Picture of the Week 2012

Also see our pictures of the week on eso.org.
26 March 2012

Hubble Spies a UFO

The NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope has spotted a UFO — well, the UFO Galaxy, to be precise. NGC 2683 is a spiral galaxy seen almost edge-on, giving it the shape of a classic science fiction spaceship. This is why the astronomers at the Astronaut Memorial Planetarium and Observatory gave it this attention-grabbing nickname.

While a bird’s eye view lets us see the detailed structure of a galaxy (such as this Hubble image of a barred spiral), a side-on view has its own perks. In particular, it gives astronomers a great opportunity to see the delicate dusty lanes of the spiral arms silhouetted against the golden haze of the galaxy’s core. In addition, brilliant clusters of young blue stars shine scattered throughout the disc, mapping the galaxy’s star-forming regions.

Perhaps surprisingly, side-on views of galaxies like this one do not prevent astronomers from deducing their structures. Studies of the properties of the light coming from NGC 2683 suggest that this is a barred spiral galaxy, even though the angle we see it at does not let us see this directly.

NGC 2683, discovered on 5 February 1788 by the famous astronomer William Herschel, lies in the Northern constellation of Lynx. A constellation named not because of its resemblance to the feline animal, but because it is fairly faint, requiring the “sensitive eyes of a cat” to discern it. And when you manage to get a look at it, you’ll find treasures like this, making it well worth the effort.

This image is produced from two adjacent fields observed in visible and infrared light by Hubble’s Advanced Camera for Surveys. A narrow strip which appears slightly blurred and crosses most the image horizontally is a result of a gap between Hubble’s detectors. This strip has been patched using images from observations of the galaxy made by ground-based telescopes, which show significantly less detail.

The field of view is approximately 6.5 by 3.3 arcminutes.


19 March 2012

Quasars Acting as Gravitational Lenses

Astronomers using the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope have made images of several galaxies containing quasars, which act as gravitational lenses to amplify and distort images of the galaxies aligned behind them.

Quasars are among the brightest objects in the Universe, far outshining the total output of their host galaxies. They are powered by supermassive black holes, which pull in surrounding material that then heats up as it falls towards the black hole. The path that the light from even more distant galaxies takes on its journey towards us is bent by the enormous masses at the centre of these galaxies. Gravitational lensing is a subtle effect which requires extremely high resolution observations, something for which Hubble is extremely well suited.

To find these rare cases of galaxy–quasar combinations acting as lenses, a team of astronomers led by Frederic Courbin at the Ecole Polytechnique Federale de Lausanne (EPFL, Switzerland) selected 23 000 quasar spectra in the Sloan Digital Sky Survey (SDSS). They looked for the spectral imprint of galaxies at much greater distances that happened to align with foreground galaxies. Once candidates were identified, Hubble’s sharp vision was used to look for the characteristic gravitational arcs and rings that would be produced by gravitational lensing.

In Hubble’s images, the quasars are the bright spots visible at the centre of the galaxies, while the lensed images of distant galaxies are visible as fainter arc-shaped forms that surround them. From left to right, the galaxies are: SDSS J0919+2720, with two bluish lensed images clearly visible above and below the galaxy’s centre; SDSS J1005+4016, with one yellowish arc visible to the right of the galaxy’s centre; and SDSS J0827+5224, with two lensed images very faintly visible, one above and to the right, and one below and to the left of the galaxy’s centre.

Quasar host galaxies are hard or sometimes even impossible to see because the central quasar far outshines the galaxy. Therefore, it is difficult to estimate the mass of a host galaxy based on the collective brightness of its stars. However, gravitational lensing candidates are invaluable for estimating the mass of a quasar’s host galaxy because the amount of distortion in the lens can be used to estimate a galaxy’s mass.


12 March 2012

Stellar voyage of a butterfly-like planetary nebula

The breathtaking butterfly-like planetary nebula NGC 6881 is visible here in an image taken by the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope. Located in the constellation of Cygnus, it is formed of an inner nebula, estimated to be about one fifth of a light-year across, and symmetrical “wings” that spread out about one light-year from one tip to the other. The symmetry could be due to a binary star at the nebula’s centre.

NGC 6881 has a dying star at its core which is about 60% of the mass of the Sun. It is an example of a quadrupolar planetary nebula, made from two pairs of bipolar lobes pointing in different directions, and consisting of four pairs of flat rings. There are also three rings in the centre.

A planetary nebula is a cloud of ionised gas, emitting light of various colours. It typically forms when a dying star — a red giant — throws off its outer layers, because of pulsations and strong stellar winds.

