Sky at Night Magazine - - THE VIRGO GALAXIES -

Virgo is a con­stel­la­tion famed for its huge pop­u­la­tion of dis­tant ce­les­tial smudges, one of which is our first ob­ject, Messier 104. M104 ac­tu­ally sits close to the bor­der be­tween Virgo and the more southerly con­stel­la­tion Corvus, ap­prox­i­mately 11° from the bright star Spica (Al­pha Vir­gi­nis). M104 is more com­monly known as the Sombrero Galaxy and it’s not dif­fi­cult to see how it ac­quired this name when you look at it through a large tele­scope or see im­ages of it taken by as­tropho­tog­ra­phers. Its sci­en­tific story is ev­ery bit as strik­ing as its vis­ual ap­pear­ance too.

Per­haps its most ob­vi­ous fea­ture is the dark swathe across the bright mass of stars that make up its glow­ing oval shape. The swathe is a sil­hou­et­ted por­tion of the galaxy’s disc of dust and gas, which is viewed edge on from our line of sight. Hub­ble Space Tele­scope im­ages have shown this disc in re­mark­able de­tail, re­veal­ing in­tri­cate struc­tures in the dust lanes there. In­frared ob­ser­va­tions made with the Spitzer Space Tele­scope mean­while have re­vealed that, un­usu­ally, M104’s disc sits within an­other, larger el­lip­ti­cal galaxy, only part of which we see in vis­i­ble light and which only be­comes more fully ap­par­ent at longer in­frared wave­lengths.

The dark dust lane en­cir­cling M104 con­trib­utes to its Sombrero-like ap­pear­ance; in­set: seen in in­frared, M104’s se­cret is re­vealed – it’s ac­tu­ally two gal­ax­ies in one

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