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Tuesday, 29 February, 2000, 15:09 GMT
Sombrero in space stuns astronomers
Brilliantly bright and clear
Brilliantly bright and clear
By BBC News Online science editor Dr David Whitehouse

A dramatic new image of the Sombrero galaxy has been obtained by the third large telescope to be commissioned at the Paranal Observatory in the Andes.

Its detail rivals the best that can be obtained from the Hubble Space Telescope which orbits the planet.

Astronomers call the galaxy the Sombrero because of its resemblance to a Mexican hat and have a special affection for it - it is often seen adorning the walls of observatories and universities all over the world.

The image was recorded on 30 January, despite the Paranal Observatory still being under construction. When it is completed later this year, it will comprise four of the most powerful telescopes on our planet.

They will be especially formidable when they all observe in concert forming what is technically known as an interferometer. The first telescope came on-stream in 1998.

Star bulge

The Sombrero galaxy has an unusually large and extended central bulge of stars, as well as dark prominent dust lanes that can be see silhouetted against the stars.

Billions of old stars cause the diffuse glow of the central bulge. Looking at it in detail astronomers can discern myriad individual points of light that are ancient stellar groups called globular clusters.

The young stars of this galaxy may be entwined in the galaxy's spectacular dust rings. The detailed structure of the dust lanes remain a mystery.

Black heart

At the heart of the galaxy is an intense source of radiation at almost all wavelengths. This is believed to be a super-massive black hole.

Astronomers are delighted at the faint detail that can be seen in the image, rivalling anything that can be taken by the Hubble Space Telescope. Many faint and previously unseen wispy structures are detectable in the galaxy as well as numerous dim background galaxies that shine through the outer regions.

The Sombrero galaxy is located in the constellation Virgo, at a distance of about 50 million light-years.

It is sometimes referred to as Messier 104 as it is the 104th object in the famous catalogue of nebulae by French astronomer Charles Messier (1730 - 1817). It was not included in the first two editions, but Messier soon thereafter added it by hand in his personal copy as a "very faint nebula".

Analysis reveals further details
Analysis reveals further details

Image processing has been carried out on the new image to reveal new details in the dust lanes.

The complexity of this dust, and the high resolution of the image, is most apparent directly in front of the bright central region of the galaxy but is also very evident as dark absorbing lanes throughout the disk.

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24 Jan 00 |  Sci/Tech
Hubble is 'better than new'
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