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Hubble Captures Spiral Galaxy with 'Barrier' of Dust (Photo)

A new image from the Hubble Space Telescope shows dust and gas swirling around the spiral galaxy NGC 3169.
A new image from the Hubble Space Telescope shows dust and gas swirling around the spiral galaxy NGC 3169. (Image credit: ESA/NASA/Hubble/L. Ho)

A new galactic image from the Hubble Space Telescope shows some interesting stuff lurking in cosmic dust, all from an unusual point of view.

The venerable observatory turned its attention to NGC 3169, a spiral galaxy about 70 million light-years away in the constellation of Sextans, the Sextant. (One light-year is the distance light travels in a year, which is about 6 trillion miles or 10 trillion kilometers.)

The "sharply angled perspective" that the space telescope imaged shows a sort of cosmic barrier that makes the viewer feel as though they're peering over the edge to see the galaxy's center, Hubble scientists said in a description of the image.

Related: The Best Hubble Space Telescope Images of All Time!

What's in the dust barrier is a mix of world-formation materials, including water ice, silicates and hydrocarbons. On a planet or moon, if you mix these three things together at the right distance from a parent star, you might have the right ingredients for life: water, a solid surface from silicate rock, and hydrocarbon chemistry that could eventually trigger life chemistry

Like NGC 3169, our Milky Way is a spiral galaxy. And there's another similarity to note: both galaxies formed in larger groups that belong to the Virgo Supercluster of galaxies. The galaxies in our neighborhood are known, appropriately enough, as The Local Group. NGC 3169's locality is called the Leo I Group.

Hubble is nearly 30 years old and still going strong in its scientific work, in large part thanks to several space shuttle astronaut crews who repaired or replaced components on the observatory over the decades. The observatory is flexible enough to view planets close by in our solar system, or some of the oldest galaxies that are very far away. Hubble is expected to keep working for at least a few years after its successor, the James Webb Space Telescope, launches in 2021.

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Elizabeth Howell
Elizabeth Howell is a contributing writer for who is one of the few Canadian journalists to report regularly on space exploration. She is pursuing a Ph.D. part-time in aerospace sciences (University of North Dakota) after completing an M.Sc. (space studies) at the same institution. She also holds a bachelor of journalism degree from Carleton University. Besides writing, Elizabeth teaches communications at the university and community college level. To see her latest projects, follow Elizabeth on Twitter at @HowellSpace.