The NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope – with a little help from an amateur astronomer – has produced one of the best views yet of nearby spiral galaxy Messier 106. Located a little over 20 million light-years away, practically a neighbour by cosmic standards, Messier 106 is one of the brightest and nearest spiral galaxies to our own.
At its heart, as in most spiral galaxies, is a supermassive black hole, but this one is particularly active. Unlike the black hole at the centre of the Milky Way, which pulls in wisps of gas only occasionally, Messier 106’s black hole is actively gobbling up material. As the gas spirals towards the black hole, it heats up and emits powerful radiation. Part of the emission from the centre of Messier 106 is produced by a process that is somewhat similar to that in a laser - although here the process produces bright microwave radiation
As well as this microwave emission from Messier 106’s heart, the galaxy has another startling feature - instead of two spiral arms, it appears to have four.
Unlike the normal arms, these two extra arms are made up of hot gas rather than stars, and their origin remained unexplained until recently. Astronomers think that these, like the microwave emission from the galactic centre, are caused by the black hole at Messier 106’s heart, and so are a totally different phenomenon from the galaxy’s normal, star-filled arms.
The extra arms appear to be an indirect result of jets of material produced by the violent churning of matter around the black hole. As these jets travel through the galactic matter they disrupt and heat up the surrounding gas, which in turn excites the denser gas in the galactic plane and causes it to glow brightly. This denser gas closer to the centre of the galaxy is tightly-bound, and so the arms appear to be straight. However, the looser disc gas further out is blown above or below the disc in the opposite direction from the jet, so that the gas curves out of the disc — producing the arching red arms seen here.