Picture of the Week

Also see our pictures of the week on eso.org.
7 February 2011

Fiery young stars wreak havoc in stellar nursery

The NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope has imaged a violent stellar nursery called NGC 2174, in which stars are born in a first-come-first-served feeding frenzy for survival.

The problem is that star formation is a very inefficient process; most of the ingredients to make stars are wasted as the cloud of gas and dust, or nebula, gradually disperses. In NGC 2174, the rate at which the nebula disperses is further speeded up by the presence of hot young stars, which create high velocity winds that blow the gas outwards.

These fiery youngsters also bombard the surrounding gas with intense radiation, making it glow brightly, creating the brilliant scene captured here. The nebula is mostly composed of hydrogen gas, which is ionised by the ultraviolet radiation emitted by the hot stars, leading to the nebula’s alternative title as an HII region. This picture shows only part of the nebula, where dark dust clouds are strikingly silhouetted against the glowing gas.

NGC 2174 lies about 6400 light-years away in the constellation of Orion (The Hunter). It is not part of the much more familiar Orion Nebula, which lies much closer to us. Despite its prime position in a very familiar constellation this nebula is faint and had to wait until 1877 for its discovery by the French astronomer Jean Marie Edouard Stephan using an 80 cm reflecting telescope at the Observatoire de Marseille.

This picture was created from images from the Wide Field Planetary Camera 2 on Hubble. Images through four different filters were combined to make the view shown here. Images through a filter isolating the glow from ionised oxygen (F502N) were coloured blue and images through a filter showing glowing hydrogen (F656N) are green. Glowing ionised sulphur (F673N) and the view through a near-infrared filter (F814W) are both coloured red. The total exposure times per filter were 2600 s, 2600 s, 2600 s and 1000 s  respectively and the field of view is about 1.8 arcminutes across.


31 January 2011

The star city that never sleeps

Hubble's Advanced Camera for Surveys has captured this moment in the ever-changing life of a spiral galaxy called IC 391. Although these massive star cities appear static and unchanging, their stellar inhabitants are constantly moving and evolving, with new stars being born and old stars reaching the ends of their lives —often in spectacular fashion, with an immense supernova explosion that can be viewed from Earth.

On 3 January 2001, members of the Beijing Astronomical Observatory discovered such an explosion within IC 391 and it was named SN 2001B. This was a Type Ib supernova, which occurs when a massive star runs out of fuel for nuclear fusion and collapses, emitting vast amounts of radiation and creating a powerful shock wave. Hubble has contributed much to our understanding of supernovae in recent years, and it has made an extensive study of supernova 1987A (heic0704), the brightest such stellar explosion to be seen from Earth in over 400 years.

IC 391 lies about 80 million light-years away in the constellation of Camelopardalis (the Giraffe) in the far northern part of the sky. The British amateur observer William Denning discovered it in the late nineteenth century, and described it as faint, small and round.

This picture was assembled from images taken with Hubble’s Wide Field Channel on the Advanced Camera for Surveys. Images through a blue filter (F435W) were coloured blue, those through a green filter (F555W) are shown as green and those through a near-infrared filter (F814W) are shown in red. The exposure times were 800 s, 700 s and 700 s respectively and the field of view is 2.1 by 1.4 arcminutes.


24 January 2011

The secret of stellar youth

The NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope has captured a clear view of the unusual globular cluster Palomar 1, whose youthful beauty is a puzzle for astronomers. This faint and sparse object is very different from the more familiar brilliant and very rich globular clusters and had to wait until 1954 for its discovery by George Abell on photographs from the Palomar Schmidt telescope.

Globular clusters are tightly bound conglomerations of stars, which are found in the outer reaches of the Milky Way, in its so-called halo. They are amongst the oldest objects in a galaxy, containing very old stars and no gas, which means there is no possibility of newborn stars introducing some fresh blood into the cluster.

However, at 6.3 to 8 billion years old, Palomar 1 is a youngster in globular cluster terms — little more than half the age of most the other globulars in our Milky Way, which formed during our galaxy’s violent early history. However, astronomers suspect that globular youngsters, such as Palomar 1, formed in a more sedate manner. Possibly a gas cloud meandered around in the Milky Way’s halo until a trigger kick-started star formation. Another possibility is that the Milky Way captured the stellar group; perhaps it was adrift in the Universe before it was gravitationally attracted to our galaxy, or maybe it had a violent beginning after all and is the remnant of a dwarf galaxy that was devoured by the Milky Way.

