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Magellanic Clouds are our trippy-looking space neighbors

If Van Gogh had made a galaxy, it might look like the Magellanic Clouds as seen by a satellite with a unique view on interstellar dust.

The European Space Agency's Planck satellite launched in 2009 and spent four years staring out into the universe before being deactivated in 2013. Planck may be physically lost in space at this point, but scientists on Earth are still sorting through the data it sent back. It is helping them to see galaxies in a new light.

The ESA released a Planck image on Monday that looks like what would happen if Vincent van Gogh got a job as a NASA illustrator. It's almost hallucinatory, showing swirling waves of yellow, brown and blue mixing into an abstract view of two dwarf galaxies.

The two patches of dark-brown spots are known as the Large Magellanic Cloud and the Small Magellanic Cloud (seen to the lower left side of the image). The larger of the two is located 160,000 light-years from us while the smaller is farther off at 200,000 light-years away. The ESA describes these dwarf galaxies as "among the nearest companions of our Milky Way galaxy."

The Magellanic Clouds highlight this Planck image. Picasa

This image isn't the sort of thing you could look out into space and see with your bare eyes. It's a visualization of data collected by Planck that shows how interstellar dust interacts with the magnetic-field structure of our galaxy. The ESA describes cosmic dust as "the raw material [needed] for stars to form."

Planck's mission was to peer back in time to see radiation left over from the very beginning of the universe. "Planck can see the old light from our universe's birth, gas and dust in our own galaxy, and pretty much everything in between, either directly or by its effect on the old light," Charles Lawrence, a Planck project scientist from NASA, said in a news release.

Another feature seen in this image is a dusty filament stretching between the two galaxies, running at a diagonal from upper left to lower right. "The image shows how well this structure is aligned with the galaxy's magnetic field, which is represented as the texture of the image and was estimated from Planck's measurements," notes the ESA.

It's a welcome side effect of Planck's mission that space fans get to see data translated into beautiful otherworldly images that illuminate the hidden threads of our universe.