Picture of the Week

Also see our pictures of the week on eso.org.
1 September 2014

Spiral in Serpens

This new NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope image shows a beautiful spiral galaxy known as PGC 54493, located in the constellation of Serpens (The Serpent). This galaxy is part of a galaxy cluster that has been studied by astronomers exploring an intriguing phenomenon known as weak gravitational lensing.

This effect, caused by the uneven distribution of matter (including dark matter) throughout the Universe, has been explored via surveys such as the Hubble Medium Deep Survey. Dark matter is one of the great mysteries in cosmology. It behaves very differently from ordinary matter as it does not emit or absorb light or other forms of electromagnetic energy — hence the term "dark".

Even though we cannot observe dark matter directly, we know it exists. One prominent piece of evidence for the existence of this mysterious matter is known as the "galaxy rotation problem". Galaxies rotate at such speeds and in such a way that ordinary matter alone — the stuff we see — would not be able to hold them together. The amount of mass that is "missing" visibly is dark matter, which is thought to make up some 27% of the total contents of the Universe, with dark energy and normal matter making up the rest. PGC 55493 has been studied in connection with an effect known as cosmic shearing. This is a weak gravitational lensing effect that creates tiny distortions in images of distant galaxies.

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

Links


25 August 2014

Light and dark

This new NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope image shows a variety of intriguing cosmic phenomena.

Surrounded by bright stars, towards the upper middle of the frame we see a small young stellar object (YSO) known as SSTC2D J033038.2+303212. Located in the constellation of Perseus, this star is in the early stages of its life and is still forming into a fully grown star. In this view from Hubble’s Advanced Camera for Surveys (ACS) it appears to have a murky chimney of material emanating outwards and downwards, framed by bright bursts of gas flowing from the star itself. This fledgling star is actually surrounded by a bright disc of material swirling around it as it forms — a disc that we see edge-on from our perspective.

However, this small bright speck is dwarfed by its cosmic neighbour towards the bottom of the frame, a clump of bright, wispy gas swirling around as it appears to spew dark material out into space. The bright cloud is a reflection nebula known as [B77] 63, a cloud of interstellar gas that is reflecting light from the stars embedded within it. There are actually a number of bright stars within [B77] 63, most notably the emission-line star LkHA 326, and its very near neighbour LZK 18.

These stars are lighting up the surrounding gas and sculpting it into the wispy shape seen in this image. However, the most dramatic part of the image seems to be a dark stream of smoke piling outwards from [B77] 63 and its stars — a dark nebula called Dobashi 4173. Dark nebulae are incredibly dense clouds of pitch-dark material that obscure the patches of sky behind them, seemingly creating great rips and eerily empty chunks of sky. The stars speckled on top of this extreme blackness actually lie between us and Dobashi 4173.

Link


18 August 2014

A silver needle in the sky

This stunning new image from the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope shows part of the sky in the constellation of Canes Venatici (The Hunting Dogs).

Although this region of the sky is not home to any stellar heavyweights, being mostly filled with stars of average brightness, it does contain five Messier objects and numerous intriguing galaxies — including NGC 5195, a small barred spiral galaxy considered to be one of the most beautiful galaxies visible, and its nearby interacting partner the Whirlpool Galaxy (heic0506a). The quirky Sunflower Galaxy is another notable galaxy in this constellation, and is one of the largest and brightest edge-on galaxies in our skies.

Joining this host of characters is spiral galaxy NGC 4244, nicknamed the Silver Needle Galaxy, shown here in a new image from Hubble. This galaxy spans some 65 000 light-years and lies around 13.5 million light-years away. It appears as a wafer-thin streak across the sky, with its loosely wound spiral arms hidden from view as we observe the galaxy side on. It is part of a group of galaxies known as the M94 Group [1].

Numerous bright clumps of gas can be seen scattered across its length, along with dark dust lanes surrounding the galaxy’s core. NGC 4244 also has a bright star cluster at its centre. Although we can make out the galaxy’s bright central region and star-spattered arms, we cannot see any more intricate structure due to the galaxy’s position; from Earth, we see it stretched out as a flattened streak across the sky.