Behind the sparsely populated Palomar 1 several background galaxies are seen and a few nearby bright foreground Milky Way stars are also visible. Together with Palomar 1 these objects make up an attractive “family portrait”.

This picture was created from images taken with the Wide Field Channel of the Advanced Camera for Surveys. Images through orange (F606W, coloured blue) and near-infrared (F814W, coloured red) filters were combined. The exposure times were 1965 s per filter and the field of view is 3.0 arcminutes across.


17 January 2011

Islands of stars in the river

The spiral galaxy NGC 1345 and its loose and ragged arms dominate this rich image from the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope. It is a member of the Eridanus Galaxy Cluster — a group of about 70 galaxies that lies 85 million light-years away in the constellation of Eridanus (the River). This region of the night sky is well populated with bright galaxies, with the Fornax Cluster of galaxies also nearby on the celestial sphere, although the two clusters are actually separated by about 20 million light-years. Collectively, they are known as the Fornax Supercluster or the Southern Supercluster.

John Herschel discovered NGC 1345 in 1835 from South Africa. He described it as small and very faint and it is still far from easy to see it even with quite a large amateur telescope, where it appears as a small, circular fuzz.

Apart from the main galaxy that dominates the picture, lots more distant galaxies of many shapes and sizes can be seen in this image, some shining right through the foreground galaxy. NGC 1345 itself features an elongated bar extending from the nucleus and spiral arms that emanate outwards, making it a barred spiral type. Classifying galaxy shapes is an important part of astronomical research as it tells us much about how the Universe has evolved. But computers aren’t really ideal for the task; people are much better at recognising shapes, which is why a citizen-science project called Galaxy Zoo: Hubble is asking members of the public to help sift through the vast archive of images and classify galaxies by type. If you would like to join the cause, there’s a link to the project below.

This picture was created from images taken with the Wide Field Channel of Hubble’s Advanced Camera for Surveys. Images taken through a blue filter (F435W) were coloured blue and images through a near-infrared filter (F814W) were coloured red. The exposure times were 17.5 minutes per filter in total and the field of view is 3.2 by 1.6 arcminutes.

Links


10 January 2011

Dying star cocooned within its own gases

Astronomers have used the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope to image the tiny planetary nebula NGC 6886. These celestial objects signal the final death throes of mid-sized stars (up to about eight times the mass of the Sun); when such a star exhausts its supply of hydrogen fuel, the outer layers begin to expand and cool, which creates an envelope of gas and dust that shrouds the dying star. However, the star doesn't go down without a fight, finding alternative ways to prevent it from collapsing under its own gravity and emerging as a white dwarf. In the process, the star's surface temperature increases and it is eventually hot enough to emit strong ultraviolet radiation and make the cocoon of gas glow as a stunning planetary nebula.

Stellar death isn't quick and painless: the planetary nebula stage typically lasts several tens of thousands of years. By studying the elements that are present in the nebula today, astronomers can determine the original chemical make-up of the star. Studies suggest that the star belonging to NGC 6886 may have originally been similar to the Sun, containing similar quantities of carbon, nitrogen and neon, although heavier elements, such as sulphur, were less plentiful.

Keen amateur astronomers with mid-level telescopes will find it a rewarding challenge to track down NGC 6886 in the small constellation of Sagitta. It is tiny, but not particularly faint: high magnification, a good chart, a dark site and averted vision are needed to spot this elusive celestial jewel.

This picture was created by combining images taken using the Wide Field Planetary Camera 2 on Hubble. Filters that let through emission from ionised nitrogen gas (F658N, coloured red), ionised oxygen (F502N, coloured blue) and a broadband yellow filter (F555W, coloured green, and also contributing to the blue) were used. The exposure times were 700 s, 600 s and 320 s respectively. The field of view is merely 30 arcseconds across.


