Blazing 33 million light-years away, ringed galaxy NGC 1291 looks a little bit like a cosmic Eye of Sauron. At 12 billion years old, it’s almost the age of the universe. But it isn’t dead yet: That striking ring, which appears magenta in this new image from NASA’s Spitzer Space Telescope, is a place where newborn stars are still turning on.
The Eye’s pupil, which is blue in the above image, bears a characteristic barred shape in the very center. The Milky Way has one of these starry bars in its center as well. Scientists think such structures act as cosmic stir bars, churning and mixing the vast quantities of gas, dust, and stars near a galaxy’s core. It’s unclear how common these bars are, or why they form, but an ongoing survey of 3,000 galaxies should help answer these questions.
“With Spitzer we can measure the precise shape and distribution of matter within the bar structures,” said Kartik Sheth of the National Radio Astronomy Observatory, in a statement. Sheth is leading the massive study, alliteratively called the Spitzer Survey of Stellar Structure in Galaxies.
“The bars are the end products of cosmic evolution, and they are part of the galaxies’ endoskeleton,” he said. “Examining this endoskeleton for the fossilized clues to their past gives us a unique view of their evolution.”