A number of different observations were pieced together to form this mosaic, and gaps in Hubble’s coverage have been filled in using ground-based data. The Hubble observations were taken as part of the GHOSTS survey, which is scanning nearby galaxies to explore how they and their stars formed to get a more complete view of the history of the Universe.

Notes

[1] Our home group, containing the Milky Way and many others, is known as the Local Group. M94 is relatively close to the Local Group.


11 August 2014

Galactic soup

This new NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope image shows a whole host of colourful and differently shaped galaxies; some bright and nearby, some fuzzy, and some so far from us they appear as small specks in the background sky.

The most prominent characters are the two galaxies on the left — 2MASX J16133219+5103436 at the bottom, and its blue-tinted companion SDSS J161330.18+510335 at the top. The latter is slightly closer to us than its partner, but the two are still near enough to one another to interact. Together, the two make up a galactic pair named Zw I 136.

Both galaxies in this pair have disturbed shapes and extended soft halos. They don’t seem to conform to our view of a “typical” galaxy — unlike the third bright object in this frame, a side-on spiral seen towards the right of the image.

Astronomers classify galaxies according to their appearance and their shape. The most famous classification scheme is known as the Hubble sequence, devised by its namesake Edwin Hubble. One of the great questions in galaxy evolution is how interactions between galaxies trigger waves of star formation, and why these stars then abruptly stop forming. Interacting pairs like this one present astronomers with perfect opportunities to investigate this.

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


4 August 2014

IC 4499: A globular cluster’s age revisited

This new NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope image shows the globular cluster IC 4499.

Globular clusters are big balls of old stars that orbit around their host galaxy. It has long been believed that all the stars within a globular cluster form at the about same time, a property which can be used to determine the cluster's age. For more massive globulars however, detailed observations have shown that this is not entirely true — there is evidence that they instead consist of multiple populations of stars born at different times. One of the driving forces behind this behaviour is thought to be gravity: more massive globulars manage to grab more gas and dust, which can then be transformed into new stars.

IC 4499 is a somewhat special case. Its mass lies somewhere between low-mass globulars, which show a single generation build-up, and the more complex and massive globulars which can contain more than one generation of stars. By studying objects like IC 4499 astronomers can therefore explore how mass affects a cluster's contents. Astronomers found no sign of multiple generations of stars in IC 4499 — supporting the idea that less massive clusters in general only consist of a single stellar generation.

Hubble observations of IC 4499 have also helped to pinpoint the cluster's age: observations of this cluster from the 1990s suggested a puzzlingly young age when compared to other globular clusters within the Milky Way. However, since those first estimates new Hubble data been obtained, and it has been found to be much more likely that IC 4499 is actually roughly the same age as other Milky Way clusters at approximately 12 billion years old.


28 July 2014

Galaxy gets a cosmic hair ruffling

From objects as small as Newton's apple to those as large as a galaxy, no physical body is free from the stern bonds of gravity, as evidenced in this stunning picture captured by the Wide Field Camera 3 and Advanced Camera for Surveys onboard the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope.

Here we see two spiral galaxies engaged in a cosmic tug-of-war — but in this contest, there will be no winner. The structures of both objects are slowly distorted to resemble new forms, and in some cases, merge together to form new, super galaxies. This particular fate is similar to that of the Milky Way Galaxy, when it will ultimately merge with our closest galactic partner, the Andromeda Galaxy. There is no need to panic however, as this process takes several hundreds of millions of years.

Not all interacting galaxies result in mergers though. The merger is dependent on the mass of each galaxy, as well as the relative velocities of each body. It is quite possible that the event pictured here, romantically named 2MASX J06094582-2140234, will avoid a merger event altogether, and will merely distort the arms of each spiral without colliding — the cosmic equivalent of a hair ruffling!