The star’s exposed hot, luminous core starts emitting ultraviolet radiation, exciting the outer layers of the star, which then become a newly born planetary nebula. At some point, the nebula is bound to dissolve in space, leaving the central star as a white dwarf — the final evolutionary state of stars.

The name “planetary” dates back to the 18th century, when such nebulae were first discovered — and when viewed through small optical telescopes, they looked a lot like giant planets.

Planetary nebulae usually live for a few tens of thousands of years, a short phase in the lifetime of a star.

The image was taken through three filters which isolate the specific wavelength of light emitted by nitrogen (shown in red), hydrogen (shown in green) and oxygen (shown in blue).


5 March 2012

Galaxies' El Dorado

The NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope has produced this beautiful image of the galaxy NGC 1483. NGC 1483 is a barred spiral galaxy located in the southern constellation of Dorado — the dolphinfish in Spanish. The nebulous galaxy features a bright central bulge and diffuse arms with distinct star-forming regions. In the background, many other distant galaxies can be seen.

The constellation Dorado is home to the Dorado Group of galaxies, a loose group comprising an estimated 70 galaxies and located some 62 million light-years away. The Dorado group is much larger than the Local Group that includes the Milky Way (and which contains around 30 galaxies) and approaches the size of a galaxy cluster. Galaxy clusters are the largest groupings of galaxies (and indeed the largest structures of any type) in the Universe to be held together by their gravity.  

Barred spiral galaxies are so named because of the prominent bar-shaped structures found in their centre. They form about two thirds of all spiral galaxies, including the Milky Way. Recent studies suggest that bars may be a common stage in the formation of spiral galaxies, and may indicate that a galaxy has reached full maturity.


27 February 2012

Antlia Dwarf Galaxy peppers the sky with stars

The myriad faint stars that comprise the Antlia Dwarf galaxy are more than four million light-years from Earth, but this NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope image offers such clarity that they could be mistaken for much closer stars in our own Milky Way. This very faint and sparsely populated small galaxy was only discovered in 1997.

Although small, the Antlia Dwarf is a dynamic site featuring stars at many different stages of evolution, from young to old. The freshest stars are only found in the central regions where there is significant ongoing star formation. Older stars and globular clusters are found in the outer areas.

It is not entirely clear whether the Antlia Dwarf is a member our galactic neighbourhood, called the Local Group. It probably lies just beyond the normally accepted outer limits of the group. Although it is fairly isolated, some believe it has interacted with other star groups. Evidence comes from galaxy NGC 3109, close to the Antlia Dwarf (but not visible in this image). Both galaxies feature rifts of stars moving at comparable velocities; a telltale sign that they were gravitationally linked at some point in the past.

This picture was created from observations in visible and infrared light taken with the Wide Field Channel of Hubble’s Advanced Camera for Surveys. The field of view is approximately 3.2 by 1.5 arcminutes.


20 February 2012

Preview of a forthcoming supernova

At the turn of the 19th century, the binary star system Eta Carinae was faint and undistinguished. In the first decades of the century, it became brighter and brighter, until, by April 1843, it was the second brightest star in the sky, outshone only by Sirius (which is almost a thousand times closer to Earth). In the years that followed, it gradually dimmed again and by the 20th century was totally invisible to the naked eye.

The star has continued to vary in brightness ever since, and while it is once again visible to the naked eye on a dark night, it has never again come close to its peak of 1843.

The larger of the two stars in the Eta Carinae system is a huge and unstable star that is nearing the end of its life, and the event that the 19th century astronomers observed was a stellar near-death experience. Scientists call these outbursts supernova impostor events, because they appear similar to supernovae but stop just short of destroying their star.

Although 19th century astronomers did not have telescopes powerful enough to see the 1843 outburst in detail, its effects can be studied today. The huge clouds of matter thrown out a century and a half ago, known as the Homunculus Nebula, have been a regular target for Hubble since its launch in 1990. This image, taken with the Advanced Camera for Surveys High Resolution Channel is the most detailed yet, and shows how the material from the star was not thrown out in a uniform manner, but forms a huge dumbbell shape.

Eta Carinae is not only interesting because of its past, but also because of its future. It is one of the closest stars to Earth that is likely to explode in a supernova in the relatively near future (though in astronomical timescales the “near future” could still be a million years away). When it does, expect an impressive view from Earth, far brighter still than its last outburst: SN 2006gy, the brightest supernova ever observed, came from a star of the same type.

This image consists of ultraviolet and visible light images from the High Resolution Channel of Hubble’s Advanced Camera for Surveys. The field of view is approximately 30 arcseconds across.

