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Starburst galaxy shines in new 'whirlpool of gold' photo

The ESO's Very Large Telescope captured this view of the starburst galaxy NGC 4303, with gas clouds of ionized oxygen, hydrogen and sulfur shown in blue, green and red, respectively.  (Image credit: ESO/PHANGS)

A mesmerizing new photo captures bright, golden swirling clouds of gas that generate an exceptionally high rate of star formation. 

This stellar nursery, a spiral galaxy known as NGC 4303 or Messier 61, is located 50 million light-years from Earth in the constellation Virgo. NGC 4303 is one of the largest galactic members of the Virgo Cluster — a large, nearby grouping of galaxies.

NGC 4303 is considered a starburst galaxy, where an unusually high amount of stars are born. In turn, studying this type of galaxy helps astronomers to better understand star formation across the universe, according to a statement from the European Southern Observatory (ESO).

Related: Amazing space views from ESO's Very Large Telescope (photos)

"Stars form when clouds of cold gas collapse," ESO officials wrote in the statement. "The energetic radiation from newly born stars will heat and ionize the surrounding remaining gas." 

The photo, taken using the ESO's Very Large Telescope (VLT) in Chile, shows bright swirling clouds of the ionized gas, appearing as a "whirlpool of gold." The swirling clouds are like cosmic breadcrumbs, tracing the path of new stars being born, according to the statement.  

Astronomers using the Multi-Unit Spectroscopic Explorer (MUSE) instrument on the VLT observed NGC 4303 at different wavelengths of light to create this "jewel-like" image. Combining their observations revealed a glowing golden whirlpool, speckled with gas clouds of ionized oxygen, hydrogen and sulfur shown in blue, green and red, respectively. 

The recent observations were collected as part of a project called the Physics at High Angular resolution in Nearby Galaxies (PHANGS), which aims to uncover nearby galaxies across all wavelengths of the electromagnetic spectrum, according to the statement. 

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Samantha Mathewson
Contributing Writer

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.