Image: Barred spiral galaxy NGC 1365
P. Grosbøl  /  ESO via AFP / Getty Images
An image taken with the HAWK-I camera on ESO's Very Large Telescope at Paranal Observatory in Chile features the barred spiral galaxy NGC 1365 in infrared light. NGC 1365 is a member of the Fornax galaxy cluster and lies about 60 million light-years from Earth.
updated 9/22/2010 10:35:50 AM ET 2010-09-22T14:35:50

A beautiful spiral galaxy 60 million light-years from Earth could help astronomers better understand our own Milky Way because of a trademark central bar-like structure.

The galaxy, NGC 1365, is one of the most-studied barred spiral galaxies. It is sometimes called the Great Barred Spiral Galaxy because of its strikingly perfect form.

Now, a new photo released by the European Southern Observatory Sept. 22 shows the galaxy in exacting detail, and may help astronomers who are trying to determine if our own Milky Way contains a central bar. [ New photo of the Great Barred Spiral Galaxy.]

Barred galaxies like NGC 1365 are actually quite common, scientists said. According to recent estimates, two thirds of spiral galaxies are barred, and recent observations have contributed evidence of a bar in the Milky Way.

Astronomers have used NGC 1365 to study how spiral galaxies form and evolve. By examining the complex flow of material within the galaxy, researchers can pinpoint how these processes affect the reservoirs of gas from which new stars can form.

Galaxy bar exam
The galaxy NGC 1365 has a straight bar packed with stars at its center, with two visible outer spiral arms. The entire galaxy is laced with delicate dust lanes, and close to the center is also a second spiral structure.

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The new image of the galaxy was taken with the powerful HAWK-I camera on ESO's Very Large Telescope at the Paranal Observatory in Chile. It was captured in infrared light, which cuts through the dust that obscures parts of the galaxy when viewed in visible light.

The photo reveals a clear glow from the vast number of stars that are located in both the bar and spiral arms.

NGC 1365 is located within the constellation of Fornax (the Furnace). The entire galaxy, including its two huge outer spiral arms, spans approximately 200,000 light-years wide. One light year is the distance light travels in one year, or about 6 trillion miles (9.7 trillion km).

A bar in space
The huge bar structure within NGC 1365 disturbs the shape of the galaxy's gravitational field, which causes regions of gas to compress and trigger star formation. Many huge young star clusters trace out the main spiral arms and each contains anywhere from hundreds to thousands of bright young stars that are less than 10 million years old.

In the photo, most of the tiny clumps that are visible are actually star clusters, but the galaxy is too remote for single tars to be seen individually.

The galaxy's bar consists primarily of older stars long past their prime, but many new stars are born in the stellar nurseries of gas and dust in the inner spiral close to the nucleus.

The bar also funnels gas and dust gravitationally to the very center of the galaxy, where astronomers have found evidence to support the presence of a supermassive black hole, well hidden among myriads of intensely bright new stars.

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Photos: Month in Space: January 2014

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  1. Southern stargazing

    Stars, galaxies and nebulas dot the skies over the European Southern Observatory's La Silla Paranal Observatory in Chile, in a picture released on Jan. 7. This image also shows three of the four movable units that feed light into the Very Large Telescope Interferometer, the world's most advanced optical instrument. Combining to form one larger telescope, they are greater than the sum of their parts: They reveal details that would otherwise be visible only through a telescope as large as the distance between them. (Y. Beletsky / ESO) Back to slideshow navigation
  2. A balloon's view

    Cameras captured the Grandville High School RoboDawgs' balloon floating through Earth's upper atmosphere during its ascent on Dec. 28, 2013. The Grandville RoboDawgs’ first winter balloon launch reached an estimated altitude of 130,000 feet, or about 25 miles, according to coaches Mike Evele and Doug Hepfer. It skyrocketed past the team’s previous 100,000-feet record set in June. The RoboDawgs started with just one robotics team in 1998, but they've grown to support more than 30 teams at public schools in Grandville, Mich. (Kyle Moroney / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  3. Spacemen at work

    Russian cosmonauts Oleg Kotov, right, and Sergey Ryazanskiy perform maintenance on the International Space Station on Jan. 27. During the six-hour, eight-minute spacewalk, Kotov and Ryazanskiy completed the installation of a pair of high-fidelity cameras that experienced connectivity issues during a Dec. 27 spacewalk. The cosmonauts also retrieved scientific gear outside the station's Russian segment. (NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  4. Special delivery

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  5. Accidental art

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  6. Supersonic test flight

    A camera looking back over Virgin Galactic's SpaceShipTwo's fuselage shows the rocket burn with a Mojave Desert vista in the background during a test flight of the rocket plane on Jan. 10. Cameras were mounted on the exterior of SpaceShipTwo as well as its carrier airplane, WhiteKnightTwo, to monitor the rocket engine's performance. The test was aimed at setting the stage for honest-to-goodness flights into outer space later this year, and eventual commercial space tours.

    More about SpaceShipTwo on PhotoBlog (Virgin Galactic) Back to slideshow navigation
  7. Red lagoon

    The VLT Survey Telescope at the European Southern Observatory's Paranal Observatory in Chile captured this richly detailed new image of the Lagoon Nebula, released on Jan. 22. This giant cloud of gas and dust is creating intensely bright young stars, and is home to young stellar clusters. This image is a tiny part of just one of 11 public surveys of the sky now in progress using ESO telescopes. (ESO/VPHAS team) Back to slideshow navigation
  8. Fire on the mountain

    This image provided by NASA shows a satellite view of smoke from the Colby Fire, taken by the Multi-angle Imaging SpectroRadiometer aboard NASA's Terra spacecraft as it passed over Southern California on Jan. 16. The fire burned more than 1,863 acres and forced the evacuation of 3,700 people. (NASA via AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  9. Where stars are born

    An image captured by NASA's Spitzer Space Telescope shows the Orion Nebula, an immense stellar nursery some 1,500 light-years away. This false-color infrared view, released on Jan. 15, spans about 40 light-years across the region. The brightest portion of the nebula is centered on Orion's young, massive, hot stars, known as the Trapezium Cluster. But Spitzer also can detect stars still in the process of formation, seen here in red hues. (NASA / JPL-Caltech) Back to slideshow navigation
  10. Cygnus takes flight

    Orbital Sciences Corp.'s Antares rocket rises from NASA's Wallops Flight Facility on Wallops Island, Va, on Jan. 9. The rocket sent Orbital's Cygnus cargo capsule on its first official resupply mission to the International Space Station. (Chris Perry / NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  11. A long, long time ago...

    This long-exposure picture from the Hubble Space Telescope, released Jan. 8, is the deepest image ever made of any cluster of galaxies. The cluster known as Abell 2744 appears in the foreground. It contains several hundred galaxies as they looked 3.5 billion years ago. Abell 2744 acts as a gravitational lens to warp space, brightening and magnifying images of nearly 3,000 distant background galaxies. The more distant galaxies appear as they did more than 12 billion years ago, not long after the Big Bang. (NASA / NASA via AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  12. Frosty halo

    Sun dogs are bright spots that appear in the sky around the sun when light is refracted through ice crystals in the atmosphere. These sun dogs appeared on Jan. 5 amid brutally cold temperatures along Highway 83, north of Bismarck, N.D. The temperature was about 22 degrees below zero Fahrenheit, with a 50-below-zero wind chill.

    Slideshow: The Year in Space (Brian Peterson / The Bismarck Tribune via AP) Back to slideshow navigation
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