This NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope image shows the spiral galaxy NGC 3021 which lies about 100 million light-years away in the constellation of Leo Minor (The Little Lion).
Among many other types of stars, this galaxy contains Cepheid variable stars, which can be used work out the distance to the galaxy. These stars pulsate at a rate that is closely related to their intrinsic brightness, so measurements of their rate of pulsation and their observed brightness give astronomers enough information to calculate the distance to the galaxy itself.
Cepheids are also used to calibrate an even brighter distance marker, that can be used over greater distances: Type Ia supernovae. One of these bright exploding stars was observed in NGC 3021, back in 1995.
In addition, the supernova in NGC 3021 was also used to refine the measurement of what is known as the Hubble constant. The value of this constant defines how fast the Universe is expanding and the more accurately we know it the more we can understand about the evolution of the Universe in the past as well as in the future. So, there is much more to this galaxy than just a pretty spiral.
This NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope image shows an edge-on view of the spiral galaxy NGC 5023. Due to its orientation we cannot appreciate its spiral arms, but we can admire the elegant profile of its disc. The galaxy lies over 30 million light-years away from us.
NGC 5023 is part of the M51 group of galaxies. The brightest galaxy in this group is Messier 51, the Whirlpool Galaxy, which has been captured by Hubble many times. NGC 5023 is less fond of the limelight and seems rather unsociable in comparison — it is relatively isolated from the other galaxies in the group.
Astronomers are particularly interested in the vertical structure of discs like these. By analysing the structure above and below the central plane of the galaxy they can make progress in understanding galaxy evolution. Astronomers are able to analyse the distribution of different types of stars within the galaxy and their properties, in particular how well evolved they are on the Hertzsprung–Russell Diagram — a scatter graph of stars that shows their evolution.
NGC 5023 is one of six edge-on spiral galaxies observed as part of a study using Hubble’s Advanced Camera for Surveys. They study this vertical distribution and find a trend which suggests that heating of the disc plays an important role in producing the stars seen away from the plane of the galaxy.
In fact, NGC 5023 is pretty popular when it comes to astronomers, despite its unsociable behaviour. The galaxy is also one of 14 disc galaxies that are part of the GHOSTS survey — a survey which uses Hubble data to study galaxy halos, outer discs and star clusters. It is the largest study to date of star populations in the outskirts of disc galaxies.
The incredible sharp sight of Hubble has allowed scientist to count more than 30 000 individual bright stars in this image. This is only a small fraction of the several billion stars that this galaxy contains, but the others are too faint to detect individually even with Hubble.
The bright streak of glowing gas and stars in this NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope image is known as PGC 51017, or SBSG 1415+437. It is type of galaxy known as a blue compact dwarf.
This particular dwarf is well studied and has an interesting star formation history. Astronomers initially thought that SBS 1415+437 was a very young galaxy currently undergoing its very first burst of star formation, but more recent studies have suggested that the galaxy is in fact a little older, containing stars over 1.3 billion years old.
Starbursts are an area of ongoing research for astronomers — short-lived and intense periods of star formation, during which huge amounts of gas within a galaxy are hungrily used up to form newborn stars.
They have been seen in gas-rich disc galaxies, and in some lower-mass dwarfs. However, it is still unclear whether all dwarf galaxies experience starbursts as part of their evolution. It is possible that dwarf galaxies undergo a star formation cycle, with bursts occurring repeatedly over time.
SBS 1415+437 is an interesting target for another reason. Dwarf galaxies like this are thought to have formed early in the Universe, producing some of the very first stars before merging together to create more massive galaxies. Dwarf galaxies which contain very few of the heavier elements formed from having several generations of stars, like SBS 1415+437, remain some of the best places to study star-forming processes similar to those thought to occur in the early Universe. However, it seems that our nearby patch of the Universe may not contain any galaxies that are currently undergoing their first burst of star formation.
A version of this image was entered into the Hubble’s Hidden Treasures image processing competition by contestant Nick Rose.
