My First (Galaxy) Relationship
They say your first relationship will always stay with you, and I think it is as true of galaxies as it is of people.
Sure, I had lots of passing crushes on various galaxies... I mean, who doesn't stop to gawk at Andromeda or M81? But my first true galactic relationship was with one known as Maffei 2. That galaxy become my passion during graduate school and carried me through to my dissertation and beyond.
Maffei 2 was a great object for graduate study if for no other reason than for how little anyone else had studied it up to that point. You can thank the dust clouds in the Milky Way for that. They effectively hid this striking object from curious astronomers, blocking about 99.5% of its visible light. While its kin had been known for over a century, this was the last of the large, nearby galaxies to be discovered. The astronomer Paolo Maffei recognized it for what it was in a near infrared photographic plate in 1972, making it the last of the large, local galaxies to be discovered.
I was lucky enough to work with Dr. Jean Turner in graduate school, who had taken an interest in this mysterious galaxy herself in graduate school. My first studies were in the radio regime, where the intervening dust was less of an obstruction. Eventually I worked my way to shorter wavelengths in the infrared, where I spend most of my observational time these days.
If you want to see just how hidden this galaxy is, take a look at it in the WorldWide Telescope and use the slider to fade out the lovely new Spitzer infrared image. All that shows through is a faint hint of the brightest part of the nucleus, and that doesn't look like a galaxy at all! It is gratifying to see how far infrared astronomy (and detectors) have advanced since I first started researching it, bringing us to the point where we can see the dust structures laid out so clearly in this Spitzer view.
Other observatories have also pierced the veil of the Milky Way to show us more about Maffei 2. You can see the stars clearly in one image from the Two Micron All-Sky Survey (2MASS), taken in the near infrared. Recently the Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer (WISE) grabbed a shot of it next to its companion elliptical galaxy Maffei 1. The wide field of view shows just how close it lies to dense regions of star formation and the obscuring clouds of dust found all around there.
Other galaxies will come and go through the Spitzer website, but Maffei 2, the hidden gem, will always be my favorite!