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13 February 2012

A sheep in Wolf-Rayet’s clothing

It’s well known that the Universe is changeable: even the stars that appear static and predictable every night are subject to change.

This image from the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope shows planetary nebula Hen 3-1333. Planetary nebulae are nothing to do with planets — they actually represent the death throes of mid-sized stars like the Sun. As they puff out their outer layers, large, irregular globes of glowing gas expand around them, which appeared planet-like through the small telescopes that were used by their first discoverers.

The star at the heart of Hen 3-1333 is thought to have a mass of around 60% that of the Sun, but unlike the Sun, its apparent brightness varies substantially over time. Astronomers believe this variability is caused by a disc of dust which lies almost edge-on when viewed from Earth, which periodically obscures the star.

It is a Wolf–Rayet type star — a late stage in the evolution of Sun-sized stars. These are named after (and share many observational characteristics with) Wolf–Rayet stars, which are much larger. Why the similarity? Both Wolf–Rayet and Wolf–Rayet type stars are hot and bright because their helium cores are exposed: the former because of the strong stellar winds characteristic of these stars; the latter because the outer layers of the stars have been puffed away as the star runs low on fuel.

The exposed helium core, rich with heavier elements, means that the surfaces of these stars are far hotter than the Sun, typically 25 000 to 50 000 degrees Celsius (the Sun has a comparatively chilly surface temperature of just 5500 degrees Celsius).

So while they are dramatically smaller in size, the Wolf–Rayet type stars such as the one at the core of Hen 3-1333 effectively mimic the appearance of their much bigger and more energetic namesakes: they are sheep in Wolf–Rayet clothing.

This visible-light image was taken by the high resolution channel of Hubble’s Advanced Camera for Surveys. The field of view is approximately 26 by 26 arcseconds.


6 February 2012

Transforming galaxies

Many of the Universe’s galaxies are like our own, displaying beautiful spiral arms wrapping around a bright nucleus. Examples in this stunning image, taken with the Wide Field Camera 3 on the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope, include the tilted galaxy at the bottom of the frame, shining behind a Milky Way star, and the small spiral at the top centre.

Other galaxies are even odder in shape. Markarian 779, the galaxy at the top of this image, has a distorted appearance because it is likely the product of a recent galactic merger between two spirals. This collision destroyed the spiral arms of the galaxies and scattered much of their gas and dust, transforming them into a single peculiar galaxy with a unique shape.

This galaxy is part of the Markarian catalogue, a database of over 1500 galaxies named after B. E. Markarian, the Armenian astronomer who studied them in the 1960s. He surveyed the sky for bright objects with unusually strong emission in the ultraviolet.

Ultraviolet radiation can come from a range of sources, so the Markarian catalogue is quite diverse. An excess of ultraviolet emissions can be the result of the nucleus of an “active” galaxy, powered by a supermassive black hole at its centre. It can also be due to events of intense star formation, called starbursts, possibly triggered by galactic collisions. Markarian galaxies are, therefore, often the subject of studies aimed at understanding active galaxies, starburst activity, and galaxy interactions and mergers.


30 January 2012

Young stars at home in an ancient cluster

Looking like a hoard of gems fit for an emperor’s collection, this deep sky object called NGC 6752 is in fact far more worthy of admiration. It is a globular cluster, and at over 10 billion years old is one the most ancient collections of stars known. It has been blazing for well over twice as long long as our Solar System has existed.

NGC 6752 contains a high number of “blue straggler” stars, some of which are visible in this image. These stars display characteristics of stars younger than their neighbours, despite models suggesting that most of the stars within globular clusters should have formed at approximately the same time. Their origin is therefore something of a mystery.

Studies of NGC 6752 may shed light on this situation. It appears that a very high number — up to 38% — of the stars within its core region are binary systems. Collisions between stars in this turbulent area could produce the blue stragglers that are so prevalent.

Lying 13 000 light-years distant, NGC 6752 is far beyond our reach, yet the clarity of Hubble’s images brings it tantalisingly close.


23 January 2012

Seeing quadruple

This NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope picture may trick you into thinking that the galaxy in it — known as UZC J224030.2+032131 — has not one but five different nuclei. In fact, the core of the galaxy is only the faint and diffuse object seen at the centre of the cross-like structure formed by the other four dots, which are images of a distant quasar located in the background of the galaxy.

The picture shows a famous cosmic mirage known as the Einstein Cross, and is a direct visual confirmation of the theory of general relativity. It is one of the best examples of the phenomenon of gravitational lensing — the bending of light by gravity as predicted by Einstein in the early 20th century. In this case, the galaxy’s powerful gravity acts as a lens that bends and amplifies the light from the quasar behind it, producing four images of the distant object.

