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Newborn stars set 'grand design' spiral galaxy aglow in stunning new photo

The bright spiral arms of NGC 4254 — a grand design spiral galaxy — wrap clearly around the galaxy's center. This new ESO image captures clouds of hydrogen, oxygen and sulfur gas shown in red, blue and orange respectively. The clouds of gas are ionized by newly formed stars.
The bright spiral arms of NGC 4254 — a grand design spiral galaxy — wrap clearly around the galaxy's center. This new ESO image captures clouds of hydrogen, oxygen and sulfur gas shown in red, blue and orange respectively. The clouds of gas are ionized by newly formed stars. (Image credit: ESO/PHANGS)

The golden spiral arms of a distant galaxy sparkle in new images from the European Southern Observatory (ESO).

The galaxy, known as NGC 4254 or Messier 99, is an example of a grand design spiral galaxy, which has prominent, well-defined spiral arms that wrap tightly around the galaxy's center. Located 49 million light-years from Earth in the constellation of Coma Berenices, NGC 4254 houses a stellar nursery shining with clouds of gas ionized by newly born stars, according to a statement from the ESO. 

ESO shared the new image, which was captured by the Multi-Unit Spectroscopic Explorer (MUSE) on the observatory's Very Large Telescope (VLT) in Chile, on March 14. The image showcases the galaxy's bright spiral arms in "exquisite detail," according to the statement.

Photos: Amazing space views of ESO's Very Large Telescope

The VLT's MUSE instrument combines a wide field of view with a fine spatial sampling and a large simultaneous spectral range. The instrument is of a type called an integral field spectrograph (IFS), which allows astronomers to measure the intensity of the light as a function of its color, or wavelength.

The recent image of NGC 4254 combines observations conducted in different wavelengths of light. The image shows clouds of gas ionized by newly born stars, where hydrogen is represented in red, oxygen is represented in blue and sulfur is represented in orange, according to the statement. 

Observations of NGC 4254 were collected as part of the Physics at High Angular resolution in Nearby Galaxies (PHANGS) project, which aims to study nearby galaxies across all wavelengths of the electromagnetic spectrum to understand the cycle of star formation in galaxies.

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Samantha Mathewson
Samantha Mathewson

Samantha Mathewson joined Space.com as an intern in the summer of 2016. She received a B.A. in Journalism and Environmental Science at the University of New Haven, in Connecticut. Previously, her work has been published in Nature World News. When not writing or reading about science, Samantha enjoys traveling to new places and taking photos! You can follow her on Twitter @Sam_Ashley13.