The galaxy UGC 8201, captured here by the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope, is a dwarf irregular galaxy, so called because of its small size and chaotic structure. It lies just under 15 million light-years away from us in the constellation of Draco (the Dragon). As with most dwarf galaxies it is a member of a larger group of galaxies. In this case UCG 8201 is part of the M81 galaxy group; this group is one of the closest neighbours to the Local Group of galaxies, which contains our galaxy, the Milky Way.
UGC 8201 is at an important phase in its evolution. It has recently finished a long period of star formation, which had significant impact on the whole galaxy. This episode lasted for several hundred million years and produced a high number of newborn bright stars. These stars can be seen in this image as the dominating light source within the galaxy. This process also changed the distribution and amount of dust and gas in between the stars in the galaxy.
Such large star formation events need extensive sources of energy to trigger them. However, compared to larger galaxies, dwarf galaxies lack such sources and they do not appear to have enough gas to produce as many new stars as they do. This raises an important unanswered question in galaxy evolution: How do relatively isolated, low-mass systems such as dwarf galaxies sustain star formation for extended periods of time?
Due to its relative proximity to Earth UGC 8201 is an excellent object for research and provides an opportunity to improve our understanding of how dwarf galaxies evolve and grow.
With its helical appearance resembling a snail’s shell, this reflection nebula seems to spiral out from a luminous central star in this new NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope image.
The star in the centre, known as V1331 Cyg and located in the dark cloud LDN 981 — or, more commonly, Lynds 981 — had previously been defined as a T Tauri star. A T Tauri is a young star — or Young Stellar Object — that is starting to contract to become a main sequence star similar to the Sun.
What makes V1331Cyg special is the fact that we look almost exactly at one of its poles. Usually, the view of a young star is obscured by the dust from the circumstellar disc and the envelope that surround it. However, with V1331Cyg we are actually looking in the exact direction of a jet driven by the star that is clearing the dust and giving us this magnificent view.
This view provides an almost undisturbed view of the star and its immediate surroundings allowing astronomers to study it in greater detail and look for features that might suggest the formation of a very
low-mass object in the outer circumstellar disc.
The galaxy pictured here is NGC 4424, located in the constellation of Virgo. It is not visible with the naked eye but has been captured here with the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope.
Although it may not be obvious from this image, NGC 4424 is in fact a spiral galaxy. In this image it is seen more or less edge on, but from above you would be able to see the arms of the galaxy wrapping around its centre to give the characteristic spiral form .
In 2012 astronomers observed a supernova in NGC 4424 — a violent explosion marking the end of a star’s life. During a supernova explosion, a single star can often outshine an entire galaxy. However, the supernova in NGC 4424, dubbed SN 2012cg, cannot be seen here as the image was taken ten years prior to the explosion. Along the central region of the galaxy, clouds of dust block the light from distant stars and create dark patches.
To the left of NGC 4424 there are two bright objects in the frame. The brightest is another, smaller galaxy known as LEDA 213994 and the object closer to NGC 4424 is an anonymous star in our Milky Way.
A version of this image was entered into the Hubble's Hidden Treasures image processing competition by contestant Gilles Chapdelaine.
Panta rhei is a simplified version of the famous greek philosopher Heraclitus' teachings. It basically means, everything flows. And everything in the Universe is indeed continually on the move, spiralling and shifting through space.
Some cosmic objects move a little further than others — take the subject of this NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope image, a globular cluster of stars known as Palomar 12.
Although it currently lies on the outskirts of the Milky Way’s halo, Palomar 12 was not born here. When astronomers first studied this cluster, they were puzzled by its strangely young age when compared to the other clusters in the galaxy. It appeared to be around 30% younger than other Milky Way globulars. Surely if it had been born within our galaxy, it would have sprung to life at a similar time to its cluster companions?
A bit more digging revealed that Palomar 12 was actually ripped from its initial home, the Sagittarius Dwarf Elliptical galaxy, around 1.7 billion years ago via tidal interactions between its former home and our galaxy. The dwarf galaxy that Palomar 12 once called home is a satellite galaxy to ours, and closely orbits around us — even occasionally passing through the plane of our galaxy. In fact, it is being slowly torn apart and consumed by the Milky Way.