These galactic interactions also trigger new regions of star formation in the galaxies involved, causing them to be extremely luminous in the infrared part of the spectrum. For this reason, these types of galaxies are referred to as LIRGs, or Luminous Infrared Galaxies. This image was taken as part of as part of a Hubble survey of the central regions of LIRGs in the local Universe, which also used the NICMOS instrument.

A version of this image was entered into the Hubble's Hidden Treasures image processing competition by contestant Luca Limatola.


21 July 2014

A slice of stars

The thin, glowing streak slicing across this image cuts a lonely figure, with only a few foreground stars and galaxies in the distant background for company.

However, this is all a case of perspective; lying out of frame is another nearby spiral. Together, these two galaxies make up a pair, moving through space together and keeping one another company.

The subject of this Hubble image is called NGC 3501, with NGC 3507 as its out-of-frame companion. The two galaxies look very different — another example of the importance of perspective. NGC 3501 appears edge-on, giving it an elongated and very narrow appearance. Its partner, however, looks very different indeed, appearing face-on and giving us a fantastic view of its barred swirling arms.

While similar arms may not be visible in this image of NGC 3501, this galaxy is also a spiral — although it is somewhat different from its companion. While NGC 3507 has bars cutting through its centre, NGC 3501 does not. Instead, its loosely wound spiral arms all originate from its centre. The bright gas and stars that make up these arms can be seen here glowing brightly, mottled by the dark dust lanes that trace across the galaxy.

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


14 July 2014

The oldest cluster in its cloud

This image shows NGC 121, a globular cluster in the constellation of Tucana (The Toucan). Globular clusters are big balls of old stars that orbit the centres of their galaxies like satellites — the Milky Way, for example, has around 150.

NGC 121 belongs to one of our neighbouring galaxies, the Small Magellanic Cloud (SMC). It was discovered in 1835 by English astronomer John Herschel, and in recent years it has been studied in detail by astronomers wishing to learn more about how stars form and evolve.

Stars do not live forever — they develop differently depending on their original mass. In many clusters, all the stars seem to have formed at the same time, although in others we see distinct populations of stars that are different ages. By studying old stellar populations in globular clusters, astronomers can effectively use them as tracers for the stellar population of their host galaxies. With an object like NGC 121, which lies close to the Milky Way, Hubble is able to resolve individual stars and get a very detailed insight.

NGC 121 is around 10 billion years old, making it the oldest cluster in its galaxy; all of the SMC's other globular clusters are 8 billion years old or younger. However, NGC 121 is still several billions of years younger than its counterparts in the Milky Way and in other nearby galaxies like the Large Magellanic Cloud. The reason for this age gap is not completely clear, but it could indicate that cluster formation was initially delayed for some reason in the SMC, or that NGC 121 is the sole survivor of an older group of star clusters.

This image was taken using Hubble’s Advanced Camera for Surveys (ACS). A version of this image was submitted to the Hubble’s Hidden Treasures image processing competition by contestant Stefano Campani.


7 July 2014

A galaxy with a glowing heart

This view, captured by the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope, shows a nearby spiral galaxy known as NGC 1433. At about 32 million light-years from Earth, it is a type of very active galaxy known as a Seyfert galaxy — a classification that accounts for 10% of all galaxies. They have very bright, luminous centres comparable to that of our galaxy, the Milky Way.

Galaxy cores are of great interest to astronomers. The centres of most, if not all, galaxies are thought to contain a supermassive black hole, surrounded by a disc of infalling material.

NGC 1433 is being studied as part of a survey of 50 nearby galaxies known as the Legacy ExtraGalactic UV Survey (LEGUS). Ultraviolet radiation is observed from galaxies, mainly tracing the most recently formed stars. In Seyfert galaxies, ultraviolet light is also thought to emanate from the accretion discs around their central black holes. Studying these galaxies in the ultraviolet part of the spectrum is incredibly useful to study how the gas is behaving near the black hole. This image was obtained using a mix of ultraviolet, visible, and infrared light.

