M51, aka the Whirlpool Galaxy, is a favorite target for professional and amateur astronomers alike. It’s a relatively nearby pair of galaxies that are interacting with one another. M51 is the large spiral, seen nearly face-on to us, and its arms are bursting with new star formation. This of course is due to the tidal interaction with its companion NGC 5195, which is a dwarf galaxy passing “underneath” one of the Whirlpool’s spiral arms.
Of course, the Whirlpool has been imaged in exquisite detail by the Hubble Space Telescope and others, but this image is a winner in more ways than one. Martin Pugh’s image was voted the overall winner in the Royal Observatory’s 2012 Astronomy Photographer of the Year competition. And yeah, click that link because even the “als0-rans” images are breathtaking. Seriously, you won’t believe that these images were made by amateur astronomers with backyard telescopes!
What amazes me about Martin’s image is the combination of subtle details and wide range of features. The wisps of scattered gas and dust from the smaller companion are rarely imaged, and yet there they are in the same image as the fine, tightly wound spiral arms near the nucleus of the Whirlpool itself. Then there are of course the fine dust lanes etched into the spiral arms, dotted with the sapphire blue that is the telltale sign of hot new stars recently born in the arms. The colors, the hues, the saturation, and the balance of capturing all of that stunning detail make this one of the best images of the Whirlpool I’ve ever seen – and yes, I’m willing to rank it up there with Hubble’s image.
Not bad at all for a guy with a 17-inch telescope! I can’t imagine the hard work, patience, and skill it must have taken to produce this image. Fortunately, Martin has a few more knockouts on his Flickr stream for our viewing and mind-blowing pleasure. Take some time to check them out, as well as browse through the contest’s photo pool which is chock-a-block of amazing astro-image awesomeness!