The sparkling stars in this picture were imaged by Hubble’s Advanced Camera for Surveys.
In the centre of this image, taken with the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope, are two faint galaxies that seem to be smiling.
You can make out two orange eyes and a white button nose. In the case of this “happy face”, the two eyes are the galaxies SDSSCGB 8842.3 and SDSSCGB 8842.4 and the misleading smile lines are actually arcs caused by an effect known as strong gravitational lensing.
Massive structures in the Universe exert such a powerful gravitational pull that they can warp the spacetime around them and act as cosmic lenses which can magnify, distort and bend the light behind them. This phenomenon, crucial to many of Hubble’s discoveries, can be explained by Einstein’s theory of general relativity.
In this special case of gravitational lensing, a ring — known as an Einstein Ring — is produced from this bending of light, a consequence of the exact and symmetrical alignment of the source, lens and observer and resulting in the ring-like structure we see here.
Hubble has provided astronomers with the tools to probe these massive galaxies and model their lensing effects, allowing us to peer further into the early Universe than ever before. This object was studied by Hubble’s Wide Field and Planetary Camera 2 (WFPC2) and Wide Field Camera 3 (WFC3) as part of a survey of strong lenses.
Galaxies can take many shapes and be oriented any way relative to us in the sky. This can make it hard to figure out their actual morphology, as a galaxy can look very different from different viewpoints. A special case is when we are lucky enough to observe a spiral galaxy directly from its edge, providing us with a spectacular view like the one seen in this picture of the week.
This is NGC 7814, also known as the “Little Sombrero”. Its larger namesake the Sombrero Galaxy is another stunning example of an edge-on galaxy — in fact, the “Little Sombrero” is about the same size as its bright namesake at about 60 000 light-years across, but as it lies further away, it appears smaller in the sky.
NGC 7814 has a bright central bulge and a bright halo of glowing gas extending outwards into space. The dusty spiral arms appear as dark streaks. they consist of dusty material that absorbs and blocks light from the galactic centre behind it. The field of view of this NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope image would be very impressive even without NGC 7814 in front; nearly all the objects seen in this image are galaxies as well.
A version of this image was entered into the Hubble’s Hidden Treasures image processing competition by contestant Josh Barrington.
This Picture of the Week shows Arp 230, also known as IC 51, observed by the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope.
Arp 230 is a galaxy of an uncommon or peculiar shape, and is therefore part of the Atlas of Peculiar Galaxies produced by Halton Arp. Its irregular shape is thought to be the result of a violent collision with another galaxy sometime in the past. The collision could also be held responsible for the formation of the galaxy’s polar ring.
The outer ring surrounding the galaxy consists of gas and stars and rotates over the poles of the galaxy. It is thought that the orbit of the smaller of the two galaxies that created Arp 230 was perpendicular to the disc of the second, larger galaxy when they collided. In the process of merging the smaller galaxy would have been ripped apart and may have formed the polar ring structure astronomers can observe today.
Arp 230 is quite small for a lenticular galaxy, so the two original galaxies forming it must both have been smaller than the Milky Way.
A version of this image was entered into the Hubble’s Hidden Treasures image processing competition by flickr user Det58.
In this image the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope takes a close look at the spiral galaxy NGC 4217, 60 million light-years away. The galaxy is seen almost perfectly edge on and is a perfect candidate for studying the nature of extraplanar dust structures — the patterns of gas and dust above and below the plane on the galaxy, seen here as brown wisps coming off NGC 4217.
These tentacle-like filaments are visible in the Hubble image only because the contrast with their surroundings is so high. This implies that the structures are denser than their surroundings. The image shows dozens of dust structures some of which reach as far as 7000 light-years away from the central plane. Typically the structures have a length of about 1000 light-years and are about 400 light-years in width.
Some of the dust filaments are round or irregular clouds, others are vertical columns, looplike structures or vertical cones. These structures can help astronomers to identify the mechanisms responsible for the ejection of gas and dust from the galactic plane of spiral galaxies and reveal information on the transport of the interstellar medium to large distances away from galactic discs.