3 January 2011

Stellar powerhouses in the Eagle Nebula

A spectacular section of the well-known Eagle Nebula has been targeted by the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope. This collection of dazzling stars is called NGC 6611, an open star cluster that formed about 5.5 million years ago and is found approximately 6500 light-years from the Earth. It is a very young cluster, containing many hot, blue stars, whose fierce ultraviolet glow make the surrounding Eagle Nebula glow brightly. The cluster and the associated nebula together are also known as Messier 16.

Astronomers refer to areas like the Eagle Nebula as HII regions. This is the scientific notation for ionised hydrogen from which the region is largely made. Extrapolating far into the future, this HII region will eventually disperse, helped along by shockwaves from supernova explosions as the more massive young stars end their brief but brilliant lives.

In this image, dark patches can also be spotted, punctuating the stellar landscape. These areas of apparent nothingness are actually very dense regions of gas and dust, which obstruct light from passing through. Many of these may be hiding the sites of the early stages of star formation, before the fledgling stars clear away their surroundings and burst into view. Dark nebulae, large and small, are dotted throughout the Universe. If you look up to the Milky Way with the naked eye from a dark, remote site, you can easily spot some huge dark nebulae blocking the background starlight.

This picture was created from images from Hubble’s Wide Field Channel of the Advanced Camera for Surveys through the unusual combination of two near-infrared filters (F775W, coloured blue, and F850LP, coloured red). The image has also been subtly colourised using a ground-based image taken through more conventional filters. The Hubble exposure times were 2000 s in both cases and the field of view is about 3.2 arcminutes across.


27 December 2010

Doing cartwheels to celebrate the end of an era

An image of the Cartwheel Galaxy taken with the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope has been reprocessed using the latest techniques to mark the closure of the Space Telescope European Coordination Facility (ST-ECF), based near Munich in Germany, and to celebrate its achievements in supporting Hubble science in Europe over the past 26 years.

Astronomer Bob Fosbury, who is stepping down as Head of the ST-ECF, was responsible for much of the early research into the Cartwheel Galaxy along with the late Tim Hawarden — including giving the object its very apposite name — and so this image was selected as a fitting tribute. The object was first spotted on wide-field images from the UK Schmidt telescope and then studied in detail using the Anglo-Australian Telescope.

Lying about 500 million light-years away in the constellation of Sculptor, the cartwheel shape of this galaxy is the result of a violent galactic collision. A smaller galaxy has passed right through a large disc galaxy and produced shock waves that swept up gas and dust — much like the ripples produced when a stone is dropped into a lake — and sparked regions of intense star formation (appearing blue). The outermost ring of the galaxy, which is 1.5 times the size of our Milky Way, marks the shock wave’s leading edge. This object is one of the most dramatic examples of the small class of ring galaxies.

This image was produced after Hubble data was reprocessed using the free open source software FITS Liberator 3, which was developed at the ST-ECF. Careful use of this widely used state-of-the-art tool on the original Hubble observations of the Cartwheel Galaxy has brought out more detail in the image than ever before.

Although the ST-ECF is closing, ESA’s mission to bring amazing Hubble discoveries to the public will be unaffected, with Hubblecasts, press and photo releases, and Hubble Pictures of the Week continuing to be regularly posted on spacetelescope.org.

Links


20 December 2010

Barred spiral bares all

The galaxy captured in this image, called UGC 12158, certainly isn’t camera-shy: this spiral stunner is posing face-on to the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope’s Advanced Camera for Surveys, revealing its structure in fine detail.

UGC 12158 is an excellent example of a barred spiral galaxy in the Hubble sequence — a scheme used to categorise galaxies based on their shapes. Barred spirals, as the name suggest, feature spectacular swirling arms of stars that emanate from a bar-shaped centre. Such bar structures are common, being found in about two thirds of spiral galaxies, and are thought to act as funnels, guiding gas to their galactic centres where it accumulates to form newborn stars. These aren’t permanent structures: astronomers think that they slowly disperse over time, so that the galaxies eventually evolve into regular spirals.

The appearance of a galaxy changes little over millions of years, but this image also contains a short-lived and brilliant interloper — the bright blue star just to the lower left of the centre of the galaxy is very different from the several foreground stars seen in the image. It is in fact a supernova inside UGC 12158 and much further away than the Milky Way stars in the field — at a distance of about 400 million light-years! This stellar explosion, called SN 2004ef, was first spotted by two British amateur astronomers in September 2004 and the Hubble data shown here form part of the follow-up observations.

