dust clouds in the central part of the disc and allows a clear view of a prominent bar of stars across the nuclear region — a feature that is not seen in visible light pictures.

This video allows you to zoom in for a closer look. The sequence starts with a wide view of the southern sky far from the Milky Way. Only a few stars are visible, but then VISTA brings us in closer where the view shifts to the very detailed new infrared image of NGC 253 provided by the new telescope at Paranal. By observing in infrared light VISTA’s view is less affected by dust and reveals a myriad of cooler stars as well as a prominent bar of stars across the central region.

VISTA has allowed scientists to study the myriad of cool red giant stars in the halo that surrounds the galaxy, measuring the composition of some of NGC 253’s small dwarf satellite galaxies, and searching for as yet undiscovered new objects such as globular clusters and ultra-compact dwarf galaxies that would otherwise be invisible without the deep VISTA infrared images. Using the unique VISTA data they plan to map how the galaxy formed and has evolved.

So, these are not just pretty pictures, there is a lot of science behind them. VISTA is going to allow us to unlock hidden mysteries of the universe and provide us a lot of astonishing pictures in the process. Everybody wins!

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