The properties of the observed dust structures in NGC 4217 suggest that the gas and dust was driven out of the midplane of the galaxy by powerful stellar winds resulting from supernovae — explosions that mark the deaths of massive stars.
This image was entered into the Hubble Hidden Treasures competition by contestant Ralf Schoofs.
The subject of this image is NGC 6861, a galaxy discovered in 1826 by the Scottish astronomer James Dunlop. Almost two centuries later we now know that NGC 6861 is the second brightest member of a group of at least a dozen galaxies called the Telescopium Group — otherwise known as the NGC 6868 Group — in the small constellation of Telescopium (The Telescope).
This NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope view shows some important details of NGC 6861. One of the most prominent features is the disc of dark bands circling the centre of the galaxy. These dust lanes are a result of large clouds of dust particles obscuring the light emitted by the stars behind them.
Dust lanes are very useful for working out whether we are seeing the galaxy disc edge-on, face-on or, as is the case for NGC 6861, somewhat in the middle. Dust lanes like these are typical of a spiral galaxy. The dust lanes are embedded in a white oval shape, which is made up of huge numbers of stars orbiting the centre of the galaxy. This oval is, rather puzzlingly, typical of an elliptical galaxy.
So which is it — spiral or elliptical? The answer is neither! NGC 6861 does not belong to either the spiral or the elliptical family of galaxies. It is a lenticular galaxy, a family which has features of both spirals and ellipticals.
The relationships between these three kinds of galaxies are not yet well understood. A lenticular galaxy could be a faded spiral that has run out of gas and lost its arms, or the result of two galaxies merging. Being part of a group increases the chances for galactic mergers, so this could be the case for NGC 6861.
A version of this image was entered into the Hubble’s Hidden Treasures image processing competition by contestant Josh Barrington.
This new NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope image shows a star known as R Sculptoris, a red giant located 1500 light-years from Earth in the constellation of Sculptor. Recent observations have shown that the material surrounding R Sculptoris actually forms a spiral structure — a phenomenon probably caused by a hidden companion star orbiting the star. Systems with multiple stars often lead to unusual or unexpected morphologies, as seen, for example, in the wide range of striking planetary nebulae that Hubble has imaged.
R Sculptoris is an example of an asymptotic giant branch (AGB) star. All stars with initial masses up to about eight times that of the Sun will eventually become red giants in the later stages of their lives. They start to cool down and lose a large amount of their mass in a steady, dense wind that streams outwards from the star. With this constant loss of material, red giants like R Sculptoris provide a good portion of the raw materials — dust and gas — used for the formation of new generations of stars and planets. They also show what is likely to happen to the Sun in a few billion years from now, and help astronomers to understand how the elements we are made up of are distributed throughout the Universe.
R Sculptoris itself is located outside the plane of the Milky Way and is easily visible using a moderately sized amateur telescope. In this part of the sky far from the galactic plane, there are relatively few stars but many faint and distant galaxies can be seen.
The black region at the centre of the image has been artificially masked.
This image captures the stunning NGC 6535, a globular cluster 22 000 light-years away in the constellation of Serpens (The Serpent) that measures one light-year across.
Globular clusters are tightly bound groups of stars which orbit galaxies. The large mass in the rich stellar centre of the globular cluster pulls the stars inward to form a ball of stars. The word globulus, from which these clusters take their name, is Latin for small sphere.
Globular clusters are generally very ancient objects formed around the same time as their host galaxy. To date, no new star formations have been observed within a globular cluster, which explains the abundance of aging yellow stars in this image, most of them containing very few heavy elements.
NGC 6535 was first discovered in 1852 by English astronomer John Russell Hind. The cluster would have appeared to Hind as a small, faint smudge through his telescope. Now, over 160 years later, instruments like the Advanced Camera for Surveys (ACS) and Wide Field Camera 3 (WFC3) on the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope allow us to capture the cluster close up and marvel at its contents in detail.
