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M51 Animations
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Tour of M51
Quicktime MPEG
The galaxy Messier 51 is perhaps better known by its nickname, the "Whirlpool Galaxy." Like the Milky Way, the Whirlpool is a spiral galaxy with spectacular arms of stars and dust. M51 is located about 30 million light years from Earth, and its face-on orientation to Earth gives us a perspective that we can never get of our own spiral galactic home. By studying the Whirlpool in X-ray light, astronomers can reveal things that would otherwise be invisible in other wavelengths. For example, nearly a million seconds of observing time from NASA's Chandra X-ray Observatory were used to create this new image. These data reveal over 400 X-ray sources within the galaxy. Most of these are so-called X-ray binary systems, in which a neutron star or black hole is in orbit with a star like our Sun. Understanding where these systems are, how they behave over time, and their role in the evolution of the galaxy in important is helping learn us more about other galaxies including our own.
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(Credit: NASA/CXC/A. Hobart)


Click for low-resolution animation
A Deeper Look at M51
Quicktime MPEG
Like the Milky Way, the Whirlpool is a spiral galaxy with spectacular arms of stars and dust. M51 is located about 25 million light years from Earth, and its face-on orientation to Earth gives us a perspective that we can never get of our own spiral galactic home. By studying the Whirlpool in X-ray light, astronomers can reveal things that would otherwise be invisible in other wavelengths. For example, nearly a million seconds of observing time from NASA's Chandra X-ray Observatory were used to create this new image. These data reveal over 400 X-ray sources within the galaxy. Most of these are so-called X-ray binary systems, in which a neutron star or black hole is in orbit with a star like our Sun. Understanding where these systems are, how they behave over time, and their role in the evolution of the galaxy in important is helping learn us more about other galaxies including our own.
[Runtime: 00:50]

(Credit: NASA/CXC)


Click for low-resolution animation
X-rays Uncover Black Holes Dancing With Normal Stars
Quicktime MPEG
Most of the stars in the Milky Way galaxy are not like our Sun, floating through space alone. A whopping 8-out-of-10 of them have one or more companion stars. A pair or stars orbiting each other is called a "binary system".

This photograph shows the flamboyant spiral galaxy called Messier 51. Each point of vivid purple light we are seeing glittering in this picture represents a special type of binary system. We call them 'X-ray binaries' because they are pairs of stars shining in X-ray light.

Each X-ray binary is made up of a normal star and a star which has passed beyond the end of its life. These companions are exotic things, most commonly a neutron star, but sometimes, a black hole.

If the stars are close enough together, the strong gravity of the exotic companion can drag gas off the normal star into a ring itself, before gobbling it up. When this happens the material is heated to over a million degrees and begins shining light as X-rays. And the stronger the gravity, the brighter the X-rays.

This picture of Messier 51 has revealed that at least ten of the X-ray binaries in the galaxy are bright enough that they probably contain black holes. In eight of these pairs the black holes are pulling material away from gigantic companion stars that are much more massive than the Sun!
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(Credit: NASA/CXC/April Jubett)


Return to M51 (May 7, 2014)