Cannibal 'Umbrella Galaxy' That Ate One of Its Neighbors Revealed in Spectacular Image

Astronomers have captured a spectacular image of a cannibal galaxy, located at least 35 million light-years away, using the Hubble Space Telescope.

The photo reveals the galaxy, known as NGC 4651, in all its glory, with its vast spiral arms clearly visible, and its galactic center shining bright.

The galaxy, which can be seen the constellation Coma Berenices, measures around 50,000 light-years across and forms part of the Virgo Cluster—a large collection of more than a thousand galaxies.

NGC 4651 is sometimes referred to as the "Umbrella Galaxy" due to a faint umbrella-shaped structure that appears to extend another 50,000 light-years from the main galactic disc. This unusual structure can be seen in another image here.

Astronomers think this cosmic umbrella is made up of stellar streams, or the trails of stars stripped from a smaller nearby galaxy that NGC 4651 consumed in the distant past.

"This remarkable spiral galaxy, known as NGC 4651, may look serene and peaceful as it swirls in the vast, silent emptiness of space, but don't be fooled—it keeps a violent secret. It is believed that this galaxy consumed another smaller galaxy to become the large and beautiful spiral that we observe today," the European Space Agency said in a statement.

The Hubble image was made using three separate exposures taken in visible and near-infrared light by the observatory's Advanced Camera for Surveys instrument. However, you don't need the Hubble Space Telescope to see this spectacular galaxy. It is actually possible to observe it with an amateur telescope, although your view will be far less detailed.

NGC 4651
The image of NGC 4651 captured by the Hubble Space Telescope. D. Leonard/Hubble/ESA/NASA

NGC 4651 was discovered on December 30, 1783, by German-born British astronomer William Herschel. The Virgo Cluster in which it lies forms the heart of the Virgo Supercluster—a vast concentration of more than a million galaxies extending for around 110 million light-years across that contains our own Milky Way.

Hubble, which is jointly operated by NASA and the European Space Agency, has been conducting observations for nearly 30 years. In that time, it has captured some of the most dramatic and striking images of our universe, and it continues to shine a light on the cosmos to this day.

Recently, a team of astronomers managed to capture an image of 2I/Borisov—the first confirmed interstellar comet—using the telescope, while another group harnessed its observational capabilities to provide fascinating new insights into so-called "super-puff" exoplanets, which are similar in density to cotton candy.