Hubble Zooms in on Spiral Galaxy Messier 106

An international team of astronomers using the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope has captured a spectacular new view of nearby spiral galaxy Messier 106 (M106).

Spiral galaxy Messier 106 (NASA / ESA / the Hubble Heritage Team / STScI / AURA / R. Gendler / J. GaBany)

M106, also known as NGC 4258, is located over 20 million light-years away in the small northern constellation Canes Venatici.

At M106’s heart is a supermassive black hole, but this one is particularly active. Unlike the black hole at the center of our own galaxy, which pulls in wisps of gas only occasionally, M106’s black hole is actively gobbling up material.

The galaxy has a startling feature – instead of two spiral arms, it appears to have four. Although the second pair of arms can be seen in visible light images as ghostly wisps of gas, as in this image, they are even more prominent in observations made outside of the visible spectrum, such as those using X-ray or radio waves.

Unlike the normal arms, these two extra arms are made up of hot gas rather than stars, and their origin remained unexplained until recently. Astronomers think that these are caused by the black hole.

The extra arms appear to be an indirect result of jets of material produced by the violent churning of matter around the black hole. As these jets travel through the galactic matter they disrupt and heat up the surrounding gas, which in turn excites the denser gas in the galactic plane and causes it to glow brightly.