A version of this image was entered into the Hubble's Hidden Treasures image processing competition by contestant Gilles Chapdelaine.
This new NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope image shows the galaxy IC 335 in front of a backdrop of distant galaxies. IC 335 is part of a galaxy group containing three other galaxies, and located in the Fornax Galaxy Cluster 60 million light-years away.
As seen in this image, the disc of IC 335 appears edge-on from the vantage point of Earth. This makes it harder for astronomers to classify it, as most of the characteristics of a galaxy’s morphology — the arms of a spiral or the bar across the centre — are only visible on its face. Still, the 45 000 light-year-long galaxy could be classified as an S0 type.
These lenticular galaxies are an intermediate state in galaxy morphological classification schemes between true spiral and elliptical galaxies. They have a thin stellar disc and a bulge, like spiral galaxies, but in contrast to typical spiral galaxies they have used up most of the interstellar medium. Only a few new stars can be created out of the material that is left and the star formation rate is very low. Hence, the population of stars in S0 galaxies consists mainly of aging stars, very similar to the star population in elliptical galaxies.
As S0 galaxies have only ill-defined spiral arms they are easily mistaken for elliptical galaxies if they are seen inclined face-on or edge-on as IC 335 here. And indeed, despite the morphological differences between S0 and elliptical class galaxies, they share a some common characteristics, like typical sizes and spectral features.
Both classes are also early-type galaxies, as they are evolving passively. However, elliptical galaxies may be passively evolving when we observe them, but they had violent interactions with other galaxies in their past. Whereas S0 galaxies are either aging and fading spiral galaxies, which never had any interactions with other galaxies, or they are the aging result of a single merger between two spiral galaxies in the past. The exact nature of these galaxies is still a matter of debate.
- Structure and Formation of S0 and Spheroidal Galaxies
- Can Early Type Galaxies Evolve from Fading the Disks of Late Types?
This sprinkle of cosmic glitter is a blue compact dwarf galaxy known as Markarian 209. Galaxies of this type are blue-hued, compact in size, gas-rich, and low in heavy elements. They are often used by astronomers to study star formation, as their conditions are similar to those thought to exist in the early Universe.
Markarian 209 in particular has been studied extensively. It is filled with diffuse gas and peppered with star-forming regions towards its core. This image captures it undergoing a particularly dramatic burst of star formation, visible as the lighter blue cloudy region towards the top right of the galaxy. This clump is filled with very young and hot newborn stars.
This galaxy was initially thought to be a young galaxy undergoing its very first episode of star formation, but later research showed that Markarian 209 is actually very old, with an almost continuous history of forming new stars. It is thought to have never had a dormant period — a period during which no stars were formed — lasting longer than 100 million years.
The dominant population of stars in Markarian 209 is still quite young, in stellar terms, with ages of under 3 million years. For comparison, the Sun is some 4.6 billion years old, and is roughly halfway through its expected lifespan.
The observations used to make this image were taken using Hubble’s Wide Field Camera 3 and Advanced Camera for Surveys, and span the ultraviolet, visible, and infrared parts of the spectrum. A scattering of other bright galaxies can be seen across the frame, including the bright golden oval that could, due to a trick of perspective, be mistaken as part of Markarian 209 but is in fact a background galaxy.
A version of this image was entered into the Hubble's Hidden Treasures image processing competition by contestant Nick Rose.
This striking new NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope image shows a glittering bauble named Messier 92. Located in the northern constellation of Hercules, this globular cluster — a ball of stars that orbits a galactic core like a satellite — was first discovered by astronomer Johann Elert Bode in 1777.
Messier 92 is one of the brightest globular clusters in the Milky Way, and is visible to the naked eye under good observing conditions. It is very tightly packed with stars, containing some 330 000 stars in total. As is characteristic of globular clusters, the predominant elements within Messier 92 are hydrogen and helium, with only traces of others. It is actually what is known as an Oosterhoff type II (OoII) globular cluster, meaning that it belongs to a group of metal-poor clusters — to astronomers, metals are all elements heavier than hydrogen and helium.
