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A space journey to the most mysterious corner of the Universe: Possible traces of former life found in the Cigar Galaxy

A space journey to the most mysterious corner of the Universe: Possible traces of former life found in the Cigar Galaxy 1
Photo: Nasa

The constellation Ursa Major got its modern name thanks to the ancient Greek nymph Callisto, whom Zeus turned into a bear and hid in the sky, saving her from his wife Hera. In ancient Greece, there were several versions of this myth, but they agree that in the end Zeus raises the bear Callisto to heaven.

Since ancient times, the stars of the Ursa Major constellation have been used to test eyesight: the penultimate star of the “dipper handle” (it is called “Mizar”) has a weaker satellite star (it is called “Alcor”). Together, the pair “Mizar and Alcor” is sometimes called “horse and rider” or “she-bear with a cub.” And the stars also help to look for amazing and mysterious objects in the sky – namely, galaxies, and also very unusual ones.

If you connect the first and third stars of the Ursa Major with an imaginary line and, as it were, “continue” it exactly the same distance, then already with binoculars, a spyglass or an inexpensive telescope, you can see two foggy spots located nearby.

Galaxies M81 and M82 seen through a small telescope

The first to discover these specks was the German astronomer Johann Bode in 1774 – they are often referred to as “Bode galaxies” or “Bode pair”. The more official scientific names for these galaxies are M81 and M82, while astronomers unofficially call M82 the “Cigar” or “exploding galaxy.”

Looking at these two galaxies through binoculars, remember that in each galaxy is fact a huge “star island”, a “star city” of unimaginably huge size. Just as cities on Earth are different from each other, there are also completely amazing and unusual galaxies. “Cigar” is most similar to an incredible cosmic explosion.

Galaxy M82 combined image of the Hubble Chandra and Spitzer telescopes
A combined Galaxy M82 image of the Hubble Chandra and Spitzer telescopes.

The “Cigar” Galaxy is about half the size of our Galaxy in diameter but at the same time it is five times brighter and its core is five hundred times brighter than our Milky One.

Observations through telescopes have shown that a real “stellar boom” is taking place in the Cigar galaxy – new stars are born there hundreds of times more often than in our “star city”, that is, in our Galaxy. We have a very modest “growth of stellar population” in the Milky Way – about 10 stars are born every year. And in “Cigar” – 30 times more. Most of these young bright blue stars are very large, very hot and very short-lived. Our Sun has been “living” for more than 4 and a half billion years and will live for at least the same amount more. But the blue giants from the Cigar are “short-lived” by stellar standards, they “survive” for about 10 million years, after which they explode with terrible force.

What was the reason for M82’s such “violent” nature? The “culprit” was its neighbor -galaxy M81, more precisely, its monstrous attraction (gravity). Once upon a time, the brightness of the M82 was the most ordinary but approximately 100 million years ago, this galaxy was “covered” by a tidal wave from the “floating by” galaxy M81. 

A huge attraction literally “pulled out” a colossal stream of gas and dust from the core of the “Cigar”; the rate of star formation (the “birth of new stars”) has increased hundreds of times. Short-lived blue stars often explode and from the Earth, astronomers observe the outbreak of a “supernova”. 

In the past 20 years alone, at least two such monstrous explosions have occurred in the M82 galaxy – in 2004 and in 2014.

Interacting galaxies Antennas from the constellation of the Crow, they are also undergoing very active star formation
Galaxies from the Crow constellation are also undergoing very active star formation.

What would we see if we traveled 12 million light years to a planet somewhere near the center of the Cigar Galaxy? A spectacle of incredible beauty would open before our eyes – a sky strewn with thousands of extraordinarily bright stars. The stars would shine so brightly and there would be so many of them that the night would turn into day – and it would be completely impossible to find any constellation “figures” in such a sky.

"Sky in diamonds" inside the M82 galaxy
“Diamond sky” inside the M82 galaxy

But could we all survive in this amazingly beautiful world with a “diamond sky”? No, we couldn’t. The level of cosmic radiation (radiation) would be incredibly high – even in a spacesuit we would be “fried” by radiation in a matter of seconds. 

In order for life to arise on the planet, “calm”, “long-playing” stars, such as our Sun, are definitely needed. And when a star lives “only” for ten million years, and then disappears in a monstrous explosion – how many chances for the emergence of life exist in such a cruel world?

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Astronomers have recently obtained very interesting data by observing the M82 galaxy with the Large Millimeter Telescope on the Sierra Negro mountain in Mexico.

Numerous lines of organic substances were found in its radiation – hydrocyanic acid, methylacetylene and others. Including – lines of organic substances, which (in any case, on Earth) are not formed in nature! Is it possible that these lines are the last thing left of the organic life that once existed in this galaxy? 

After all, calculations show that hundreds of millions of years ago, “Cigar” was quite an ordinary star system – until the “gravitational tide” came from the neighboring galaxy, which launched the mechanism for the formation of new stars “at full throttle”.

Mysterious lines of organic matter in the spectrum of the galaxy M82
Mysterious lines of organic matter in the spectrum of the galaxy M82

Could it be that the once “crowded star city” has become amazingly beautiful – but at the same time completely lifeless, dead? Could such a tragedy happen to our Galaxy, the very one in which we humans live?


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