This picture was created from images taken with the Wide Field Channel of Hubble’s Advanced Camera for Surveys. Images through blue (F475W, coloured blue), yellow (F606W, coloured green) and red (F814W, coloured red) as well as a filter that isolates the light from glowing hydrogen (F658W, also coloured red) have been included. The exposure times were 1160 s, 700 s, 700 s and 1200 s respectively. The field of view is about 2.3 arcminutes across.


13 December 2010

A dazzling planetary nebula

The NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope has turned its eagle eye to the planetary nebula NGC 6572, a very bright example of these strange but beautiful objects. Planetary nebulae are created during the late stages of the evolution of certain stars that eject gas into space and emit intense ultraviolet radiation that makes the material glow. This picture of NGC 6572 shows the intricate shapes that can develop as stars exhale their last breaths. Hubble has even imaged the central white dwarf star, the origin of the dazzling nebula, but now a faint, but hot, vestige of its former glory.

NGC 6572 only began to shed its gases a few thousand years ago, so it is a fairly young planetary nebula. As a result the material is still quite concentrated, which explains why it is abnormally bright. The envelope of gas is currently racing out into space at a speed of around 15 kilometres every second and as it becomes more diffuse, it will dim.

NGC 6572 was discovered in 1825 by the German astronomer Friedrich Georg Wilhelm von Struve, who came from a family of distinguished stargazers. The name planetary nebula is left over from the time when the telescopes of early astronomers were not good enough to reveal the true nature of these objects. To many, the discs looked like the outer planets Uranus and Neptune. The application of spectral analysis, later in the 19th century, first revealed that they were glowing gas clouds.

NGC 6572 is magnitude 8.1, easily bright enough to make it an appealing target for amateur astronomers with telescopes. It is located within the large constellation of Ophiuchus (the Serpent Bearer) and at low magnification it will appear to be just a coloured star, but higher magnification will reveal its shape. Some observers report that NGC 6572 looks blue, while others state that it is green. Colour as seen through the eyepiece is often a matter of interpretation, so you may make your own decision!

This picture was created from images taken with Hubble’s Wide Field Camera 2. Images through a blue filter that isolates the glow from hydrogen gas (Hβ, F487N, coloured dark blue), a green filter that isolates emission from ionised oxygen (F502N, coloured blue), a yellow broadband filter (F555W, coloured green) and a red filter that passes emission from hydrogen (Hα, F656N) have been combined. The exposure times were 360 s, 240 s, 100 s and 180 s, respectively and the field of view is just 29 arcseconds across.


6 December 2010

Hubble peers deeply into the Eagle Nebula

The star cluster is very bright and was discovered in the mid-eighteenth century. The nebula, however, is much more elusive and it took almost a further two decades for it to be first noted by Charles Messier in 1764. Although it is commonly known as the Eagle Nebula, its official designation is Messier 16 and the cluster is also named NGC 6611. One spectacular area of the nebula (outside the field of view) has been nicknamed “The Pillars of Creation” ever since the Hubble Space Telescope captured an iconic image of dramatic pillars of star-forming gas and dust.

The cluster and nebula are fascinating targets for small and medium-sized telescopes, particularly from a dark site free from light pollution. Messier 16 can be found within the constellation of Serpens Cauda (the Tail of the Serpent), which is sandwiched between Aquila, Sagittarius, and Ophiuchus in the heart of one of the brightest parts of the Milky Way. Small telescopes with low power are useful for observing large, but faint, swathes of the nebula, whereas 30 cm telescopes and larger may reveal the dark pillars under good conditions. But a space telescope in orbit around the Earth, like Hubble — which boasts a 2.4-metre diameter mirror and state-of-the-art instruments — is required for an image as spectacular as this one.

This picture was created from images taken with the Wide Field Channel of Hubble’s Advanced Camera for Surveys. Images through a near-infrared filter (F775W) are coloured red and images through a blue filter (F475W) are blue. The exposures times were one hour and 54 minutes respectively and the field of view is about 3.3 arcminutes across.


29 November 2010

At the edge of the abyss

Fresh starbirth infuses the galaxy NGC 6503 with a vital pink glow in this image from the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope. This galaxy, a smaller version of the Milky Way, is perched near a great void in space where few other galaxies reside.

