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The Whirlpool Galaxy, also known as Messier 51a or NGC 5194, is an interacting grand-design spiral galaxy in the constellation Canes Venatici. It was the first galaxy to be classified as a spiral galaxy.
What is the Whirlpool Galaxy?
Recently it was estimated to be 23 ± 4 million light-years from the Milky Way, but different methods yield distances between 15 and 35 million light-years. Messier 51 is one of the best known 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.
Stars are usually formed in the center of the galaxy. The center part of M51 appears to be undergoing a period of enhanced star formation. The present efficiency of star formation, defined as the ratio of mass of new stars to the mass of star-forming gas, is only ~1%, quite comparable to the global value for the Milky Way and other galaxies. It is estimated that the current high rate of star formation can last no more than another 100 million years or so.
Induced spiral structure in the larger galaxy is not the only effect of the interaction. Significant compression of hydrogen gas occurs that leads to the development of starbirth regions. In pictures of M51 these show up as the bright blue ‘knots’ throughout the spiral arms.
Galaxy group information
The Whirlpool Galaxy is the brightest galaxy in the M51 Group, a small group of galaxies that also includes the Sunflower Galaxy, NGC 5023, and NGC 5229. This small group may actually be a subclump at the southeast end of a large, elongated group that includes the M101 Group and the NGC 5866 Group, although most group identification methods and catalogs identify the three groups as separate entities.
Image: NASA / ESA
Text: Wikipedia contributors. “Whirlpool Galaxy.” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, 6 Aug. 2017. Web. 10 Aug. 2017.