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May 2003

M81 - A Grand Design Spiral

Arguably one of the most beautiful spiral galaxies in the sky, M 81 represents the 'Grand Design' spiral galaxies. Such grand design spirals show long and well formed spiral arms. In this image, the light of hot hydrogen gas produces reddish-purple clouds. Those represent "HII Regions" where star formation has produced massive hot stars that cause the surrounding hydrogen to glow.

M81 lies between the bowl of the Big Dipper and the North Star; despite being over 12 million light years from us, it is easily visible in binoculars on a dark, moonless night as a faint smudge of light. It lies near another bright galaxy, M82 - and in fact in the distant past M81 and M82 passed quite close together. One result of the near miss is the enhancement of M81's beautiful spiral arms.