The quasar is seen as it was around 11 billion light-years ago, in the direction of the constellation of Pegasus, while the galaxy that works as a lens is some ten times closer. The alignment between the two objects is remarkable (within 0.05 arcseconds), which is in part why such a special type of gravitational lensing is observed.

This image is likely the sharpest image of the Einstein Cross ever made, and was produced by Hubble’s Wide Field and Planetary Camera 2, and has a field of view of 26 by 26 arcseconds.


16 January 2012

Core of Messier 100 in super high res

Messier 100 is a perfect example of a grand design spiral galaxy, a type of galaxy with prominent and very well-defined spiral arms. These dusty structures swirl around the galaxy’s nucleus, and are marked by a flurry of star formation activity that dots Messier 100 with bright blue, high-mass stars.

This image from the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope, the most detailed made to date, shows the bright core of the galaxy and the innermost parts of its spiral arms. Messier 100 has an active galactic nucleus — a bright region at the galaxy’s core caused by a supermassive black hole that is actively swallowing material, which radiates brightly as it falls inwards.

The galaxy’s spiral arms also host smaller black holes, including the youngest ever observed in our cosmic neighbourhood, the result of a supernova observed in 1979.

Messier 100 is located in the direction of the constellation of Coma Berenices, about 50 million light-years distant.

The galaxy became famous in the early 1990s with the release of two images of the object taken with Hubble before and after a major repair to the telescope, which illustrated the dramatic improvement in Hubble’s observations.

This image, taken with the high resolution channel of Hubble’s Advanced Camera for Surveys demonstrates the continued evolution of Hubble’s capabilities over two decades in orbit. This image, like all high resolution channel images, has a relatively small field of view: only around 25 by 25 arcseconds.

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9 January 2012

Hubble spots a busy barred spiral

This classic shot of a galaxy in the constellation of Ursa Major was taken by the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope. NGC 3259 is a bright barred spiral galaxy located approximately 110 million light-years from Earth.

Being a fully-formed active galaxy, its bright central bulge hosts a supermassive black hole, whose huge appetite for matter explains the high luminosity of the galaxy’s core: as it devours its surroundings, the black hole emits intense radiation across the whole electromagnetic spectrum, including in visible light.

The beautiful spiral arms of the galaxy are not left out either as they contain dark lanes of dust and gas, ideal spawning grounds for stars. These bright, young, hot stars appear in rich clusters in the galaxy’s arms and are what gives the galaxy its blueish hue.

Interestingly, the galaxy has a small companion (visible to the left of the image), a much smaller galaxy that may be orbiting NGC 3259. In the background, numerous distant galaxies can be seen, easily identifiable by their elliptical shapes. They are visible here mainly in infrared light, which is shown in red in this image.


2 January 2012

Smoke without fire: a different view of the cigar galaxy

This image shows the most detailed view ever of the core of Messier 82 (M 82), also known as the Cigar Galaxy. Rich with dust, young stars and glowing gas, M 82 is both unusually bright and relatively close to Earth. The starburst galaxy is located around 12 million light-years away in the constellation of Ursa Major (The Great Bear).

This is not the first time Hubble has imaged the Cigar Galaxy. Previous images (for example heic0604) show a galaxy ablaze with stars. Yet this image looks quite unlike them, and is dominated instead by glowing gas and dust, with the stars almost invisible. Why such a difference?

The new image is more detailed than previous Hubble observations – in fact, it is the most detailed image ever made of this galaxy. But the reason it looks so dramatically different is down to the choices astronomers make when designing their observations. Hubble’s cameras do not see in colour: they are sensitive to a broad range of wavelengths which they image only in greyscale. Colour pictures can be constructed by passing the light through different coloured filters and combining the resulting images, but the choice of filters makes a big difference to the end result.

Using filters which allow through relatively broad bands of colours, similar to those our eyes see, results in natural-looking colours and bright stars, as starlight shines brightly across the spectrum.

Using filters transparent only to the wavelengths emitted by specific chemical elements, as in this image, isolates the light from glowing gas clouds, while blocking out much of the starlight. This explains why the stars appear faint in this image, and why the dust lanes are sharply silhouetted against the brightly glowing gas clouds.

The image shows the light emitted by sulphur (shown in red), visible and ultraviolet light from oxygen (shown green and blue, respectively), and light from hydrogen (cyan).

The field of view is approximately 2.7 by 2.7 arcminutes.


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