A sizzlin' galaxy photo

A few days ago two Utah astrophotographers put together a grand view of Messier 63, a bright, complex springtime galaxy that has delighted astronomers since its discovery in 1779.

M63, about 25 million light-years from Earth, is called the Sunflower Galaxy not because its structures look anything like the shape of petals but because the center is reminiscent of the swirly, seed-filled middle of a sunflower. More distant filaments and loops would detract from the resemblance, but they are so faint that exceptionally long exposures are needed to see them. NASA’s Astronomical Picture of the Day for April 17, 2008, notes that the “faint extended features could be the result of gravitational interactions with nearby galaxies.”

Located in the tiny northern constellation Canes Venatici (the name translates as the Hunting Dogs), M63 is about as wide as our Milky Way Galaxy, 100,000 light-years. Its many spiral arms are “streaked with cosmic dust lanes and dotted with … star-forming regions,” the site adds. It glows at about 10th magnitude, according to Robert Burnam Jr.’s Celestial Handbook. It is among the minority of spiral galaxies that do not show a central bar.

On April 20, Patrick Wiggins took a view of M63 from his Tooele County home observatory, shooting 30 two-minute black-and-white exposures and stacking them together. Wiggins, a NASA solar system ambassador to Utah, shared the picture with the UtahAstronomy Internet discussion group. Tyler Allred of Tremonton, Box Elder County, another accomplished amateur, suggested that Wiggins try longer exposures.

So Wiggins took a set of views of M63 on the morning of April 24, making exposures of 10 minutes each — gathering light for five and a half hours altogether. Attached to the telescope, his self-guiding camera performed so well that there was no drifting to make the stars streak. No minute wobbles hit during those hours to make stars oblong. The image is filled with fine detail: long dust clouds, star-forming regions in the spiral arms, bright center; even, on the right side of M63, something that looks like a much more distant edge-on galaxy shining through.

Allred processed Wiggins’ data and added color from exposures he had taken, and the result shows the breathtaking beauty of Nature.

[Galaxy Messier 63, luminosity (black and white) by Patrick Wiggins, processing and color photo data by Tyler Allred. To see this in high resolution go HERE, and then click on the photo.]

Wiggins told Nightly News that after Allred made his suggestion, he decided to make exposures whose duration added up to two hours. “But when the two hours was up things were going so well I just let it run,” he said.

Although the moon was bright and some cirrus clouds got into the picture for a while, the final product was great. Wiggins attributed that to “Tyler’s processing magic.” He said he was surprised how easy it is to get the images, “given the right equipment. …

“In the ‘old’ days, just a few years ago, an astrophotographer … would have had to guide the image by hand. Now the camera ‘chats’ with the computer and when any corrections need to be made the computer takes care of that by sending correction commands to the mount.”

If the view jiggles one jot to the right and two jots upward, the guide chip senses that and informs the attached computer, which quickly commands the telescope mount to jiggle one jot to the left and two downwards, retaining precise alignment.

Wiggins added that even the best mount won’t work right if it is not firmly grounded. “In my case I have the mount sitting on several tons of concrete and steel.”

Allred said, “I have always been amazed at the quality of Patrick’s raw data.” His mount and optical system are first-rate and his data are extremely detailed, he said.

When he had processed Wiggin’s images, he said, he saw that “the results were superb.” Luminosity is the heart of any astronomical image. The color data doesn’t need to as sharp or detailed.

“I scaled my color data to match his and used my color with his detailed luminance (black-and-white view). The result is a wonderful version of the Sunflower Galaxy, M63,” Allred noted.

“The galaxy has such interesting structure that it makes for a real imaging treat.”

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