Largest spiral galaxy in the universe brought into sharp relief in stunning new composite image

A spectacular new photo has been released showing the record-holder for largest spiral galaxy in the universe.

NGC 6872, also known as the Condor Galaxy, stretches 522,000 light years from tip to tip. The Milky Way is approximately 100,000 light years across.

The galaxy is visible in the southern skies as part of the Pavo constellation, and is 212 million light-years from Earth.

It was always thought to be among the largest stellar systems in the universe, but NGC 6872 was officially designated the largest spiral galaxy known to science by NASA in 2013.

The new image of NGC 6872 combines different wavelengths of light from three different observatories to show the galaxy in all its glory.

It combines visible light from the European Southern Observatory’s Very Large Telescope in Chile; far-ultraviolet data from NASA’s now decommissioned space telescope Galaxy Evolution Explorer; and infrared information from NASA’s Spitzer Space Telescope.

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Not only is NGC 6872 massive, it also has a very different structure to our home galaxy. The galactic goliath is known as a barred spiral galaxy with two smooth bars of stars emanating from either side of the object, tipped with smooth and continuous arms. This galaxy type is known as a SBb galaxy.

Hubble-de Vaucouleurs diagram for galaxy morphology. Credit: Antonio Ciccolella / M. De Leo / CC BY 3.0.

It is thought that the elongated appearance of NGC 6872 is due to its proximity to nearby galaxy IC 4970. The dwarf galaxy is about one-fifth the size of its monstrous neighbour, but is believed to impart enough gravitational tidal forces on the Condor Galaxy to give it its distinctive shape.

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Interactions between galaxies like these usually lead to mergers. However, data, including the information gleaned from the new composite image, suggests that NGC 6872 and IC 4970 are actually doing the opposite – giving birth to a new galaxy.

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