Show Your Kids!

This Elliptical Galaxy Is Actually The Shape Of A Potato, NASA Discovers

NASA made a 3D map of the stars in the M87 galaxy, and it turns out it’s shaped like a potato.

A photo of the huge elliptical galaxy M87 [left] is compared to its three-dimensional shape as glean...
ILLUSTRATION: NASA, ESA, Joseph Olmsted (STScI), Frank Summers (STScI) SCIENCE: Chung-Pei Ma (UC Berkeley)

NASA researchers have discovered something really cool about the giant elliptical galaxy called M87 that can help advance our understanding of black holes and other celestial events, and it might even make you hungry. Researchers compiled a 3D map of the stars in the M87 galaxy and discovered that... it’s the shape of a potato.

While that might sound trivial, or even hunger-inducing, it’s super important and will help researchers learn more about black holes.

According to NASA, scientists used the Hubble Space Telescope to study M87 in more detail than has been done previously. M87 is a massive galaxy with a black hole at its center. It’s approximately ten times the size of our Milky Way galaxy, and the teams just learned way more about it after completing a full 3D mapping of the hole.

“To find the 3D shape of the galactic blob that looks two-dimensional from our limited viewpoint on Earth, the scientists plotted the motions of the galaxy’s stars,” NASA explains. “They mapped the spectra of stars in an area 70,000 light-years across, including the region around the central black hole.”

The stars were 53 million light-years away, so the researchers couldn’t see the stars themselves. However, they were able to use the tools to detect their motion.

ILLUSTRATION: NASA, ESA, Joseph Olmsted (STScI), Frank Summers (STScI) SCIENCE: Chung-Pei Ma (UC Berkeley)

“It’s sort of like looking at a swarm of 100 billion bees,” Chung-Pei Ma of UC Berkeley explained. “Though we are looking at them from a distance and can’t discern individual bees, we are getting very detailed information about their collective velocities.”

Looking at the motion of the stars, the researchers were able to use that to build a 3D view and discovered the black hole is shaped more like a potato. Which isn’t just a funny, interesting thing to know, but it is a key piece of the discovery puzzle.

“Knowing the 3D shape of the ‘swarming bees’ enabled us to obtain a more robust dynamical measurement of the mass of the central black hole that is governing the bees’ orbiting velocities,” Ma said.

“Now that we know the direction of the net rotation of stars in M87 and have an updated mass of the black hole, we can combine this information with data from the Event Horizon Telescope to constrain the spin.”

To learn more, visit NASA.