The Whirlpool Galaxy (M51)

They say good things come to those who wait.  Never  was this more exemplified than this evening after several hours in bitterly cold conditions on Culloden moor with my video telescope.  The cold made setup and targeting much more fraught than usual, and the small gas stove I’d balanced pecariously beside the monitor did little to help.

However, near the end of my session I hit the jackpot when this stunning image of the Whirlpool galaxy, over 23 million light years away,  materialised from the video screen.

Whirlpool galaxy

This image is a true testament to the power of video astronomy and the huge increase in aperture it lends to amature telescopes.  Dust lanes and connective spiral arms are clearly in evidence here.  The best naked eye views of the Whirlpool I’ve seen have only really resolved the two central cores of the interacting galaxies.  You generally need a scope of 16 inches or more to reveal dust tendrils in this much detail.

This is how the Earl of Rosse sketched the galaxy back in 1845 with his monstrous 72 inch dobsonian from the grounds of Birr Castle in Ireland.

M51Sketch

Of course back then these structures were given the loose classification of ‘nebulae’ and were assumed part of our local galaxy.  It wasn’t until the 1920s when Edwin Hubble observed cepheid variable stars within each bright core of the Whirlpool that this image was understood to be two distinct but interacting galaxies, the larger of which has been estimated to be 35% the size of our own Milky Way galaxy.

M51 is still a hot target for professional astronomers, not least because of the black hole that exists within the heart of the larger galaxy.  This central region is undergoing rapid stellar changes and star formation.

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