Ring Galaxy appears as a Haunting Halloween Face — but why?

Hubble is getting into the Halloween spirit with the release of an image appearing to be a haunting cosmic face. But why do we see a ‘face’ in this ring galaxy?

Robert Lea
Oct 30 · 6 min read
This new image from the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope captures two galaxies of equal size in a collision that appears to resemble a ghostly face. This observation was made on 19 June 2019 in visible light by the telescope’s Advanced Camera for Surveys. Residing 704 million light-years from Earth, this system is catalogued as Arp-Madore 2026–424 (AM 2026–424) in the Arp-Madore “Catalogue of Southern Peculiar Galaxies and Associations”. (NASA, ESA, J. Dalcanton, B.F. Williams, and M. Durbin (University of Washington))

A collision of two galaxies of equal size 704-million-light-years from Earth has created what appears to be a ghostly visage staring through the cosmos. But, why do humans see images such as this in random data?

The haunting image of the collision that created the Arp-Madore system was captured on 19th June 2019 by the NASA/ESO operated Hubble Space Telescope.

Galactic collisions are quite common throughout the Universe — but the collision that formed Arp-Madore and its skull-like appearance is somewhat more unique. The collision in the question here was a head-on impact — if you’ll excuse the pun.

It was this violent collision that gave the system in question its striking face-like ring structure. The impact between the two galaxies also stretched the galaxies’ respective discs of gas, dust and stars outwards forming an area of intense star-formation that gives our phantom face its ‘nose,’ ‘jaws’ and other ‘facial features.’

Our phantom’s ‘eyes’ are also evidence of a rare occurrence. This glowing and penetrating stare is formed by the central bulges of the respective galaxies. The fact that they are of roughly the same size implies to astronomers that the two colliding galaxies were also of similar sizes.

This is also something of a quirk, as what would normally happen is the larger central bulge would greedily ‘swallow’ the smaller central bulge — thus, making out ghastly face more cyclopean in nature, and perhaps unrecognisable as a face at all.

As head-on collisions are rare, so too are ring galaxies. Only a few hundred of them lurk in our larger cosmic neighbourhood. This rarity is further enforced by the fact that the galaxies involved in the impact have to be orientated at a particular angle to create such a ring.

Much like a phantom in an old folk-tale, this haunting visage will gradually fade — as the ring structure only endures for a limited amount of time. Eventually, when the merger is complete all outward evidence of their separate past will be hidden.

That is the physical cause of ARP-Madore’s face-like appearance, but what is the underlying psychological reason we see faces in random information?

The tendency to see ‘faces’ — an aid to survival

The reason we see a face in this random collection of stars and dust is due to our brain’s tendency to make shapes from random assortments of visual data. This is a phenomenon known as pareidolia — responsible for human beings sighting ghostly faces for thousands of years.

The same phenomena of human evolution that leads some to see religious icons on bread products also causes us to see ARP-Madore as a “face”

Ben Radford is an author and investigator operating in the United States. He often finds himself delving into claims of hauntings and other supernatural experiences. As such, he understands pareidolia to be a common cause of ghostly misidentification.

“Pareidolia, the brain’s tendency to see and interpret meaningful images in random stimuli, is well known in psychology,” Radford explains. “It’s why we see faces in clouds and ordinary objects such as electric outlets, and why people can give answers to the Rorschach blot tests.

“And it is the cause of many supposedly mysterious and miraculous events, including the famous ‘Jesus in the Tortilla’.”

And this isn’t the first time that humanity’s tendency to see faces in random data has extended out into space. In fact, one of the most famous and widespread examples of pareidolia involved an image on the surface of our nearest planetary neighbour.

“Probably the classic example of pareidolia was the so-called ‘Face on Mars,’ seen in NASA images,” continues Radford. “A man named Richard Hoagland claimed that 1976 photographs of the Cydonia region of Mars showed a human-like face — and that this was clear evidence of aliens.”

