Kirk (NGC 1309)

Looking like a child's pinwheel ready to be set a spinning by a gentle breeze, this dramatic spiral galaxy is one of the latest viewed by NASA's Hubble Space Telescope. Stunning details of the face-on spiral galaxy, cataloged as NGC 1309, are captured in this color image.

Recent observations of the galaxy taken in visible and infrared light come together in a colorful depiction of many of the galaxy's features. Bright blue areas of star formation pepper the spiral arms, while ruddy dust lanes follow the spiral structure into a yellowish central nucleus of older-population stars. The image is complemented by myriad far-off background galaxies.

However, this galaxy image is more than just a pretty picture. It is helping astronomers to more accurately measure the expansion rate of the universe. NGC 1309 was home to supernova SN 2002fk, whose light reached Earth in September 2002. This supernova event, known as a Type Ia, resulted from a white dwarf star accreting matter from its companion in a binary star system. When the white dwarf collected enough mass and was no longer able to support itself, the star detonated, becoming the brightest object in the galaxy for several weeks.

Nearby Type Ia supernovae like SN 2002fk in NGC 1309 are used by astronomers to calibrate distance measures in the universe. By comparing nearby Type Ia supernovae to more distant ones, they can determine not only that the universe is expanding, but that this expansion is accelerating. However, this method only works if the distance to the host galaxies is known extremely well.