This new image from Hubble’s Advanced Camera for Surveys displays, with particular clarity, the pink-coloured puffs marking where stars have recently formed in NGC 6503's swirling spiral arms. Although structurally similar to the Milky Way, the disc of NGC 6503 spans just 30 000 light-years, or just about a third of the size of the Milky Way, leading astronomers to classify NGC 6503 as a dwarf spiral galaxy.

NGC 6503 lies approximately 17 million light-years away in the constellation of Draco (the Dragon). The German astronomer Arthur Auwers discovered this galaxy in July 1854 in a region of space where few other luminous bodies have been found.

NGC 6503 sits at the edge of a giant, hollowed-out region of space called the Local Void. The Hercules and Coma galaxy clusters, as well as our own Local Group of galaxies, circumscribe this vast, sparsely populated region. Estimates for the void’s diameter vary from 30 million to more than 150 million light-years — so NGC 6503 does not have a lot of galactic company in its immediate vicinity.

The isolation of NGC 6503 inspired the stargazer Stephen James O'Meara to name it the Lost-In-Space Galaxy in his book Hidden Treasures.

This Hubble image was created from exposures taken with the Wide Field Channel of the Advanced Camera for Surveys. The filters were unusual, which explains the peculiar colour balance of this picture. The red colouration derives from a 28-minute exposure through a filter that just allows the emission from hydrogen gas (F658N) to pass and which reveals the glowing clouds of gas associated with star-forming regions. This was combined with a 12-minute exposure through a near-infrared filter (F814W), which was coloured blue for contrast. The field of view is 3.3 by 1.8 arcminutes.


22 November 2010

Galactic moths drawn to a bright light

Smaller, dimmer galaxies appear to flit like moths around a radiant street light in this image captured by the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope. The brilliant central object is a supergiant elliptical galaxy, the dominant member of a galaxy cluster with the mouthful of a name MACSJ1423.8+2404. This great swarm of galaxies is located about five billion light-years away in the constellation Boötes (the Herdsman). MACSJ1423.8+2404 and other distant galaxy clusters offer astronomers a peek into the earlier days of our Universe when these colossal groupings were still taking shape. Over the 13.7 billion-year history of the cosmos, such galaxy clusters have emerged as the largest observed gravitationally bound structures.

But there is much more than meets the eye when it comes to galaxy clusters — they also hint at the vast majority of the Universe’s substance that we have not yet directly detected. Astronomers study clusters such as MACSJ1423.8+2404 to better understand the influence of dark energy, a mysterious force credited with accelerating the expansion of the Universe and accounting for some 72 percent of the mass of the Universe.

The application of what we can see and detect to the study of what we cannot does not end there with MACSJ1423.8+2404 and its ilk. Dark matter, estimated to account for about 23 percent of the mass of the Universe, exists in great quantities in galaxy clusters. The “normal” matter that comprises stars, planets and us trickles in at less than 5 percent.

Astronomers observe clusters to study how this dark matter gravitationally gathers visible matter and underpins these vast cosmic metropolises. The galactic moths are drawn to the clusters not by their light, but by the vast unseen reservoir of dark matter.

This image was created from images taken using the Wide Field Channel of Hubble’s Advanced Camera for Surveys. The exposures were 75 and 76 minutes respectively, through yellow (F555W) and near-infrared (F814W) filters. The field of view is 3.2 arcminutes across.


15 November 2010

Hubble witnesses the crafting of a celestial masterpiece

The NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope has used its Advanced Camera for Surveys to peer closely at the strange cloud of gas and dust that envelops a star at a late stage in its life, a short-lived phenomenon known as a protoplanetary, or pre-planetary nebula. These fascinating celestial objects give astronomers an opportunity to watch the early stages of planetary nebula formation, as the gas and dust is moulded by high velocity winds — like watching a glassblower at work in his factory.

Despite their rather confusing names, these objects are unrelated to planets. The name arose because of the superficial visual similarity between planetary nebulae and the small discs of the outer planets in the Solar System when viewed through a telescope.

