Lanes of warm dust swirl around the center of the spiral galaxy IC 342 in this infrared view from Spitzer Space Telescope. The galaxy is difficult to view in visible light because it is on the opposite side of the center of our own galaxy, the Milky Way, so it is hidden behind clouds of gas and dust. Infrared light penetrates the dust, however, providing a detailed look at the galaxy. Many new stars are being born in the galaxy's bright center, as a "bar" of dust feeds new material into the galactic core. IC 342 is about 11 million light-years away, in the northern constellation Camelopardalis, the giraffe.
When you look north on any night of the year, you can see stars and constellations that never rise or set — they’re in view every night. The best known is the North Star, Polaris. But for most of us here in the United States, the Big Dipper, Little Dipper, and Cassiopeia are up every night, too.
But one of these ever-present constellations is so faint that you might not have even heard of it, let alone seen it: Camelopardalis, the giraffe.
This inconspicuous constellation probably would be better known if it weren’t for the interference of our own galaxy. Dust in the Milky Way blocks the light of a galaxy that’s within the giraffe’s borders — a beautiful giant spiral that’s the match of both the Milky Way and the Andromeda galaxy, M31.
This nearby galaxy is known as IC 342. It’s just 11 million light-years away, making it one of our closest large galactic neighbors.
Despite its dull name, IC 342 is a stunning face-on spiral that looks like a celestial pinwheel, speckled with brilliant young stars and the glowing stellar nurseries that spawn them. Unfortunately, though, it’s close to the plane of our own galaxy, so dust in the Milky Way absorbs most of the galaxy’s light, making it difficult to see.
If the dust weren’t present, IC 342 would be one of the brightest and best-known of all galaxies, its beautiful spiral gracing book covers and web pages. And it would probably have a more evocative name than IC 342.
Script by Ken Croswell, Copyright 2011
For more skywatching tips, astronomy news, and much more, read StarDate magazine.