By exploring the composition of globulars like Messier 92, astronomers can figure out how old these clusters are. As well as being bright, Messier 92 is also old, being one of the oldest star clusters in the Milky Way, with an age almost the same as the age of the Universe.
A version of this image was entered into the Hubble’s Hidden Treasures image processing competition by contestant Gilles Chapdelaine.
The NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope observes some of the most beautiful galaxies in our skies — spirals sparkling with bright stellar nurseries (heic1403), violent duos ripping gas and stars away from one another as they tangle together (heic1311), and ethereal irregular galaxies that hang like flocks of birds suspended in the blackness of space (heic1114, heic1207).
However, galaxies, like humans, are not all supermodels. This little spiral, known as NGC 4102, has a different kind of appeal, with its tightly-wound spiral arms and understated, but charming, appearance.
NGC 4102 lies in the northern constellation of Ursa Major (The Great Bear). It contains what is known as a LINER, or low-ionization nuclear emission-line region, meaning that its nucleus emits particular types of radiation — specifically, emission from weakly-ionised or neutral atoms of certain elements. Even in this sense, NGC 4102 is not special; around one third of all nearby galaxies are thought to be LINER galaxies.
Many LINER galaxies also contain intense regions of star formation. This is thought to be intrinsically linked to their centres but just why is still a mystery for astronomers — either the starbursts pour fuel inwards to fuel the LINERs, or this active central region triggers the starbursts. NGC 4102 does indeed contain a starburst region towards its centre, where stars are being created at a rate much more furious than in a normal galaxy. This star formation is taking place within a small rotating disc, around 1000 light-years in diameter and with a mass some three billion times the mass of the Sun.
This image uses infrared and visible observations taken using Hubble’s Wide Field Planetary Camera 2. A version of this image was submitted to the Hubble's Hidden Treasures image processing competition by contestant Renaud Houdinet.
A team of astronomers led by Stephen Smartt of Queen's University Belfast, the Principal Investigator for the observations making up this image, have spent the last 15 years searching for the progenitor stars of supernovae in galaxy images like this. A recent review article explores some of the results from such studies.
The galaxy cutting dramatically across the frame of this NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope image is a slightly warped dwarf galaxy known as UGC 1281. Seen here from an edge-on perspective, this galaxy lies roughly 18 million light-years away in the constellation of Triangulum (The Triangle).
The bright companion to the lower left of UGC 1281 is the small galaxy PGC 6700, officially known as 2MASX J01493473+3234464. Other prominent stars belonging to our own galaxy, the Milky Way, and more distant galaxies can be seen scattered throughout the sky.
The side-on view we have of UGC 1281 makes it a perfect candidate for studies into how gas is distributed within galactic halos — the roughly spherical regions of diffuse gas extending outwards from a galaxy’s centre. Astronomers have studied this galaxy to see how its gas vertically extends out from its central plane, and found it to be a quite typical dwarf galaxy. However, it does have a slightly warped shape to its outer edges, and is forming stars at a particularly low rate.
A version of this image was entered into the Hubble's Hidden Treasures image processing competition by contestant Luca Limatola.
This new Hubble image is a snapshot of NGC 986 — a barred spiral galaxy discovered in 1828 by James Dunlop. This close-up view of the galaxy was captured by Hubble’s Wide Field and Planetary Camera 2 (WFPC2).
NGC 986 is found in the constellation of Fornax (The Furnace), located in the southern sky. NGC 986 is a bright, 11th-magnitude galaxy sitting around 56 million light-years away, and its golden centre and barred swirling arms are clearly visible in this image.
Barred spiral galaxies are spiral galaxies with a central bar-shaped structure composed of stars. NGC 986 has the characteristic S-shaped structure of this type of galactic morphology. Young blue stars can be seen dotted amongst the galaxy’s arms and the core of the galaxy is also aglow with star formation.
To the top right of this image the stars appear a little fuzzy. This is because a gap in the Hubble data was filled in with data from ground-based telescopes. Although the view we see in this filled in patch is accurate, the resolution of the stars is no match for Hubble’s clear depiction of the spiral galaxy.