The protoplanetary nebula shown in this image is known as IRAS 20068+4051 and it is found in the constellation of Cygnus. The shell formed when its progenitor star exhausted its hydrogen fuel for nuclear fusion, causing the outer layers of the star to expand and cool, which created a spherical envelope of gas and dust around the star. The mechanism that drives high velocity winds to then shape this spherical envelope into the intricate structure that we see here is still unclear, which is why continued observation of protoplanetary nebulae is so important.

Meanwhile, as the central star continues to evolve, finding new ways to prevent itself from collapsing under its own gravity, it will eventually become hot enough to make the gas glow as a spectacular planetary nebula. These objects emit a broad spectrum of radiation, including visible light, making them great targets for both amateur and professional astronomers.

However, protoplanetary nebulae, which often appear smaller and are seen best in infrared light, are much trickier to observe, particularly since water vapour in the Earth’s atmosphere absorbs most infrared wavelengths. But Hubble has exceptionally sharp vision and an unobstructed vantage point in space, making it possible to capture stunning images of these peculiar objects.

This picture was created from images taken through yellow (F606W, coloured blue) and near-infrared (F814W, coloured red) filters using the High Resolution Channel of Hubble’s Advanced Camera for Surveys. The exposure times were 1280 s (F606W) and 200 s (F814W) and the field of view spans about 25 arcseconds.


8 November 2010

An extraordinarily slender galaxy

The NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope has imaged a striking galaxy called NGC 4452, which appears to lie exactly edge-on as seen from Earth. The result is an extraordinary picture of billions of stars observed from an unusual angle. The bright nucleus can be seen at the centre, along with the very thin disc that looks like a straight line from our unusual viewing position. To complete the picture, a hazy halo of stars on the periphery of the galaxy makes it seem to glow.

NGC 4452 was first seen by William Herschel in 1784 with his 47 cm telescope in England. He described the object as a bright nebula, small and very much elongated. The new Hubble image shows just how elongated this unusual object really is.

Galaxies are like star cities, and typically contain many billions of stars. The American astronomer Edwin Hubble, after whom the Hubble Space Telescope is named, was the first person to prove that there are other galaxies beyond our own by measuring their distances. This work, done in the 1920s, forever changed our view of the Universe.

Galaxies also belong to collections that are called galaxy clusters. NGC 4452 is part of the Virgo Cluster, so-called because many of its members appear in the constellation of Virgo (the Maiden). This enormous grouping is approximately 60 million light-years distant and contains around 2000 galaxies.

It is thought that the Local Group of galaxies, to which our own Milky Way belongs, is on the fringes of the Virgo Cluster, and at some point in the far future the Local Group may be pulled slowly into the Virgo Cluster by the force of gravity. Large numbers of much more remote, faint galaxies, far beyond NGC 4452 and the Virgo Cluster, appear in the background of this image.

This picture of NGC 4452 was created from images taken using the Wide Field Channel on Hubble’s Advanced Camera for Surveys. This picture was made from images through blue (F475W, coloured blue) and near-infrared (F850LP, coloured red) filters. The exposures times were 750 s and 1210 s respectively. The field of view extends over 2.6 arcminutes.


1 November 2010

A deceptively quiet galaxy

At first glance NGC 3077 looks like a typical, relatively peaceful elliptical galaxy. However, as this NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope image dramatically reveals it is actually a hotbed of very energetic star formation and the whole galaxy is laced with dusty tendrils. It lies about 13 million light-years from Earth.

NGC 3077 was first seen by William Herschel with his 47 cm telescope in England in 1801, when he was close to completing his sky surveys. It is located in the far northern sky in the constellation of Ursa Major (the Great Bear) and forms a triplet with two brighter nearby galaxies, the graceful spiral Messier 81 and the very peculiar and active starburst galaxy Messier 82.

Although overshadowed by its brighter neighbours, NGC 3077 is also very active and resembles a less dramatic version of Messier 82. Interactions between the three galaxies have stoked the fires of star formation in the core of the galaxy and the brilliant glow of many huge young star clusters at the centre of NGC 3077 dominates the Hubble image. If you look closely you can see vast numbers of individual stars in the galaxy across the entire image, as well as several, much more remote, galaxies seen through the much closer NGC 3077.

