COLUMBIA, Md. and MOUNTAIN VIEW, Calif., Jan. 14, 2021 /PRNewswire/ -- Not all appears as it would seem in the Whirlpool galaxy. One of the best-studied spiral galaxies and a delight to amateur astronomers, Messier 51, as it's officially named, is influenced by powerful, invisible forces.
Located 31 million light-years away in the constellation Canes Venatici, the galaxy's arms are strikingly visible as they reach out along the central spine structure displaying swirling clouds of gas and dust are massive star-making factories. But new observations by NASA's Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy, or SOFIA, presented at this week's 237th meeting of the American Astronomical Society, shows a more complicated picture. The lead author of the study on an upcoming paper is Alejandro Borlaff, Postdoctoral Fellow at NASA Ames Research Center, and USRA scientist Enrique Lopez- Rodriguez (based at Ames Research Center) is a co-author on the upcoming paper.
Radio telescopes previously detected neatly-drawn magnetic fields throughout the length of the galaxy's massive arms. But under SOFIA's infrared gaze for the first time those lines give way to a chaotic scene in the outer spiral arms. Using a far-infrared camera and imaging polarimeter instrument called the High-Resolution Airborne Wideband Camera, or HAWC+, researchers found that the magnetic fields in the outskirts of the galaxy no longer follow the spiral structure and are instead distorted.
What's causing all this magnetic pandemonium? The intense star formation in these areas creates chaos that can only be seen with infrared flight. A nearby, yellowish galaxy called NGC 5195 tugging at the outermost tip of one of the arms adds to the turmoil, possibly strengthening the magnetic fields. The research builds on SOFIA's previous findings that show magnetic fields are important in shaping spiral galaxies and helps unravel the complex role magnetic fields play in the evolution of galaxies.
Additional Resources: nasa.gov/sofia
Founded in 1969, under the auspices of the National Academy of Sciences at the request of the U.S. Government, the Universities Space Research Association (USRA) is a nonprofit corporation chartered to advance space-related science, technology and engineering. USRA operates scientific institutes and facilities, and conducts other major research and educational programs, under Federal funding. USRA engages the university community and employs in-house scientific leadership, innovative research and development, and project management expertise. More information about USRA is available at www.usra.edu.
Suraiya Farukhi, Ph.D.
SOURCE Universities Space Research Association