Picture of the Week 2013

Also see our pictures of the week on eso.org.
25 March 2013

Masquerading as a double star

The object in this image is Jonckheere 900 or J 900, a planetary nebula — glowing shells of ionised gas pushed out by a dying star. Discovered in the early 1900s by astronomer Robert Jonckheere, the dusty nebula is small but fairly bright, with a relatively evenly spread central region surrounded by soft wispy edges.

Despite the clarity of this Hubble image, the two objects in the picture above can be confusing for observers. J 900’s nearby companion, a faint star in the constellation of Gemini, often causes problems for observers because it is so close to the nebula — when seeing conditions are bad, this star seems to merge into J 900, giving it an elongated appearance. Hubble’s position above the Earth’s atmosphere means that this is not an issue for the space telescope.

Astronomers have also mistakenly reported observations of a double star in place of these two objects, as the planetary nebula is quite small and compact.

J 900’s central star is only just visible in this image, and is very faint — fainter than the nebula’s neighbour. The nebula appears to display a bipolar structure, where there are two distinct lobes of material emanating from its centre, enclosed by a bright oval disc.

A version of this image was entered into the Hubble’s Hidden Treasures image processing competition by contestant Josh Barrington.


18 March 2013

Galactic glow worm

This charming and bright galaxy, known as IRAS 23436+5257, was captured by the the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope. It is located in the northern constellation of Cassiopeia, which is named after an arrogant, vain, and yet beautiful mythical queen.

The twisted, wormlike structure of this galaxy is most likely the result of a collision and subsequent merger of two galaxies. Such interactions are quite common in the Universe, and they can range from minor interactions involving a satellite galaxy being caught by a spiral arm, to major galactic crashes. Friction between the gas and dust during a collision can have a major effect on the galaxies involved, morphing the shape of the original galaxies and creating interesting new structures.

When you look up at the calm and quiet night sky it is not always easy to picture it as a dynamic and vibrant environment with entire galaxies in motion, spinning like children’s toys and crashing into whatever crosses their path. The motions are, of course, extremely slow, and occur over millions or even billions of years.

The aftermath of these galactic collisions helps scientists to understand how these movements occur and what may be in store for our own Milky Way, which is on a collision course with a neighbouring galaxy, Messier 31.

A version of this image was entered into the Hubble’s Hidden Treasures image processing competition by contestant Judy Schmidt. Hidden Treasures was an initiative to invite astronomy enthusiasts to search the Hubble archive for stunning images that have never been seen by the general public. The competition has now closed and the results are published here.


11 March 2013

One ring to rule them all

Galaxies can take many forms — elliptical blobs, swirling spiral arms, bulges, and discs are all known components of the wide range of galaxies we have observed using telescopes like the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope. However, some of the more intriguing objects in the sky around us include ring galaxies like the one pictured above — Zw II 28.

Ring galaxies are mysterious objects. They are thought to form when one galaxy slices through the disc of another, larger, one — as galaxies are mostly empty space, this collision is not as aggressive or as destructive as one might imagine. The likelihood of two stars physically colliding is minimal, and it is instead the gravitational effects of the two galaxies that causes the disruption.

This disruption upsets the material in both galaxies, causing it to redistribute to form a dense central core, encircled by bright stars. All this commotion causes clouds of gas and dust to collapse and triggers new periods of intense star formation in the outer ring, which is thus full of hot, young, blue stars and regions that are actively giving rise to new stars.

The sparkling pink and purple loop of Zw II 28 is not a typical ring galaxy due to its lack of a visible central companion. For many years it was thought to be a lone circle on the sky, but observations using Hubble have shown that there may be a possible companion lurking just inside the ring, where the loop appears to double back on itself. The galaxy has a knotty, swirling ring structure, with some areas appearing much brighter than others.

A version of this image was entered into the Hubble’s Hidden Treasures image processing competition by contestant Judy Schmidt.


4 March 2013

Blue bursts of hot young stars

This image, speckled with blue, white, and yellow light, shows part of the spiral galaxy IC 5052. Surrounded by distant stars and galaxies, it emits a bright blue-white glow which highlights its narrow, intricate structure. It is viewed side-on in the constellation of Pavo (The Peacock), in the southern sky.

When spiral galaxies are viewed from this angle, it is very difficult to fully understand their properties and how they are arranged. IC 5052 is actually a barred spiral galaxy – its pinwheeling arms do not begin from the centre point but are instead attached to either end of a straight "bar" of stars that cuts through the galaxy's middle. Approximately two thirds of all spirals are barred, including the Milky Way.

Bursts of pale blue light are visible across the galaxy's length, partially blocked out by weaving lanes of darker gas and dust. These are pockets of extremely hot newborn stars. The bars present in spirals like IC 5052 are thought to help these formation processes by effectively funnelling material from the swirling arms inwards towards these hot stellar nurseries. 

A version of this image was submitted to the Hubble's Hidden Treasures image processing competition by contestant Serge Meunier.


25 February 2013

Glowing, fiery shells of gas

It may look like something from The Lord of the Rings, but this fiery swirl is actually a planetary nebula known as ESO 456-67. Set against a backdrop of bright stars, the rust-coloured object lies in the constellation of Sagittarius (The Archer), in the southern sky.

