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20 Interesting Whirlpool Galaxy Facts

by Sankalan Baidya
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Whirlpool Galaxy Facts

Whirlpool Galaxy is one common name among stargazers. This spiral galaxy sits relatively close to our very own Milky Way Galaxy, making the Whirlpool Galaxy our neighbor. In this article titled 20 interesting Whirlpool Galaxy facts, we will learn a few things like who discovered the galaxy, how far is it from our Earth, how big is the galaxy, how many stars are present in the galaxy and so on… So, if you like gazing at stars and you love to learn about new galaxies, this article will help.

Interesting Whirlpool Galaxy Facts: 1-5

whirlpool galaxy

One of the several images of Whirlpool Galaxy taken by Discovery Space Telescope

1. The Whirlpool Galaxy is a spiral galaxy, pretty much like our own Milky Way and neighbor Andromeda.

2. The official name of this galaxy is M51. It also goes by the name NGC 5194.

3. This galaxy is about 30 million light years away from our Milky Way Galaxy.

4. Astronomers estimate that there are more than 100 billion stars in this galaxy.

5. The total mass of the galaxy is approximately 160 billion times the mass of our Sun.

Interesting Whirlpool Galaxy Facts: 6-10

6. In terms of diameter, the galaxy, according to NASA, is exactly 60 thousand light years across.

7. In order to spot the Whirlpool Galaxy, one needs to look at Canes Venatici constellation. The exact location will be towards the southeast of Big Dipper.

8. The initial discovery of the galaxy took place in 1773. Back then, astronomer Charles Messier was busy plotting celestial objects that the comet-hunters often found confusing. While doing so, he spotted the galaxy and cataloged it as ‘Messier 51’ from where the name M51 comes. Charles actually made 110 entries in his catalogue of Star Clusters and Nebulas.

9. This galaxy has a smaller companion galaxy which is catalogued NGC 5195. The discovery of this companion galaxy took place in 1781. The discovered was Pierre Méchain. Pierre was a close friend of Charles Messier (according to University of Manitoba).

10. The true structure of M51 was revealed only in 1845 when a 72’ reflector telescope was used to spot it. Its true structure was first observed by William Parsons. Parsons actually made a drawing, which is described as mid-19th century-astronomy’s classic work (according to Encyclopedia Britannica).

Interesting Whirlpool Galaxy Facts: 11-15

11. What Parsons observed was mankind’s first ever discovery of a so-called ‘Spiral Nebula’. Later, according to STScI, Parsons went on to discover 14 more of these objects. For a very long time, people were confused about what these objects truly were. Some believed that they were parts of Milky Way Galaxy and some said they were independent.

12. When the cosmic distances in Andromeda Galaxy (M31) were charted by Edwin Hubble using Cepheid variable stars, it became clear that those fuzzy objects were actually independent galaxies.

13. In recent years, the Whirlpool Galaxy has shown a surge in supernova explosions. Astronomers aren’t quite sure about the cause of such a surge in supernovas. Supernovas were observed in 1994, 2005 and then in 2011 – 3 in 17-year span.

14. Interestingly NGC 5194 (M51) and NGC 5195 (aka M51b) have actually passed by or passed through each other. This pass-by or pass-through took place at least once.

15. The companion galaxy of the Whirlpool Galaxy, i.e. the NGC 5195 is a very small galaxy or a dwarf galaxy.

Interesting Whirlpool Galaxy Facts: 16-20

16. Because of the pass-by or pass-through, or better put, the cosmic merger, the arms of the M51 have been distorted.

17. Similarly, the M51b, which is a small galaxy is being torn apart because of this cosmic merger. This makes classifying the NGC 5195 extremely difficult. Currently this companion galaxy looks like an irregular galaxy.

18. Astronomers say that the Whirlpool Galaxy has a supermassive black hole right at the center of the galaxy. This galaxy is surrounded by rings of dust and gas.

19. The Whirlpool Galaxy has a very active core. This is the reason why, the core is very bright and shows strong emissions in the infrared spectrum. This is why astronomers often call this galaxy as Seyfret Galaxy.

20. During the merger of the two galaxies – the M51 and M51b, the two are tied up together by a dust and gas bridge.

Sources: 1, 2, 3

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