The Beauty of NGC 1398

Image credit & copyright: European Southern Observatory (SEO) Very Large Telescope (VLT).

Roughly 65 million light years is the 130,000 light year diameter spiral galaxy cataloged as NGC 1398. As is usually the case, its name hides the true beauty of an object such as this.  On December 17, 1868, German astronomer Friedrich Winnecke became the first of our species to turn his telescope to this massive star city and its double ring structure and bright nucleus.  Its inhabitants; a few hundred billion suns and what a sight it must be, to look up at night from a planet around one of its stars.  What do their constellations look like from the different vantage points around the rings; and do they look to the Milky Way and wonder the same thing?

At 65 million years distant, the light captured by the European Southern Observatory (ESO) Very Large Telescope (VLT) left this object at roughly the same time that Earth’s dinosaurs were meeting their end. When we see this object today, we see it not how it is, but how it was 65 million years ago.  We see this object not where it is, but where it was 65 million years ago. For the photons that made the trip, as far as they’re concerned, they arrived here at the VLT the instant they left their individual stars.

Like almost everything in the universe, the beautiful imagery gets the most attention and it should; but to me and for many, the real romance of the cosmos lies in the context and the overwhelming perspective gained from knowing the details.  The more you learn about it, the more incredible it becomes.  I think Carl Sagan said it best.

“It is sometimes said that scientists are unromantic, that their passion to figure out robs the world of beauty and mystery. But is it not stirring to understand how the world actually works — that white light is made of colors, that color is the way we perceive the wavelengths of light, that transparent air reflects light, that in so doing it discriminates among the waves, and that the sky is blue for the same reason that the sunset is red? It does no harm to the romance of the sunset to know a little bit about it.” – Carl Sagan

Name: New General Catalog 1398, NGC 1398

What is it?: Isolated barred spiral galaxy

How big is it?: Roughly 130,000 light years in diameter

How far away is it?: Roughly 65 million light years

Apparent magnitude: 9.7 or +9.7

Discovery: December 17, 1868 by German astronomer, Friedrich Winnecke.

Where is it (General)?: Constellation Fornax (furnace)

Where is it (Exact RA/Dec J2000)?: RA 03h 38m 52.13s / Dec −26° 20′ 16.2″

European Southern Observatory (ESO) page for this image: https://www.eso.org/public/images/potw1801a/

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