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Stunning image shows galactic dance of stars swirling around a supermassive black hole

Young stars surround a supermassive black hole in a stunning new image captured by an instrument designed to search for dark energy.

The image shows a face-on view of the galaxy NGC 1566, which is nicknamed the Spanish Dancer for its dramatic swirling shape. The photograph comes from an instrument called the Dark Energy Camera, which is based at Cerro Tololo Inter-American Observatory in Chile.

The Spanish Dancer, which is located about 70 million light-years away from Earth in the constellation Dorado, is particularly popular with astronomers because of the range of cosmic happenings they can study in the galaxy's neighborhood, according to a statement from the National Science Foundation's NOIRLab program, which oversees the observatory. The new image shows a few of those types of celestial phenomena.

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An image of galaxy NGC 1566, nicknamed the Spanish Dancer, taken by the Dark Energy Camera in Chile. (Image credit: Dark Energy Survey/DOE/FNAL/DECam/CTIO/NOIRLab/NSF/AURA/T.A. Rector (University of Alaska Anchorage/NSF’s NOIRLab), J. Miller (Gemini Observatory/NSF’s NOIRLab), M. Zamani & D. de Martin (NSF’s NOIRLab))

In particular, the photograph shows a dramatic range of star ages. The bright blue of the Spanish Dancer's arms marks chains of bright young stars, separated by dark lanes of dust. Redder areas closer to the heart of the galaxy are rich in older stars; in 2010, astronomers caught one of the galaxy's aging stars exploding in a supernova dubbed SN2010el.

Invisible at the galaxy's core is an active supermassive black hole, which shoots out variable amounts of light, though scientists remain puzzled about what precisely is occurring.

The Spanish Dancer galaxy is of particular interest to scientists at the moment because it is one of 19 galaxies that NASA's newly launched James Webb Space Telescope will be studying in a project focused on the dusty regions of nearby galaxies.

Because of the observatory's infrared vision, it will be able to spot stars swathed in the dusty lanes of NGC 1566 and similar galaxies. Scientists hope that these new observations will help them understand the timeline of star formation in galaxies.

Email Meghan Bartels at mbartels@space.com or follow her on Twitter @meghanbartels. Follow us on Twitter @Spacedotcom and on Facebook.

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Meghan is a senior writer at Space.com and has more than five years' experience as a science journalist based in New York City. She joined Space.com in July 2018, with previous writing published in outlets including Newsweek and Audubon. Meghan earned an MA in science journalism from New York University and a BA in classics from Georgetown University, and in her free time she enjoys reading and visiting museums. Follow her on Twitter at @meghanbartels.