Photograph by M. Kaufman; B. Saxton (NRAO/AUI/NSF); ALMA (ESO/NAOJ/NRAO); NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope
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In this image the blue represents data from the Hubble Space Telescope; the red is carbon monoxide visualized by ALMA.

Photograph by M. Kaufman; B. Saxton (NRAO/AUI/NSF); ALMA (ESO/NAOJ/NRAO); NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope

Take a Cosmic Rorschach Test: What Do You See?

It’s 114 million light-years from Earth—but a galactic formation can look as familiar as the eyes on your face.

This story appears in the February 2017 issue of National Geographic magazine.

Want to take a cosmic Rorschach test? If you see a pair of bright eyes in the inky depths of space, you’re seeing what a team of astronomers spied last year—a rare formation created by the grazing collision of two spiral galaxies.

Galactic sideswipes aren’t unusual, says lead researcher Michele Kaufman. What is novel are the shapes they can create. Here, the gravitational pull of NGC 2207 produces tides in its companion, IC 2163—as the moon does on Earth. Gas and stars from the edges of IC 2163 then race inward before abruptly slowing down, forming two “eyelids.”

A telescope in Chile called the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array, or ALMA, helped Kaufman and her team see what computers had modeled. “As soon as I saw this data in high resolution,” she says, “I realized it showed us for the first time how an eyelid structure develops.”

Of course, the reason we perceive these shapes as eyes in the first place has nothing to do with telescopes. It’s due to pareidolia—a psychological phenomenon in which we see familiar shapes where none exist. The celestial eyes are 114 million light-years from Earth. Technology and psychology will determine what else pops into view.