Despite the name, these ethereal objects have nothing at all to do with planets; this misnomer came about over a century ago, when the first astronomers to observe them only had small, poor-quality telescopes. Through these, the nebulae looked small, compact, and planet-like — and so were labelled as such.

When a star like the Sun approaches the end of its life, it flings material out into space. Planetary nebulae are the intricate, glowing shells of dust and gas pushed outwards from such a star. At their centres lie the remnants of the original stars themselves — small, dense white dwarf stars.

In this image of ESO 456-67, it is possible to see the various layers of material expelled by the central star. Each appears in a different hue — red, orange, yellow, and green-tinted bands of gas are visible, with clear patches of space at the heart of the nebula. It is not fully understood how planetary nebulae form such a wide variety of shapes and structures; some appear to be spherical, some elliptical, others shoot material in waves from their polar regions, some look like hourglasses or figures of eight, and others resemble large, messy stellar explosions — to name but a few.

A version of this image was entered into the Hubble's Hidden Treasures image processing competition by contestant Jean-Christophe Lambry


18 February 2013

A glowing jet from a young star

This image shows an object known as HH 151, a bright jet of glowing material trailed by an intricate, orange-hued plume of gas and dust. It is located some 460 light-years away in the constellation of Taurus (The Bull), near to the young, tumultuous star HL Tau.

In the first few hundred thousand years of life, new stars like HL Tau pull in material that falls towards them from the surrounding space. This material forms a hot disc that swirls around the coalescing body, launching narrow streams of material from its poles. These jets are shot out at speeds of several hundred kilometres per second and collide violently with nearby clumps of dust and gas, creating wispy, billowing structures known as Herbig-Haro objects — like HH 151 seen in the image above.

Such objects are very common in star-forming regions. They are short-lived, and their motion and evolution can actually be seen over very short timescales, on the order of years. They quickly race away from the newly-forming star that emitted them, colliding with new clumps of material and glowing brightly before fading away.

A version of this image was entered into the Hidden Treasures image processing competition by Gilles Chapdelaine.


11 February 2013

Cosmic “flying V” of merging galaxies

This large “flying V” is actually two distinct objects — a pair of interacting galaxies known as IC 2184. Both the galaxies are seen almost edge-on in the large, faint northern constellation of Camelopardalis (The Giraffe), and can be seen as bright streaks of light surrounded by the ghostly shapes of their tidal tails.

These tidal tails are thin, elongated streams of gas, dust and stars that extend away from a galaxy into space. They occur when galaxies gravitationally interact with one another, and material is sheared from the outer edges of each body and flung out into space in opposite directions, forming two tails. They almost always appear curved, so when they are seen to be relatively straight, as in this image, it is clear that we are viewing the galaxies side-on.

Also visible in this image are bursts of bright blue, pinpointing hot regions where the stars from both galaxies have begun to crash together during the merger.

The image consists of visible and infrared observations from Hubble’s Wide Field and Planetary Camera 2.

A version of this picture was entered into the Hubble’s Hidden Treasures image-processing competition by contestant Serge Meunier.


4 February 2013

A side-on spiral streak

This thin, glittering streak of stars is the spiral galaxy ESO 121-6, which lies in the southern constellation of Pictor (The Painter's Easel). Viewed almost exactly side-on, the intricate structure of the swirling arms is hidden, but the full length of the galaxy can be seen — including the intense glow from the central bulge, a dense region of tightly packed young stars sitting at the centre of the spiral arms.

Tendrils of dark dust can be seen across the frame, partially obscuring the bright centre of the galaxy and continuing out towards the smattering of stars at its edges, where the dust lanes and shapes melt into the inky background. Numerous nearby stars and galaxies are visible as small smudges in the surrounding sky, and the brightest stars are dazzlingly prominent towards the bottom left of the image.

ESO 121-6 is a galaxy with patchy, loosely wound arms and a relatively faint central bulge. It actually belongs to a group of galaxies, a clump of no more than 50 similar structures all loosely bound to one another by gravity. The Milky Way is also a member of a galactic group, known as the Local Group. 


28 January 2013

The moment the lights went out

The further away you look, the further back in time you see. Astronomers use this fact to study the evolution of the Universe by looking at nearby and more distant galaxies and comparing their features. Hubble is particularly well suited for this type of work because of its extremely high resolution and its position above the atmosphere. This has allowed it to detect many of the most distant galaxies known, as well as making detailed images of faraway objects.

Comparing galaxies in the distant past with those around us today, astronomers have noticed that the nearby galaxies are far quieter and calmer than their distant brethren, seen earlier in their lives. Nearby galaxies (although not the Milky Way) are often large, elliptical galaxies with little or no ongoing star formation, and their stars tend to be elderly and red in colour. These galaxies, in astronomers' language, are "red and dead".

This is not so for galaxies further away, which typically show more vigorous star birth.