LEGUS will study a full range of properties from a sample of galaxies, including their internal structure. This Hubble survey will provide a unique foundation for future observations with the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) and the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA). ALMA has already caught unexpected results relating to the centre of NGC 1433, finding a surprising spiral structure in the molecular gas close to the centre of NGC 1433. The astronomers also found a jet of material flowing away from the black hole, extending for only 150 light-years — the smallest such molecular outflow ever observed in a galaxy beyond our own.

Links


30 June 2014

A fossil in the making

Discovered by astronomer William Herschel in the late 1700s, NGC 201 is a barred spiral galaxy similar to our own galaxy, the Milky Way. It lies 200 million light-years from Earth in the constellation of Cetus (The Sea Monster), and is invisible to the naked eye.

This new NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope image of NGC 201 shows the galaxy in striking detail, capturing the bright centre and the barred spiral arms — arms that do not start directly from the galactic centre, but instead seem to be offset and stem from a "bar" of stars cutting through the middle of the galaxy.

Along with three of its closest galactic neighbours (outside the frame), NGC 201 belongs to a group known as the HCG 7 compact galactic group. Hickson Compact Groups (HCG) are relatively small and isolated systems containing a handful of bright, compact galaxies that lie close to one another. As the galaxies within these groups move closer together they interact strongly, dragging galactic material out into space and distorting the structure of the other group members.

Eventually, all the galaxies within one HCG will merge together. Simulations have shown that within a billion years, the galaxies within one HCG have merged to form a giant fossil galaxy. It is possible that this is the final fate of all galactic groups.

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


23 June 2014

A curious supernova in NGC 2441

This bright spiral galaxy is known as NGC 2441, located in the northern constellation of Camelopardalis (The Giraffe). However, NGC 2441 is not the only subject of this new Hubble image; the galaxy contains an intriguing supernova named SN1995E, visible as a small dot at the approximate centre of this image. For a labelled view, see potw1425b.

Supernova SN1995E, discovered in 1995 as its name suggests is a type Ia supernova. This kind of supernova is found in binary systems, where one star — a white dwarf — drags matter from its orbiting companion until it becomes unstable and explodes violently. White dwarf stars all become unbalanced once they reach the same mass, meaning that they all form supernovae with the same intrinsic brightness. Because of this, they are used as standard candles to measure distances in the Universe.

But SN1995E may be useful in another way. More recent observations of this supernova have suggested that it may display a phenomenon known as a light echo, where light is scattered and deflected by dust along our line of sight, making it appear to “echo” outwards from the source. In 2006, Hubble observed SN1995E to be fading in a way that suggested its light was being scattered by a surrounding spherical shell of dust. These echoes can be used to probe both the environments around cosmic objects like supernovae, and the characteristics of their progenitor stars. If SN1995E does indeed have a light echo, it would belong to a very elite club; only two other type Ia supernovae have been found to display light echoes (SN1991T and SN1998bu).

NGC 2441 was first seen by Wilhelm Tempel in 1882, a German astronomer with a keen eye for comets. In total, Tempel observed and documented some 21 comets, several of which were named after him.

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

Link:


16 June 2014

A dwarf galaxy ravaged by grand design

The subject of this new Hubble image is NGC 5474, a dwarf galaxy located 21 million light-years away in the constellation of Ursa Major (The Great Bear). This beautiful image was taken with Hubble's Advanced Camera for Surveys (ACS).

The term "dwarf galaxy" may sound diminutive, but don't let that fool you — NGC 5474 contains several billion stars! However, when compared to the Milky Way with its hundreds of billions of stars, NGC 5474 does indeed seem relatively small.

NGC 5474 itself is part of the Messier 101 Group. The brightest galaxy within this group is the well-known spiral Pinwheel Galaxy (also known as Messier 101, heic0602). This galaxy's prominent, well-defined arms classify it as a "grand design galaxy", along with other spirals Messier 81 (heic0710) and Messier 74 (heic0719).

Also within this group are Messier 101's galactic neighbours. It is possible that gravitational interactions with these companion galaxies have had some influence on providing Messier 101 with its striking shape. Similar interactions with Messier 101 may have caused the distortions visible in NGC 5474.