The “Face on Mars” an example of our species’ tendency to see faces in random data. On the left: the original 1976 image which sparked a thousand conspiracy theories. On the right a later, much clearer image of the same region. (NASA)

It wasn’t until 1998 when the Mars Global Surveyor took photographs of the same region in far higher resolution than was possible in 1976 that the furore over the “Face” died down.

Radford explains: “The new images clearly showed an area heavily eroded, and that the “face” was simply the result of low image quality, pareidolia, and tricks of light and shadow.”

But pareidolia didn’t evolve simply to make boring old photos into spooky curios and to create speculation about dwellers on Mars. Evolutionary psychologists suggest that pareidolia actually developed in our species as a survival technique. One theory regarding the evolution of pareidolia and the ability to distinguish faces include enabling infants to better recognise and respond to their caregiver, thus forging a stronger bond.

Astronomer and science communicator, Carl Sagan points out in his 1995 book “The Demon Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark”: “Those infants who a million years ago were unable to recognize a face smiled back less, were less likely to win the hearts of their parents, and less likely to prosper.”

The trait may have also been useful in adulthood allowing our ancestors to both identify predators and quickly distinguish between friend and foe. As Chris French, Head of the Anomalistic Psychology Research Unit in the Psychology Department at Goldsmiths, University of London, points out: “A classic example is the Stone Age guy standing there, scratching his beard, wondering whether that rustling in the bushes really is a sabre-toothed tiger.

“You’re much more likely to survive if you assume it’s a sabre-toothed tiger and get the hell out of there — otherwise you may end up as lunch.”

What once may have been an aid to survival now aids in the perpetuation of supernatural and religious experiences. But, before we become too judgemental of people who see Jesus on toast, remember, if you saw a face in that beautiful ring galaxy, you’re only experiencing the same effect.

“Most people think you have to be mentally abnormal to see these types of images, so individuals reporting this phenomenon are often ridiculed”, says Professor Kang Lee of the University of Toronto’s Eric Jackman Institute of Child Study.

In 2014 Lee authored a study designed to investigate ‘face-pareidolia’ and its underlying — poorly understand — mechanisms. He adds: “Our findings suggest that it’s common for people to see non-existent features because human brains are uniquely wired to recognize faces, so that even when there’s only a slight suggestion of facial features the brain automatically interprets it as a face.”

Searching for more unusual galaxies

The ring-galaxy system — catalogued as Arp-Madore 2026–424 (AM 2026–424) in the Arp-Madore “Catalogue of Southern Peculiar Galaxies and Associations” — can be found in Halton Arp’s 1966 compendium of 338 unusual-looking interacting galaxies. Arp later partnered with another astronomer Barry Madore to extend the search for unique galactic encounters in the southern sky.

This video gives the viewer a closer look at the Arp-Madore 2026–424 (AM 2026–424) from the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope. This image shows the collision of two galaxies of equal size and was taken on 19 June 2019 in visible light by the telescope’s Advanced Camera for Surveys. Credit: NASA, ESA, J. Dalcanton, B.F. Williams, and M. Durbin (University of Washington). Music: Astral Electronic — Solar Wind

Hubble observed this unique system as part of a “snapshot” programme that takes advantage of occasional gaps in the telescope’s observing schedule to squeeze in additional pictures. Astronomers plan to use this innovative Hubble programme to take a close look at many other unusual interacting galaxies.

The goal is to compile a robust sample of nearby interacting galaxies, which could offer insights into how galaxies grew over time through galactic mergers.

By analysing these detailed Hubble observations, astronomers will be able to decide which systems are prime targets for follow-up observations by the upcoming NASA/ESA/CSA James Webb Space Telescope, scheduled to launch in 2021.

Who knows what other haunting images we may find hiding fascinating and unusual galaxies and objects?

Robert Lea

Written by

Freelance science writer and journalist. Space. Physics. Astronomy. Astrophysics. Quantum Physics. ABSW member. WCSJ Fellow 2019. Twitter @sciencef1rst

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