Magellanic Cloud Images from Space Weren't Painted by Van Gogh

First Posted: Sep 09, 2015 09:47 AM EDT

This image may look like something Van Gogh painted, but that's far from the truth. Taken by ESA's Planck satellite, this picture actually shows two Magellanic Clouds, among the nearest companions of our Milky Way galaxy.

The Large Magellanic Cloud is about 160,000 light-years away, and is the large red and orange blob close to the center of the picture. The Small Magellanic Cloud is located about 200,000 light-years away, and is the vaguely triangular shaped object in the lower left side of the picture.

The clouds are about ten and seven billion times the mass of the sun, and are actually classified as dwarf galaxies. As a comparison, the Milky Way boasts a mass of about a few hundred billion solar masses

This latest picture is the result of Planck detecting the dust between the stars pervading the Magellanic Clouds while surveying the sky to study the cosmic microwave background, which is the most ancient light in the universe. Planck actually detected emission from virtually anything that shone between itself and the cosmic background at its sensitive frequencies.

These foreground contributions included many galaxies, as well as interstellar material in the Milky Way. Astronomers needed to remove them in order to access the wealth of cosmic information contained in the ancient light. However, they're also using the foreround observations to learn more about how stars form in galaxies, including our own.

In addition to the galaxies, a filament can be seen stretching from the dense clouds of Chameleon, in the upper left, towards the opposite corner of the image.

The new images reveal a bit more about this section of the universe. Not only that, but it shows a bit more about the relative distribution of interstellar clouds and the ambient magnetic field.

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