Both the Messier 101 Group and our own Local Group reside within the Virgo Supercluster, making NGC 5474 something of a neighbour in galactic terms.


9 June 2014

Golden rings of star formation

Taking centre stage in this new NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope image is a galaxy known as NGC 3081, set against an assortment of glittering galaxies in the distance. Located in the constellation of Hydra (The Sea Serpent), NGC 3081 is located over 86 million light-years from us. It is known as a type II Seyfert galaxy, characterised by its dazzling nucleus.

NGC 3081 is seen here nearly face-on. Compared to other spiral galaxies, it looks a little different. The galaxy's barred spiral centre is surrounded by a bright loop known as a resonance ring. This ring is full of bright clusters and bursts of new star formation, and frames the supermassive black hole thought to be lurking within NGC 3081 — which glows brightly as it hungrily gobbles up infalling material.

These rings form in particular locations known as resonances, where gravitational effects throughout a galaxy cause gas to pile up and accumulate in certain positions. These can be caused by the presence of a "bar" within the galaxy, as with NGC 3081, or by interactions with other nearby objects. It is not unusual for rings like this to be seen in barred galaxies, as the bars are very effective at gathering gas into these resonance regions, causing pile-ups which lead to active and very well-organised star formation.

Hubble snapped this magnificent face-on image of the galaxy using the Wide Field Planetary Camera 2. This image is made up of a combination of ultraviolet, optical, and infrared observations, allowing distinctive features of the galaxy to be observed across a wide range of wavelengths.

Notes

A paper based on these observations was published in The Astronomical Journal in 2004, entitled "A Hubble Space Telescope Study of Star Formation in the Inner Resonance Ring of NGC 3081" by Ronald J. Buta, Gene G. Byrd, and Tarsh Freeman.


2 June 2014

Grand swirls

This new Hubble image shows NGC 1566, a beautiful galaxy located approximately 40 million light-years away in the constellation of Dorado (The Dolphinfish). NGC 1566 is an intermediate spiral galaxy, meaning that while it does not have a well defined bar-shaped region of stars at its centre — like barred spirals — it is not quite an unbarred spiral either (heic9902o).

The small but extremely bright nucleus of NGC 1566 is clearly visible in this image, a telltale sign of its membership of the Seyfert class of galaxies. The centres of such galaxies are very active and luminous, emitting strong bursts of radiation and potentially harbouring supermassive black holes that are many millions of times the mass of the Sun.

NGC 1566 is not just any Seyfert galaxy; it is the second brightest Seyfert galaxy known. It is also the brightest and most dominant member of the Dorado Group, a loose concentration of galaxies that together comprise one of the richest galaxy groups of the southern hemisphere. This image highlights the beauty and awe-inspiring nature of this unique galaxy group, with NGC 1566 glittering and glowing, its bright nucleus framed by swirling and symmetrical lavender arms.

This image was taken by Hubble’s Wide Field Camera 3 (WFC3) in the near-infrared part of the spectrum. A version of the image was entered into the Hubble’s Hidden Treasures image processing competition by Flickr user Det58.


26 May 2014

Violent birth announcement from an infant star

This new Hubble image shows IRAS 14568-6304, a young star that is cloaked in a haze of golden gas and dust. It appears to be embedded within an intriguing swoosh of dark sky, which curves through the image and obscures the sky behind.

This dark region is known as the Circinus molecular cloud. This cloud has a mass around 250 000 times that of the Sun, and it is filled with gas, dust and young stars. Within this cloud lie two prominent and enormous regions known colloquially to astronomers as Circinus-West and Circinus-East. Each of these clumps has a mass of around 5000 times that of the Sun, making them the most prominent star-forming sites in the Circinus cloud. The clumps are associated with a number of young stellar objects, and IRAS 14568-6304, featured here under a blurry fog of gas within Circinus-West, is one of them.

