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Several readers have asked what the astronomical picture on the home page of The Real Mr. Science web site is.  It is a Hubble Space Telescope image of Stephan’s Quintet.  The Quintet was first observed by Edouard Stephan a French astronomer in 1877 and it has been closely studied ever since.  It was the first compact galaxy group found by astronomers.  The galaxies in the Quintet are bound together gravitationally and are orbiting in a complex pattern that will eventually cause them to merge in a huge elliptical galaxy.  Some collisions appear to have already occurred.  It is visually striking not only for how close the galaxies are to one another but also because they are all largely face on toward Earth, making them all the more visible.

This is a Hubble Space Telescope image of Stephan's Quintet


For a while it appeared that the Quintet was really a Quartet.  The large spiral galaxy at the bottom left was found to be a foreground object, many millions of light years closer to Earth than the remaining four.  It just happens to be in the line of sight between the Earth and the other four, which are much further away.  But those studies also revealed that a galaxy first thought not to be connected to the Quintet is, in fact a member of the group.  The small, face on spiral galaxy in the upper left of the picture is gravitationally connected to the other four, and deep imagery shows a tenuous bridge of gas and stars between it and the nearest member of the group of four.  It was probably closer to them in ages past, but it was pushed into a distant orbit by close encounters with the four as they performed their complex gravitational dance. 

So Edouard Stephan did in fact discover a compact five galaxy group, and the “Quintet” remains a quintet.  The Quintet epitomizes the wonder of the natural world and man’s effort to comprehend it.

Image of Stephan's Quintet courtesy of NASA's Hubble Space Telescope.