Messier 106

How this incredible galaxy has helped us map the universe.

This image of Messier 106 (also known as M106 or NGC 4258), a spiral galaxy located approximately 23.5 million light years from Earth in the constellation Canes Venatici, shows the intricate details and structures of this fascinating region of space. It is one of the brightest and nearest spiral galaxies to Earth, and has also proved useful in calculating cosmic distances.

At the heart of M106 is a supermassive black hole, however, unlike others, such as the one at the core of the Milky Way, it is actively eating material in its surroundings. M106 is therefore classified as a Seyfert II galaxy, one that emits X-rays and odd emission lines, denoting that it is falling into its central black hole.

Due to this process M106 is emitting powerful and constant radiation, something known as a megamaser. This allowed astronomers to make the first instance of a direct measurement to a distant galaxy, providing a useful point of reference for distance in the universe.

M106, which is thought to be around 80,000 light years across, is also interesting for having four spiral arms rather than just the two that are normally indicative of spiral galaxies. In this image they are the sparse wisps of gas on either side of the galaxy. Unlike star-forming arms like those of the Milky Way, these arms are made of hot gas and therefore are thought to have been formed by the supermassive black hole at M106’s core.

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