IRAS 14568-6304 is special because it is driving a protostellar jet, which appears here as the "tail" below the star. This jet is the leftover gas and dust that the star took from its parent cloud in order to form. While most of this material forms the star and its accretion disc — the disc of material surrounding the star, which may one day form planets — at some point in the formation process the star began to eject some of the material at supersonic speeds through space. This phenomenon is not only beautiful, but can also provide us with valuable clues about the process of star formation.

IRAS 14568-6304 is one of several outflow sources in the Circinus-West clump. Together, these sources make up one of the brightest, most massive, and most energetic outflows ever reported. Scientists have even suggested calling Circinus-West the "nest of molecular outflows" in tribute to this activity.

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


19 May 2014

Hubble sees a flickering light display on Saturn

Astronomers using the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope have captured new images of the dancing auroral lights at Saturn’s north pole. Taken from Hubble’s perspective in orbit around the Earth, these images provide a detailed look at Saturn’s stormy aurorae — revealing previously unseen dynamics in the choreography of the auroral glow.

The cause of the changing patterns in Saturn's aurorae is an ongoing mystery in planetary science. These ultraviolet images, taken by Hubble’s super-sensitive Advanced Camera for Surveys, add new insight by capturing moments when Saturn’s magnetic field is affected by bursts of particles streaming out from the Sun.

Saturn has a long, comet-like magnetic tail known as a magnetotail — as do Mercury, Jupiter, Uranus, Neptune and Earth [1]. This magnetotail is present around planets that have a magnetic field, caused by a rotating core of magnetic elements. It appears that when bursts of particles from the Sun hit Saturn, the planet’s magnetotail collapses and later reconfigures itself, an event that is reflected in the dynamics of its aurorae.

Some of the bursts of light seen shooting around Saturn’s polar regions travelled at over three times faster than the speed of the gas giant’s rotation!

The new images also formed part of a joint observing campaign between Hubble and NASA's Cassini spacecraft, which is currently in orbit around Saturn itself. Between them, the two spacecraft managed to capture a 360-degree view of the planet’s aurorae at both the north and south poles. Cassini also used optical imaging to delve into the rainbow of colours seen in Saturn’s light shows. On Earth, we see green curtains of light with flaming scarlet tops. Cassini’s imaging cameras reveal similar auroral veils on Saturn, that are red at the bottom and violet at the top.

Notes

[1] A magnetosphere is the area of space around an astronomical object in which charged particles are controlled by that object’s magnetic field. The magnetosphere is compressed on the side of the sun, and on the other side it extends far beyond the object. It is this extended region of the magnetosphere that is known as the magnetotail.  


12 May 2014

Starbursts in the wake of a fleeting romance

This image shows galaxy NGC 4485 in the constellation of Canes Venatici (The Hunting Dogs). The galaxy is irregular in shape, but it hasn’t always been so. Part of NGC 4485 has been dragged towards a second galaxy, named NGC 4490 — which lies out of frame to the bottom right of this image.

Between them, these two galaxies make up a galaxy pair called Arp 269. Their interactions have warped them both, turning them from spiral galaxies into irregular ones. NGC 4485 is the smaller galaxy in this pair, which provides a fantastic real-world example for astronomers to compare to their computer models of galactic collisions. The most intense interaction between these two galaxies is all but over; they have made their closest approach and are now separating. The trail of bright stars and knotty orange clumps that we see here extending out from NGC 4485 is all that connects them — a trail that spans some 24 000 light-years.

Many of the stars in this connecting trail could never have existed without the galaxies’ fleeting romance. When galaxies interact hydrogen gas is shared between them, triggering intense bursts of star formation. The orange knots of light in this image are examples of such regions, clouded with gas and dust.

A version of this image was entered into the Hubble’s Hidden Treasures image processing competition by contestant Kathy van Pelt, and won sixth prize in the “basic image searching” category.


5 May 2014

The scale of the Universe

This bundle of bright stars and dark dust is a dwarf spiral galaxy known as NGC 4605, located around 16 million light-years away in the constellation of Ursa Major (The Great Bear). This galaxy’s spiral structure is not obvious from this image, but NGC 4605 is classified as an SBc type galaxy — meaning that it has sprawling, loosely wound arms and a bright bar of stars cutting through its centre.

