Cosmic flocculence

NGC 3521 (ESO VLT)

I’m used to to the adjective “flocculent” when applied to fluffy little clouds, but it makes a pleasant surprise to see it employed in the description of something as grand as a spiral galaxy located 35 million light years away in the constellation of Leo. A “typical example of a flocculent spiral galaxy” is how NGC 3521 is described by those good folks at the European Southern Observatory. And a majestic if fluffy sight it is too.

The image above was captured with ESO’s Very Large Telescope (VLT) at Paranal in Chile. The galaxy NGC 3521 was first sighted in 1784 by the Anglo-German astronomer William Herschel, with the aid of his 47-cm telescope. What Herschel saw was a “bright centre surrounded by nebulosity”. Today, NGC 3521’s spiral structure is revealed here with four 8-metre mirrors which can work independently or in combination.