The Whirlpool Galaxy (also known as Messier 51a, M51a, or NGC 5194) is an interacting grand-design spiral galaxy located at a distance of approximately 23 million light-years in the constellation Canes Venatici. It is one of the most famous spiral galaxies in the sky. The galaxy and its companion (NGC 5195) are easily observed by amateur astronomers, and the two galaxies may even be seen with binoculars. The Whirlpool Galaxy is also a popular target for professional astronomers, who study it to further understand galaxy structure (particularly structure associated with the spiral arms) and galaxy interactions.
A black hole, surrounded by a ring of dust, is thought to exist at the heart of the spiral. The dust ring stands almost perpendicular to the relatively flat spiral galaxy. A secondary ring crosses the primary ring on a different axis, a phenomenon that is contrary to expectations. A pair of ionization cones extend from the axis of the main dust ring.
M51 is visible through binoculars on a dark night, but with modern amateur telescopes this galaxy is truly a sight to behold. It is very forgiving on the instrument, when seen even through a humble 10 cm telescope the basic outlines of M51 and its companion are visible. Under dark skies, and with a moderate eyepiece through a 15 cm telescope, one can detect M51's intrinsic spiral structure. With larger (>30 cm) instruments M51 is simply breathtaking. The various spiral bands are very obvious and several HII regions appear to be visible, and M51 can be seen to be attached to M51B. The shape of the X-formation in the nucleus has often been compared to the Christian cross.
As is usual for galaxies, the true extent of its size can only be gathered from inspecting deep photographs, and very long exposures reveal a large nebula extending beyond the visible circular appearance.
In January 2005 the Hubble Heritage Team constructed a 11477x7965 pixel composite image (shown in the info box above) of M51 using Hubble's ACS instrument, revealing this splendid galaxy and its companion in unprecedented detail.
Generally speaking, hydrogen gas is the most common component of the interstellar medium (the vast space between stars and planetary systems in galaxies). It exists primarily in its atomic and molecular form, and forms huge clouds throughout the entire galaxy. When large sources of gravitational pull pass nearby, such as other galaxies, gravitational interactions produce compression (density) waves that sweep through these hydrogen clouds. This causes some regions of the previously diffuse gas to compress into tight pockets of opaque and dense gas, these are dust lanes one so often sees in the spiral arms. In regions where the concentration and density of gas reaches a critical value, further collapse under its own gravitational pull occurs, and stars are born at the center of the collapse, where the gas is compressed so strongly that fusion initiates.
When this happens, these new-born stars gobble up huge amounts of gas causing them to expand, shine even hotter, and finally sweep away the surrounding layers of dust and gas by increasing efflux of the stellar wind. The gigantic proportions of the clouds out of which they are born means stars seldom, if ever, are created in isolation. Thus regions of several hot young stars emit sufficient light energy that they can be seen in the high resolution pictures of M51 across millions of lightyears distance.
For an example of such a formation in our own galaxy, see M16, the Eagle Nebula.
Recent simulations bear out that M51's spiral structure was caused by NGC 5195 passing through the main disk of M51 about 500 to 600 million years ago. In this model, NGC 5195 came from behind M51 through the disk towards the observer and made another disk crossing as recently as 50 to 100 Myrs ago until it is where we observe it to be now, slightly behind M51.