Hubble Telescope Captures Galaxy’s Fluffy ‘Flocculent Spirals’

This new image of the spiral galaxy NGC 3521 from the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope is not out of focus. Instead, the galaxy itself has a soft, woolly appearance as it a member of a class of galaxies known as flocculent spirals. Like other flocculent galaxies, NGC 3521 lacks the clearly defined, arcing structure to its spiral arms that shows up in galaxies such as Messier 101, which are called grand design spirals. In flocculent spirals, fluffy patches of stars and dust show up here and there throughout their discs. Sometimes the tufts of stars are arranged in a generally spiralling form, as with NGC 3521, but illuminated star-filled regions can also appear as short or discontinuous spiral arms. About 30 percent of galaxies share NGC 3521's patchiness, while approximately 10 percent have their star-forming regions wound into grand design spirals. NGC 3521 is located almost 40 million light-years away in the constellation of Leo (The Lion). The British astronomer William Herschel discovered the object in 1784. Through backyard telescopes, NGC 3521 can have a glowing, rounded appearance, giving rise to its nickname, the Bubble Galaxy. ESA/Hubble & NASA and S. Smartt

A new picture from the Hubble Space Telescope shows the spiral galaxy NGC 3521 in a shot that looks almost artificial in its painterly beauty. Discovered in 1784 by British astronomer William Herschel, the 40 million light-year distant object has what are called flocculent spirals, a softer version of the well-defined arms of other galaxies.

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Just why flocculent galaxies have this woolly appearance isn't known. It may be that more star formation areas and dust clouds are being spun around the periphery of the galaxy in the midst of the arms, rather than having most stars originate in one highly productive region at the center.

NGC 3521 is nicknamed the "Bubble Galaxy" for its appearance in common telescopes. If you'd like to spot it yourself, point yours toward the constellation Leo and look for something soft, round and very far away.

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