Astronomy Picture of the Day

Discover the cosmos! Each day a different image or photograph of our fascinating universe is featured, along with a brief explanation written by a professional astronomer.

2010 January 9
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Andromeda Island Universe
Credit & Copyright: Martin Pugh

Explanation: The most distant object easily visible to the eye is M31, the great Andromeda Galaxy some two and a half million light-years away. But without a telescope, even this immense spiral galaxy - spanning over 200,000 light years - appears as a faint, nebulous cloud in the constellation Andromeda. In contrast, details of a bright yellow nucleus and dark winding dust lanes, are revealed in this digital telescopic image. Narrow band image data recording emission from hydrogen atoms, shows off the reddish star-forming regions dotting gorgeous blue spiral arms and young star clusters. While even casual skygazers are now inspired by the knowledge that there are many distant galaxies like M31, astronomers seriously debated this fundamental concept in the 20th century. Were these "spiral nebulae" simply outlying components of our own Milky Way Galaxy or were they instead "island universes" -- distant systems of stars comparable to the Milky Way itself? This question was central to the famous Shapley-Curtis debate of 1920, which was later resolved by observations of M31 in favor of Andromeda, island universe.

Note: An APOD editor will review great space images on Thursday, January 14, in Houghton, Michigan.

Tomorrow's picture: spheres rule

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