Intense Starburst Spotted in Nearby Galaxy

the central region of the nearby Cigar Galaxy appears to shine bright in radio emmisions in this new image,  thanks in large part to intense star-forming activity. Credit: Josh Marvil (NM Tech/NRAO), Bill Saxton (NRAO/AUI/NSF), NASA
The central region of the nearby Cigar Galaxy. Credit: Josh Marvil (NM Tech/NRAO), Bill Saxton (NRAO/AUI/NSF), NASA

Things are rocking right now in our own galactic neighborhood. Backyard telescope users already knew about the Cigar Galaxy, or M82, located in the Great Bear constellation, Ursa Major. Now it has two new cosmic secrets to explore.

Two weeks ago a supernova—a giant exploding star—was discovered by British university students within the galaxy, which is 12 million light-years from Earth.

And this week scientists announced that one of the world’s most powerful radio telescopes has pulled back the veil of gas and dust that lies at the heart of this nearby galaxy to reveal that it is undergoing a rapid burst of star formation.

The new radio image above, made with the Karl G. Jansky Very Large Array (VLA) in New Mexico, reveals never-before-seen details of the central part of the galaxy, which is 5,200 light-years wide.

New stars lighting up, and debris from blasts as stars die, litter the image in the form of bright dots. Some faint, mysterious, wispy features, visible on the right side of the image, caught astronomers’ attention immediately. The features are thought to be formed by the superfast stellar winds generated by the galaxy’s intense, ongoing starburst events.

Credit: NASA/ESA/Hubble Heritage Team (STScI/AURA)
M82 is often called an “exploding galaxy” because it looks like it’s being torn apart in optical and infrared images. Credit: NASA/ESA/Hubble Heritage Team (STScI/AURA)

Despite being smaller than the Milky Way, the Cigar Galaxy hides an active star-forming region in its inner core, which is probably just a few hundred light-years wide. In this stellar factory, more stars are presently born than in the entire Milky Way.

M82 is often called an “exploding galaxy” because it looks like it’s being torn apart as the result of numerous supernova explosions and, according to the new research, intense starburst activity.

See for Yourself

Sky-watchers across the entire Northern Hemisphere can see this amazing galaxy on any clear night at this time of the year, using a small backyard scope.

The Cigar galaxy i easy to track down just off the Big Dipper in the northern sky on any clear night this time of the year. Through small telescopes both the Cigar and its neighboring spiral galaxy M81 can be seen in a single field of view.
The Cigar Galaxy is easy to track down just off the Big Dipper in the northern sky. Both the Cigar Galaxy and its neighboring spiral galaxy M81 can be seen in a single field of view in a small telescope.

M82 is joined by its neighboring spiral galaxy M81, making for a pretty pair when viewed through small telescopes under low magnification.

Use binoculars first to locate the galaxy pair, which lie to the northwest of the Big Dipper. M81 is an oval-shaped haze, shining at about 6.8 magnitude, spanning the same chunk of sky as the apparent disk of the full moon. The fainter 8.4-magnitude M82 is cigar-shaped—hence its name.

A leading theory holds that a near collision with its M81 companion galaxy, millions of years ago, distorted the Cigar Galaxy and may have triggered the intense burst of star formation we are now seeing.

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Meet the Author
Andrew Fazekas, aka The Night Sky Guy, is a science writer, broadcaster, and lecturer who loves to share his passion for the wonders of the universe through all media. He is a regular contributor to National Geographic News and is the national cosmic correspondent for Canada’s Weather Network TV channel, space columnist for CBC Radio network, and a consultant for the Canadian Space Agency. As a member of the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada, Andrew has been observing the heavens from Montreal for over a quarter century and has never met a clear night sky he didn’t like.