The incredible clear skies over the past few weeks of Lockdown (which gets a capital ‘L’ now I suppose) have inspired me to do an astronomy course, so a special mention today for my first Deep Space photograph: a snap of the Whirlpool Galaxy last night (looking very much as it did the night before and probably a few million years before that). There’s nothing remarkable about this photograph of course – it’s just a product of our ability to take pictures with telescopes and stuff – but the facts and figures about the Whirlpool are worth some pondering just to get a few things in perspective. So I thought I’d add some numbers in here, to practice what I’m learning from the space boffins on my Open University OpenLearn course.
Two galaxies appear in this picture. The small one at the top is NGC 5195, which has been ambling across this shot for billions of years and happens to be placed where it is right now to give the appearance of two galaxies joined together. The Whirpool has star factories in those spiral arms, is host to many black holes and as a galaxy it contains billions of stars. The Whirpool is 31 Million light years away from us, which makes this picture 31 Million Years older than the camera it was taken with. This photo shows a galaxy which is around 60,000 light years wide, which is probably better thought of as 300,000,000,000,000,000 times the width of Wales. Aproximately.
Technical stuff: This is a visible lighty, colour picture of M51. To get this picture I tasked the Open University COAST (COmpletely Autonomous Survey Telescope) which sits on top of Mount Teide on Tenerife. Clear skies most of the time, and a high altitude make this a popular place for telescopes. This one is a 14inch Schmidt-Cassegrain and you can see it here: https://www.telescope.org/v4webcams.php