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M101: The Big Picture

Place the cursor in the above image to see the Hubble Heritage image
in comparison to the full Hubble image of M101

2009: The International Year of Astronomy

In 1609, Galileo improved the newly invented telescope, turned it toward the heavens, and revolutionized our view of the universe. In celebration of the 400th anniversary of this milestone, 2009 has been designated as the International Year of Astronomy.

In 2009, NASA's Great Observatories are continuing Galileo's legacy with stunning images and breakthrough science from the Hubble Space Telescope, the Spitzer Space Telescope, and the Chandra X-ray Observatory.

While Galileo observed the sky using visible light seen by the human eye, technology now allows us to observe in many wavelengths, including Spitzer's infrared view and Chandra's view in X-rays. Each wavelength region shows different aspects of celestial objects and often reveals new objects that could not otherwise be studied.

This image of the spiral galaxy Messier 101 is a composite of views from Spitzer, Hubble, and Chandra.

• The red color shows Spitzer's view in infrared light. It highlights the heat emitted by dust lanes in the galaxy where stars can form.

• The yellow color is Hubble's view in visible light. Most of this light comes from stars, and they trace the same spiral structure as the dust lanes.

• The blue color shows Chandra's view in X-ray light. Sources of X-rays include million-degree gas, exploded stars, and material colliding around black holes.

Such composite images allow astronomers to see how features seen in one wavelength match up with those seen in another wavelength. It's like seeing with a camera, night vision goggles, and X-ray vision all at once.

In the four centuries since Galileo, astronomy has changed dramatically. Yet our curiosity and quest for knowledge remain the same. So, too, does our wonder at the splendor of the universe.

Spiral Galaxy M101:
NASA's Great Observatories

Credit for Spitzer Image: NASA, Jet Propulsion Lab/Caltech, and K. Gordon (STScI); Credit for Hubble Image: NASA, ESA, K. Kuntz (JHU), F. Bresolin (University of Hawaii), J. Trauger (Jet Propulsion Lab), J. Mould (NOAO), Y.-H. Chu (University of Illinois, Urbana), and STScI; Credit for Chandra Image: NASA, CXC, and K. Kuntz (JHU)


Spitzer's view [left frame], taken in infrared light, reveals the galaxy's delicate dust lanes as yellow-green filaments. Such dense dust clouds are where new stars can form. In this image, dust warmed by the light of hot, young stars glows red. The rest of the galaxy's hundreds of billions of stars are less prominent and form a blue haze. Astronomers can use infrared light to examine the dust clouds where stars are born.

Messier 101 has a pancake-like shape that we view face-on. This perspective shows off the spiral structure that gives it the nickname the Pinwheel Galaxy. In this Hubble image [middle frame], taken in visible light, the bright blue clumps are regions where new stars have formed. The yellowish core consists mainly of old stars. The dark brown dust lanes are colder and denser regions where interstellar clouds may collapse to form new stars. All of these features are shaped into a beautiful spiral pattern by a combination of gravity and rotation. Astronomers use visible light to study where and how stars form in spiral galaxies.

Chandra's image of Messier 101 [right frame], taken in X-ray light, shows the high- energy features of this spiral galaxy. X-rays are generally created in violent and/or high- temperature events. The white dots are X-ray sources that include the remains of exploded stars as well as material colliding at extreme speeds around black holes. The pink and blue colors are emission from million-degree gas and from clusters of massive stars. The pink emission indicates lower-energy X-rays and the blue higher-energy X- rays. One reason astronomers study Messier 101's X-rays is to better understand how black holes grow in spiral galaxies.

Visit a previous Hubble Heritage Release on M101
Visit the STScI HubbleSite International Year of Astronomy Release on M101