This picture was created from images taken using the Wide Field Channel on Hubble’s Advanced Camera for Surveys. It was made from images through blue (F475W, coloured blue), orange (F606W, coloured green) and near-infrared (F814W, coloured red) filters. The exposure times were about 27 minutes per filter. The field of view extends over about 3.3 arcminutes.


25 October 2010

A great ball of stars

The NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope has turned its sharp eye towards a tight collection of stars, first seen 174 years ago. The result is a sparkling image of NGC 1806, tens of thousands of stars gravitationally bound into a rich cluster. Commonly called globular clusters, most of these objects are very old, having formed in the distant past when the Universe was only a fraction of its current age. NGC 1806 lies within the Large Magellanic Cloud, a satellite galaxy of our own Milky Way. It can be observed within the constellation of Dorado (the dolphin-fish), an area of the sky best seen from the Earth’s southern hemisphere.

NGC 1806 was discovered in 1836 by the British astronomer John Herschel. He had travelled to South Africa in order to catalogue astronomical objects visible best from southern latitudes, and thereby complete work begun by his father William, the man who coined the term “globular cluster”. Using a large telescope John Herschel carefully scanned the night sky and noted objects of interest, of which NGC 1806 was one. In the same year that he documented NGC 1806 he was visited by the naturalist Charles Darwin after the HMS Beagle stopped over in Cape Town. Darwin later referred to John Herschel as “one of our greatest philosophers”.

The Wide Field Channel of Hubble's Advanced Camera for Surveys was used to obtain this picture that was created from images taken through blue (F435W, coloured blue), yellow (F555W, coloured green) and near-infrared (F814W, coloured red) filters. The exposure times were 770 s, 720 s and 688 s, respectively, and the field of view is  3.1 by 1.9 arcminutes. Surely Herschel, who made great contributions to the sciences of both astronomy and photography, would have been immensely impressed by this glittering Hubble picture


18 October 2010

An odd planetary nebula in Hercules

The NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope has taken a striking high resolution image of the curious planetary nebula NGC 6210. Located about 6500 light-years away, in the constellation of Hercules, NGC 6210 was discovered in 1825 by the German astronomer Friedrich Georg Wilhelm Struve. Although in a small telescope it appears only as a tiny disc, it is fairly bright.

NGC 6210 is the last gasp of a star slightly less massive than our Sun at the final stage of its life cycle. The multiple shells of material ejected by the dying star form a superposition of structures with different degrees of symmetry, giving NGC 6210 its odd shape. This sharp image shows the inner region of this planetary nebula in unprecedented detail, where the central star is surrounded by a thin, bluish bubble that reveals a delicate filamentary structure. This bubble is superposed onto an asymmetric, reddish gas formation where holes, filaments and pillars are clearly visible.

The life of a star ends when the fuel available to its thermonuclear engine runs out. The estimated lifetime for a Sun-like star is some ten billion years. When the star is about to expire, it becomes unstable and ejects its outer layers, forming a planetary nebula and leaving behind a tiny, but very hot, remnant, known as white dwarf. This compact object, here visible at the centre of the image, cools down and fades very slowly. Stellar evolution theory predicts that our Sun will experience the same fate as NGC 6210 in about five billion years.

This picture was created from images taken with Hubble’s Wide Field Planetary Camera 2 through three filters: the broadband filter F555W (yellow) and the narrowband filters F656N (ionised hydrogen), F658N (ionised nitrogen) and F502N (ionised oxygen). The exposure times were 80 s, 140 s, 800 s and 700 s respectively and the field of view is only about 28 arcseconds across.


11 October 2010

A cosmic whirlpool in Tucana

The beautiful spiral galaxy NGC 406 was discovered in 1834 by John Herschel and is here imaged in great detail by the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope.

Located some 65 million light-years away, in the southern constellation of Tucana (the Toucan), NGC 406 is about 60 000 light-years across, roughly half the diameter of our galaxy, the Milky Way. It is a spiral galaxy quite similar to the well known Whirlpool galaxy (Messier 51, see http://www.spacetelescope.org/images/opo0110a/). In a moderate-sized amateur telescope NGC 406 would appear as a faint hazy blob, like thousands of others across the sky, and none of the spectacular fine detail in the Hubble picture could be made out.

