This week Hal gets face to face with the Whirlpool Galaxy.
One of the things that will really make you say “wow” in the night sky is visible now, the Whirlpool Galaxy. It can be found in the southern Colorado and northern New Mexico sky year-round, just below the last star in the handle of the Big Dipper.
If you can get away from city lights, even binoculars will show you an amazing view. This spiral galaxy is seen face on, meaning we see it as if we were looking down at the top of a spinning pinwheel. But what makes the Whirlpool Galaxy extra special is that it is not alone. Seemingly connected to one of its spiral arms is a small “dwarf galaxy.” In truth they are not actually connected – the small galaxy is in front of the larger Whirlpool Galaxy. But, that wasn’t always the case.
Sometime in the last billion years or so, the little galaxy started off behind the Whirlpool, and moved right through it, to its current position in front of the Whirlpool, relative to Earth. And, in smashing through, the little galaxy warped and twisted the spiral arms of the larger galaxy. Instead of being tightly wound around the galactic core, as we usually see, the spiral arms in the Whirlpool Galaxy seem to flail off into space awkwardly, but incredibly beautifully. And the little galaxy did not come through this collision unscathed. Its shape has been permanently altered to an irregular blob of stars. It might’ve started off as a spiral, we just don’t know, but now it’s just a mess, albeit a beautiful one.
In terms of beauty it’s tough to match the Whirlpool. So take a spin over to a star party and look at this wonderful cosmic collision.
If you’d like to take a closer look at the Whirlpool galaxy, or any of the other wonderful and amazing things in the sky, please visit KRCC.org or CSASTRO.org for a link to information on our monthly meetings and our free public star parties!
This is Hal Bidlack for the Colorado Springs Astronomical Society, telling you to keep looking up, Southern Colorado!