6 beautiful pictures of galaxies from Europe's infrared space-cam

The European Southern Obervatory's Very Large Telescope array sits on top of a mountain in Chile, where it's so dark and clear that you can see your shadow cast by the light from the Milky Way. This is great, but it doesn't help see past all the dust surrounding the galaxies themselves. For that, they've got an ultra-sensitive infrared camera that strips away the haze to reveal the structure of galaxies in exquisite detail.

The camera is called HAWK-I. It's a 16 megapixel infrared detector specifically designed to look at extremely faint objects, like planets and distant galaxies. Light gets to HAWK-I courtesy of the Very Large Telescope, which is actually an array of four individual telescopes with 27 foot wide mirrors, plus four more movable telescopes with six foot mirrors.

All of these telescopes can work together, and the light they collect gets bounced around through a complex series of mirrors in underground tunnels. Eventually the light beams all combine at the HAWK-I detector, with each beam having traveled the exact same distance as all the others within a thousandth of a millimeter, which is pretty crazy when you consider that four of the telescopes can be moved around. This level of precision means that next time you drive to the moon, the VLA is sensitive enough to tell you if one of your headlights is dimmer than the other when you get there.

These latest pictures from the VLA and the HAWK-I camera are part of a study of the structure of spiral galaxies. Specifically, researchers are trying to figure just how billions or trillions of stars manage to arrange themselves into such perfect (and, let's face it, beautiful) spiral patterns.

ESO, via io9

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