In this image the galaxy exhibits spiral arms that are mainly populated by young, massive, bluish stars and crossed by dark dust lanes. As is typically observed in this kind of spiral galaxy, the yellowish central bulge, dominated by an older stellar population, is less prominent and almost totally embedded in the disk structure.

The deep image also shows a significant number of more distant galaxies in the background. Some of them are visible as reddish fuzzy spots through the bluish spiral arms of the foreground galaxy.

This picture was created from images taken through near-infrared (F814W) and blue (F435W) filters, shown in red and blue respectively, using the Wide Field Channel of Hubble’s Advanced Camera for Surveys. The exposure times were twenty minutes per filter and the field of view is 2.7 by 1.6 arcminutes.


4 October 2010

Star formation fireworks in Orion

The keen eye of the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope has often peered deeply into the Orion Nebula to see the processes occurring there and revealed many dramatic tableaux of young stars hurling material into space and entire solar systems forming. This image shows the spectacular region around an object known as Herbig-Haro 502, a very small part of the vast stellar nursery.

The entire picture is filled with the rich colourful glow of the nebula and, just left of the centre, a star embedded in a pinkish glow can be also seen. This fascinating object is an example of a very young star surrounded by the cloud of gas from which it formed. This leftover material may accrete to form planets and eventually solar systems as intricate as our own. It is highly likely that the material that now forms our own planet Earth was part of a similar gaseous cocoon about five billion years ago. Such is the importance of these objects that much Hubble observing time has been dedicated to studying them.

In this image Herbig-Haro 502 shows up as a narrow pink jet extending away from the young star as well as curved bow shock features to the upper-right and lower-left. Herbig-Haro objects are striking areas of nebulosity near to recently formed stars. They are created when the very young stars eject gas at breakneck speeds of hundreds of kilometres per second, which impacts the surrounding gas and dust. These ephemeral shockwaves are thought to dissipate after a few thousand years; the blink of an eye in astronomical terms. They vary in size but are often much larger than our own Solar System.

At only around 1500 light-years distant, the Orion Nebula it is one of the closest areas of star formation to us. Understanding how stars form and evolve is an important area of astronomy, and one to which Hubble has greatly contributed. Images such as this are not only beautiful from an artistic perspective, but also help us understand more about how the Universe developed, and is continuing to change.

This image was taken with the Wide Field Channel of the Advanced Camera for Surveys on Hubble. This picture was created from images taken through filters that isolate the light from glowing hydrogen (F658N, coloured red), ionised oxygen (F502N, coloured green) and yellow light (F550W, coloured blue). The exposures times were 1000 s, 2000 s and 1000 s respectively. The field of view is about 3.3 arcminutes across.


27 September 2010

A Distant backwater of the Milky Way

This bright spray of stars in the small but evocative constellation of Delphinus (the Dolphin) is the globular cluster NGC 6934. Globular clusters are large balls of (typically) a few hundred thousand ancient stars that exist on the edges of galaxies.

Lying 50 000 light-years from Earth, in the outer reaches of our Milky Way galaxy, NGC 6934 is home to some of the most distant stars still to be part of our galactic system — in a sense, it is a far-flung suburb to the Milky Way’s city centre.

NGC 6934 was first seen by William Herschel in the late eighteenth century. He classified it as a “bright nebula” and was not able to resolve it into stars. The cluster is not bright enough to see with the naked eye, and even in ideal conditions it is very difficult to view with binoculars. However, it is a popular target for amateur astronomers as it can easily be observed using relatively inexpensive telescopes. Broadcaster Patrick Moore, presenter of BBC TV’s The Sky at Night for more than 50 years, included this cluster in his “Caldwell catalogue” of celestial objects that amateur astronomers should look out for.

NGC 6934’s faintness is down to its distance — not how bright it really is. With its many thousands of stars, the cluster is no minnow. The fact that the huge core of our galaxy dwarfs it, along with the other 150 or so globular clusters that orbit the Milky Way’s galactic centre, is a reminder of the breathtaking scale of the cosmos.

This picture was taken with the Wide Field Channel of the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope’s Advanced Camera for Surveys. It was created from images taken through filters F814W (near infrared) and F606W (orange), coloured red and blue respectively. The exposure times were 29 minutes per filter, and the field of view is 3.3 arcminutes across.


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