All Hail Godzilla, the King of All Galaxies

About 232 million light-years from Earth, UGC 2885 is located in the northern constellation of Perseus. NASA, ESA, and B. Holwerda (University of Louisville)

Behold the heavyweight champion of the universe, a galaxy of such epic proportions that astronomers are dubbing it "Godzilla."

Only this galaxy doesn't seem particularly ferocious. The supermassive black hole at its center is strangely sleepy. And it isn't even churning out fresh stars at a feverish rate.

The galaxy was imaged this month by a team led by Benne Holwerda of the University of Louisville, Kentucky using NASA's Hubble Space Telescope. It was given the technical designation UGC 2885, although Holwerda has nicknamed it "Rubin's galaxy" after the late astronomer Vera Rubin.

"My research was in large part inspired by Vera Rubin's work in 1980 on the size of this galaxy," Holwerda explains in a press release. "We consider this a commemorative image. The goal of citing Dr. Rubin in our observation was very much part of our original Hubble proposal."

Still, it's hard not to go with the much more monstrous nickname given to UGC 2885. After all, it may be the biggest galaxy ever recorded in our neck of the universe by a long shot.

Consider our very own Milky Way, which is no slouch when it comes to size. From our terrestrial vantage — about 165 quadrillion miles from our home galaxy's central black hole — the Milky Way seems downright endless. Among the more than 50 galaxies comprising the local universe, it's long been considered second in size to the Andromeda galaxy.

Astronomers peg the Milky Way's width at somewhere between 170,000 and 200,000 light-years. As writer David Freeman notes in NBC's Mach, "If you could drive across [it] and averaged 60 miles an hour, it would take more than 2 trillion years."

Now, take that mind-boggling girth and multiply it by 2.5. That would be around the ballpark of Godzilla, which clocks in at an estimated 463,000 light-years across. You wouldn't be able to take your Chevy to UGC 2885's levy in any less than 5 trillion light-years.

And did we mention that the newly discovered galaxy also boasts at least 10 times the number of stars as the Milky Way?

Yes, Godzilla is a monster.

But the real question for astronomers is how UGC 2885 gained those epic proportions. Especially since it's characterized as a "gentle giant" that sits apart from the rest of the galactic pack. Located around the northern constellation Perseus in our night sky, UGC 2885 is modestly birthing stars and nourishing itself on hydrogen from intergalactic space.

"How it got so big is something we don't quite know yet," Holwerda notes. "It's as big as you can make a disk galaxy without hitting anything else in space."

Maybe it's sitting where smaller galaxies used to be — before they got Godzilla'ed? The trouble with that idea is that Gozilla doesn't seem to be particularly hungry. Even the supermassive black hole at its heart isn't very active, and possibly downright dormant.

"It seems like it's been puttering along, slowly growing," Holwerda notes.

A wide-field view of the night sky, showing UGC 2885.
A wide-field view of the night sky shows the region in which the giant galaxy resides. ESA/Digitized Sky Survey

Holwerda is presenting the results of his investigation at this month's American Astronomical Society meeting in Honolulu. But the real reasons for Godzilla's gargantuan dimensions may have to wait until NASA gets bigger, more powerful eyes in the sky. Equipment like the soon-to-launch James Webb Space Telescope and the Wide Field Infrared Survey Telescope (WFIRST) could go a long way toward toward solving the mystery of the monster galaxy.

"The infrared capability of both space telescopes would give us a more unimpeded view of the underlying stellar populations," Holwerda explains.

But even if we aren't quite ready for this monster's close-up, we can still soak up it sprawling spectacle from afar.