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Stunning image captures the spiral galaxy NGC 3981 68 million light years from Earth

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A stunning new image captures a distant spiral galaxy suspended in the inky blackness of space.

The galaxy, known as NGC 3981, sits around 65 million light years from Earth and was snapped by a state-of-the-art telescope array in Chile.

Alongside NGC 3981, the stunning high-resolution image contains a number of stars from our own galaxy, the Milky Way, as well as a rogue asteroid streaking across the sky.

The space rock, visible as a faint blue, green and red line etched across the top of the image, illustrates how astronomical images are taken, according to the European Southern Observatory, which captured the picture.

‘This particular asteroid has unwittingly illustrated the process used to create astronomical images,’ the agency said in a statement.

‘The three different exposures making up this image displayed in the blue, green and red sections of the asteroid’s path.’

NGC 3981 lies so far south that it never rises more than 18° above the horizon, meaning it is rarely visible.

The galaxy, which lies in the constellation of Crater, or ‘the Cup’, was captured by scientists in May using the Very Large Telescope (VLT) at the ESO’s Paranal Observatory in Chile.

The telescope is one of the most advanced optical instruments ever built and consists of four smaller, ‘unit’ telescopes.

The image revealed NGC 3981’s spiral arms, strewn with vast streams of dust and star-forming regions, and a prominent disc of hot young stars.

The galaxy is inclined towards Earth, allowing astronomers to peer right into its heart and observe its bright centre, a highly energetic region containing a supermassive black hole.

Also shown is NGC 3981’s spiral structure, some of which appears to have been stretched outwards from the galaxy, presumably due to the gravitational influence of a past collision with another galaxy, scientists said.

NGC 3981 has many galactic neighbours. Lying approximately 65 million light years from Earth, the galaxy is part of the NGC 4038 group, which also contains the well-known interacting Antennae Galaxies.

This group is part of the larger Crater Cloud, which is itself a smaller component of the Virgo Supercluster, the titanic collection of galaxies that hosts our own Milky Way galaxy.

The Very Large Telescope has been snapping detailed images of space since its first unit telescope was opened in 1999.

The huge instrument captured the sharpest images of Neptune to date in July.

The most distant planet from the sun was captured in astonishing detail after experts used lasers to upgrade the telescope to capture an intimate portrait of the breathtaking blue orb.

The technique corrects for the effects of atmospheric turbulence above the observatory, based in the deserts of northern Chile.

It allowed for more precise imaging over a comparatively wide field of view, capturing clusters of stars in the night sky, as well as close details of individual celestial bodies.

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