Behold the coiled beauty of this snake-like galaxy 80 million light-years from Earth

A swirl of red and grey dotted with stars
An image of galaxy NGC 1087 captured by the ALMA observatory in Chile. (Image credit: ESO)

A spiral galaxy is curled up like a sleeping serpent in a striking new image from the European Southern Observatory's (ESO) Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA).

ALMA's high altitude of 16,500 feet (5,000 meters) and extremely dry climate in Chile's Atacama Desert provide an excellent vantage point for the observatory's 66 radio telescopes to penetrate the heavens.

Swirling silently 80 million light-years from Earth like a sleeping, coiled snake, NGC 1087 is an intermediate spiral galaxy that spans 86,800 light-years in the constellation Cetus. This area of the sky is named after a sea monster from Greek mythology and is home to other water-themed constellations, like Aquarius and Pisces.

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Seen as a composite image composed of shots taken at different wavelengths, ALMA's observations capture the galaxy's lava-like reddish hue, which represents cold clouds of star-spawning molecular gas.

The blue-tinted regions indicate areas of older, more mature stars, all imaged by the Multi-Unit Spectroscopic Explorer on ESO's Very Large Telescope, located at the expansive ALMA observatory site, ESO representatives said in a statement

These breathtaking shots were obtained in conjunction with a project called PHANGS, or the Physics at High Angular Resolution in Nearby Galaxies Survey. Scientists assigned to the team are attempting to deliver a catalog of high-resolution observations aimed at nearby galaxies, with telescopes targeting a wide range of wavelengths. 

Analysis of the different wavelengths will reveal data on the galaxy's internal physical properties of stars, gas and dust, ESO representatives said in the statement. Comparing those results across multiple readings lets astronomers investigate the processes that activate, enhance or restrict the dawn of baby stars. 

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Jeff Spry
Contributing Writer

Jeff Spry is an award-winning screenwriter and veteran freelance journalist covering TV, movies, video games, books, and comics. His work has appeared at SYFY Wire, Inverse, Collider, Bleeding Cool and elsewhere. Jeff lives in beautiful Bend, Oregon amid the ponderosa pines, classic muscle cars, a crypt of collector horror comics, and two loyal English Setters.