Astronomy pupils' galaxy picture is out of this world

Tue, 21 May 2019

Two Year 9 Astronomy Club pupils from Monmouth School for Girls have managed to capture a rare photograph of the Whirlpool Galaxy.

The pair worked extremely hard over the whole year to produce the photograph, using links with Cardiff University and the use of a telescope in Hawaii.

Speaking about how they managed to capture the picture, the girls explained: “We took the photos at Astronomy Club, via the Faulkes Telescope Project, using the Las Cumbres Observatory.  Through this, we were able to access several major telescopes across the world.

“We used the Haleakala 0.4m telescopes in Hawaii – we provided the telescope with precise coordinates for the galaxy, as well as its angle and what exposure time the photographs should be taken with (this controls how much light is let into the camera, and therefore how bright the picture turns out).

“We then gave the telescope a window of time in which the galaxy would be visible, which we found out using an application called Stellarium, which shows stars and their position in the sky at a given time and place.  We took three photos, with red, green and blue filters, which we then combined using SalsaJ processing software to create an overall colour image.”

The Whirlpool Galaxy (Messier Object 51) was discovered in 1773. It was originally thought to be a faint nebula, however, a series of discoveries led to the realisation that it is actually two galaxies.  The second of these is smaller and orbits the other, although there are 500,000 light years between them.  They are about 27 million light years away from Earth, and only visible through binoculars or a telescope; however, the main galaxy is only a bit smaller than the Milky Way, with a diameter of 87 000 light years.

Astronomy Club organiser Ms Davies said: “It is an amazing achievement and they are both very proud of the outcome.”