If science fiction flicks have taught us one thing, it’s that when aliens eventually discover our planet they’ll be arriving in flying discs that seem to defy gravity. These mythical “flying saucers” are a well-worn sci-fi trope, but NASA’s trusty Hubble Space Telescope just spotted a flying saucer of its own, only this one is far larger than anything we’d want to see visiting Earth.
The image you see above, which was captured by Hubble, shows a galaxy known as IC 2051. As NASA explains in a new blog post, the galaxy is located in the constellation Mensa, and is situated some 85 million light-years from Earth.
The galaxy is huge, stretching its long arms out into space, but it’s the very center of the galaxy in the image above that reminds us most of a “flying saucer.”
This galaxy was observed for a Hubble study on galactic bulges, the bright round central regions of spiral galaxies. Spiral galaxies like IC 2051 are shaped a bit like flying saucers when seen from the side; they comprise a thin, flat disk, with a bulky bulge of stars in the center that extends above and below the disk. These bulges are thought to play a key role in how galaxies evolve, and to influence the growth of the supermassive black holes lurking at the centers of most spirals.
It’s observations like this that can teach astronomers a great deal about how other galaxies grow and die. Our understanding of the types of galaxies that are out there in the universe isn’t as robust as we might like to believe, and there’s still a lot we don’t know. Spotting and categorizing different types of galaxies can help us learn more about them while also revealing things about our own home, the Milky Way.