NGC 4605 is a member of the Messier 81 group of galaxies, a gathering of bright galaxies including its namesake Messier 81 (heic0710), and the well-known Messier 82 (heic0604a). Galaxy groups like this usually contain around 50 galaxies, all loosely bound together by gravity. This group is famous for its unusual members, many of which formed from collisions between galaxies. With its somewhat unusual form, NGC 4605 fits in well with the family of perturbed galaxies in the M81 group, although the origin of its abnormal features is not yet clear.

The Messier 81 group is one of the nearest groups to our own, the Local Group, which houses the Milky Way and some of its well-known neighbours, including the Andromeda Galaxy and the Magellanic Clouds. Galaxy groups provide environments where galaxies can evolve through interactions like collisions and mergers. These galaxy groups are then lumped together into even larger gatherings of galaxies known as clusters and superclusters. The Local and Messier 81 groups both belong to the Virgo Supercluster, a large and massive collection of some 100 galaxy groups and clusters.

With so many galaxies swarming around, NGC 4605 may seem unremarkable. However, astronomers are using this galaxy to test our knowledge of stellar evolution. The newly-formed stars in NGC 4605 are being used to investigate how interactions between galaxies affect the formation, evolution, and behaviour of the stars within, how bright stellar nurseries come together to form stellar clusters and stellar associations, and how these stars evolve over time.

And that's not all — NGC 4605 is also proving to be a good testing ground for dark matter. Our theories on this hypothetical type of matter have had good success at describing how the Universe looks and behaves on a large scale — for example at the galaxy supercluster level — but when looking at individual galaxies, they have run into problems. Observations of NGC 4605 show that the way in which dark matter is spread throughout its halo is not quite as these models predict. While intriguing, observations in this area are still inconclusive, leaving astronomers to ponder over the contents of the Universe.


28 April 2014

A hungry starburst galaxy

This new Hubble picture is the sharpest ever image of the core of spiral galaxy Messier 61 and the central part of the galaxy is shown in striking detail. The image is comprised of 2003 and 2004 data from the now decommissioned High Resolution Channel (HRC) of Hubble's Advanced Camera for Surveys.

Also known as NGC 4303, this galaxy is roughly 100 000 light-years across, comparable in size to our galaxy, the Milky Way. Both Messier 61 and our home galaxy belong to a group of galaxies known as the Virgo Supercluster in the constellation of Virgo (The Virgin) — a group of galaxy clusters containing up to 2000 spiral and elliptical galaxies in total.

Messier 61 is a type of galaxy known as a starburst galaxy. Starburst galaxies experience an incredibly high rate of star formation, hungrily using up their reservoir of gas in a very short period of time (in astronomical terms). But this is not the only activity going on within the galaxy; deep at its heart there is thought to be a supermassive black hole that is violently spewing out radiation.

Despite its inclusion in the Messier Catalogue, Messier 61 was actually discovered by Italian astronomer Barnabus Oriani in 1779. Charles Messier also noticed this galaxy on the very same day as Oriani, but mistook it for a passing comet — the comet of 1779.

A version of this image was submitted to the Hubble’s Hidden Treasures image processing competition by Flickr user Det58.


21 April 2014

Cosmic fairy lights

This sparkling jumble is Messier 5 — a globular cluster consisting of hundreds of thousands of stars bound together by their collective gravity.

But Messier 5 is no normal globular cluster. At 13 billion years old it is incredibly old, dating back to close to the beginning of the Universe, which is some 13.8 billion years of age. It is also one of the biggest clusters known, and at only 24 500 light-years away, it is no wonder that Messier 5 is a popular site for astronomers to train their telescopes on.

Messier 5 also presents a puzzle. Stars in globular clusters grow old and wise together. So Messier 5 should, by now, consist of old, low-mass red giants and other ancient stars. But it is actually teeming with young blue stars known as blue stragglers. These incongruous stars spring to life when stars collide, or rip material from one another.


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