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A curious collection of galaxies sparkles like jewels in a gorgeous new image taken by a powerful, Earth-based telescope.

The photo, taken by the European Southern Observatory's VLT Survey Telescope in Chile, is the product of an ongoing survey to better understand how elliptical galaxies form. The telescope features a wide field of view from its vantage point in dark Chilean skies, allowing astronomers to do their work far from light pollution.

One of the galaxies coming under scrutiny is NGC 5018, a milky-white pool of stars visible near the center of the image. NGC 5018 lies in the constellation Virgo, about 94 million light-years away from Earth. (One light-year is the distance that light travels in a year, which is 5.88 trillion miles or 9.5 trillion kilometers.)

This deep image of the area of sky around the elliptical galaxy NGC 5018 offers a spectacular view of the galaxy's tenuous streams of stars and gas. These delicate features are hallmarks of galactic
This deep image of the area of sky around the elliptical galaxy NGC 5018 offers a spectacular view of the galaxy's tenuous streams of stars and gas. These delicate features are hallmarks of galactic
Credit: ESO/Spavone et al.

"[NGC 5018] may at first resemble nothing but a diffuse blob. But on closer inspection, a tenuous stream of stars and gas — a tidal tail — can be seen stretching outwards from this elliptical galaxy," ESO officials wrote in a description of the newly released image.

"Delicate galactic features such as tidal tails and stellar streams are hallmarks of galactic interactions and provide vital clues to the structure and dynamics of galaxies," the officials added.

 
This annotated view of the surroundings of the elliptical galaxy NGC 5018 shows many of the galaxy's neighbors. The image also reveals a few asteroids that were captured by chance during the deep exposures needed to reveal the delicate streams of stars between the galaxies.
This annotated view of the surroundings of the elliptical galaxy NGC 5018 shows many of the galaxy's neighbors. The image also reveals a few asteroids that were captured by chance during the deep exposures needed to reveal the delicate streams of stars between the galaxies.
Credit: ESO/Spavone et al.

There are some other interesting features found in the picture as well. Lying conveniently along the line of sight is HD 114746, a blue foreground star. You can also see the faint tracks from two asteroids: 2001 TJ21 (110423) across the entire image, and 2000 WU69 (98603) closer to the right.

A paper based on this research, which is called the VST Early-type Galaxy Survey (VEGAS), will appear shortly in The Astrophysical Journal, ESO officials said. The study's principal investigator is Marilena Spavone, a researcher at INAF-Astronomical Observatory of Capodimonte in Naples, Italy.

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