A galaxy revealed

Panning across ngc 3981 in the constellation of crater (the cup).

Panning across NGC 3981 in the constellation of Crater (The Cup).

European Southern Observatory (ESO), James Creasey

Sometimes even the most serious and big-budget research projects put the science aside and create art instead.

And the European Southern Observatory, headquartered in Germany, has a perfect device for doing so, strapped to its Very Large Telescope at Cerro Paranal in the Atacama Desert of northern Chile.

Called FORS2, it is a multi-mode optical instrument that can collect images of galaxies near and distant using a range of wavelengths and capture methods.

And while most of the time it is deployed in long-term serious research by the many astrophysicists with access to ESO facilities, it was recently diverted for use in the Observatory’s Cosmic Gems Program (CGP).

CGP is essentially an opportunist project, set up to make use of the rare occasions when atmospheric conditions or other factors preclude serious research. At these times, ESO resources are instead deployed in the pursuit of pure beauty.

The latest product of the program – thanks to FORS2 on a lazy day – comprise stunning images of a spiral galaxy called NGC 3981, positioned in the Crater constellation at a distance of 65 million light years from Earth.

The images captured show clearly the galaxy’s spiral arms, attendant dust streams and star-forming regions, and a disc of hot young stars. Right at its heart is a supermassive black hole

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