The reason for this appears to be that as the Universe has aged, galaxies have often collided and merged together, and these events disrupt gas clouds within them. A merger will usually be a trigger for such intense star formation that the supply of gas is used up, and no more star formation occurs afterwards. The merged elliptical galaxy then creeps into old age, getting redder as its stars get older. This is expected to happen to the Milky Way when it merges with the nearby Andromeda Galaxy, some four billion years from now.

The galaxy in this image, catalogued as 2MASX J09442693+0429569, marks a transitional phase in this process as young, star-forming galaxies settle to become massive, red and dead galaxies.

The galaxy has tail-like features extending from it, typical of a galaxy that has recently undergone a merger. Studying the properties of the light from this galaxy, astronomers see no sign of ongoing star formation; in other words, the merger triggered an event which has used up all the gas. However, the observations suggest that star formation was strong until the very recent past, and has ceased only within the last billion years. This image therefore shows a snapshot of the moment star formation stopped forever in a galaxy. 

A version of this image was entered into the Hidden Treasures image processing competition by contestant Nick Rose.


21 January 2013

Appearances can be deceptive

Globular clusters are roughly spherical collections of extremely old stars, and around 150 of them are scattered around our galaxy. Hubble is one of the best telescopes for studying these, as its extremely high resolution lets astronomers see individual stars, even in the crowded core. The clusters all look very similar, and in Hubble’s images it can be quite hard to tell them apart – and they all look much like NGC 411, pictured here.

And yet appearances can be deceptive: NGC 411 is in fact not a globular cluster, and its stars are not old. It isn’t even in the Milky Way.

NGC 411 is classified as an open cluster. Less tightly bound than a globular cluster, the stars in open clusters tend to drift apart over time as they age, whereas globulars have survived for well over 10 billion years of galactic history. NGC 411 is a relative youngster — not much more than a tenth of this age. Far from being a relic of the early years of the Universe, the stars in NGC 411 are in fact a fraction of the age of the Sun.

The stars in NGC 411 are all roughly the same age, having formed in one go from one cloud of gas. But they are not all the same size. Hubble’s image shows a wide range of colours and brightnesses in the cluster’s stars. These tell astronomers many facts about the stars, including their mass, temperature and evolutionary phase. Blue stars, for instance, have higher surface temperatures than red ones.

The image is a composite produced from ultraviolet, visible and infrared observations made by Hubble’s Wide Field Camera 3. This filter set lets the telescope “see” colours slightly further beyond red and the violet ends of the spectrum.


14 January 2013

A busy patch of the Great Attractor

A busy patch of space has been captured in this image from the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope. Scattered with many nearby stars, the field also has numerous galaxies in the background.

Located on the border of Triangulum Australe (The Southern Triangle) and Norma (The Carpenter’s Square), this field covers part of the Norma Cluster (Abell 3627) as well as a dense area of our own galaxy, the Milky Way.

The Norma Cluster is the closest massive galaxy cluster to the Milky Way, and lies about 220 million light-years away. The enormous mass concentrated here, and the consequent gravitational attraction, mean that this region of space is known to astronomers as the Great Attractor, and it dominates our region of the Universe.

The largest galaxy visible in this image is ESO 137-002, a spiral galaxy seen edge on. In this image from Hubble, we see large regions of dust across the galaxy’s bulge. What we do not see here is the tail of glowing X-rays that has been observed extending out of the galaxy — but which is invisible to an optical telescope like Hubble.

Observing the Great Attractor is difficult at optical wavelengths. The plane of the Milky Way — responsible for the numerous bright stars in this image — both outshines (with stars) and obscures (with dust) many of the objects behind it. There are some tricks for seeing through this — infrared or radio observations, for instance — but the region behind the centre of the Milky Way, where the dust is thickest, remains an almost complete mystery to astronomers.

This image consists of exposures in blue and infrared light taken by Hubble’s Advanced Camera for Surveys.


7 January 2013

An archetypal dwarf galaxy

The constellation of Ursa Major (The Great Bear) is home to Messier 101, the Pinwheel Galaxy. One of the biggest and brightest spiral galaxies in the night sky, Messier 101 is also the subject of one of Hubble's most famous images (heic0602). Like the Milky Way, Messier 101 is not alone, with smaller dwarf galaxies in its neighbourhood.

NGC 5477, one of these dwarf galaxies in the Messier 101 group, is the subject of this image from the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope. Without obvious structure, but with visible signs of ongoing starbirth, NGC 5477 looks much like an archetypal dwarf irregular galaxy. The bright nebulae that extend across much of the galaxy are clouds of glowing hydrogen gas in which new stars are forming. These glow pinkish red in real life, although the selection of green and infrared filters through which this image was taken makes them appear almost white.

The observations were taken as part of a project to measure accurate distances to a range of galaxies within about 30 million light-years from Earth, by studying the brightness of red giant stars.

In addition to NGC 5477, the image includes numerous galaxies in the background, including some that are visible right through NGC 5477. This serves as a reminder that galaxies, far from being solid, opaque objects, are actually largely made up of the empty space between their stars.

This image is a combination of exposures taken through green and infrared filters using Hubble's Advanced Camera for Surveys. The field of view is approximately 3.3 by 3.3 arcminutes. 


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