Picture of the Week

Also see our pictures of the week on eso.org.
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.

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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.


20 September 2010

A star Makes a billowy exit

The NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope snapped this striking image of an aging star whose outer layers of gas have blown off into space. These gases glow in the fierce ultraviolet glare from the hot, small remnant of the star at the cloud's centre.

This object, which is designated NGC 6741, also known as the Phantom Streak Nebula, is located about 7000 light-years away in the constellation of Aquila (the Eagle). NGC 6741 is classed as a planetary nebula, though no planets are responsible for this billowy cloud; the term came about in the 18th century because the round gas shells resembled the Solar System's outer giant planets in astronomers' telescopes. Although fairly bright, this object appears very small though a typical telescope and was missed by early surveyors of the skies and only spotted in 1882 by Edward Charles Pickering.

Stars with sizes that are somewhat smaller than our Sun to several times its mass often become planetary nebulae. This brief, late-in-life phase is entered after stars have ballooned into red giants. The still-energetic cores of these swollen stars cast off their own outer gaseous layers and the expanding bubble of material is set aglow by the central star's intense ultraviolet light. The newly formed planetary nebula then shines for perhaps 10 000 years before the material drifts away and leaves the progenitor star to very slowly cool and fade.

Planetary nebulae are short-lived and come in a wide assortment of shapes and sizes. Only about a fifth are spherical, and others can look like rings, discs, tubes or be entirely without symmetry, owing to distortions introduced by magnetic fields, binary central stars and as-yet unexplained phenomena. NGC 6741 does contain a second star and is thought to be well along in its period as a planetary nebula, and has assumed more of a rectangular shape, rather like a luminous pillow.

This picture was created from images taken with Hubble's Wide Field Planetary Camera 2. The red light was captured through a filter that isolated the red glow from hydrogen (F658N), light through a yellow filter was coloured green (F555W), and the blue was a combination of the green and the glow of oxygen (F555W and F502N). The exposure times were ten minutes (F658N), two minutes (F555W) and ten minutes (F502W). The field of view spans just 24 arcseconds.


13 September 2010

Bright star — faint galaxy

Astronomers are used to encountering challenges in their work, but studying the prosaically-named galaxy PGC 39058 proves more difficult than usual. Due to a stroke of bad luck, a bright star happens to lie between the galaxy and the Earth, meaning our view is partly obscured by the glare of the star. The astounding image from the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope shows the nearby star easily outshining the more distant galaxy PGC 39058. The galaxy is about 14 million light-years away and contains millions of stars — many of them not unlike the bright star in the foreground.

The bright foreground star seems to shine with incredible intensity due to the power of Hubble. Most Earth-bound observers would however consider the star to be quite faint. At magnitude 6.7, binoculars or a small telescope are needed to see it at all. That the image manages to capture both objects serves to further highlight Hubble’s excellent optics and sharp vision.

PGC 39058 is a dwarf galaxy, which explains its faintness despite its modest distance by galaxy standards. The sharp Hubble image easily resolves it completely into its component stars and also reveals many much more distant galaxies in the background.

This star and galaxy pair is located within the constellation of Draco (the Dragon). It is visible in the northern hemisphere, appearing to slither over a large portion of the sky around the north celestial pole. The ancient Greeks claimed that Draco represented Ladon, the dragon with 100 heads. One of Hercules' twelve near-impossible tasks was to steal golden apples guarded by Ladon. The difficulty of this challenge is perhaps on a par with observing such a faint galaxy obscured by a bright star.

This picture was created from images taken using the Wide Field Channel of Hubble’s Advanced Camera for Surveys. Images through yellow (F606W, shown as blue) and near infrared (F814W, shown as red) were combined. The exposure times were 20 minutes and 15 minutes respectively and the field of view is 2 × 1.6 arcminutes.


6 September 2010

An extraordinary celestial spiral

This remarkable picture from the Advanced Camera for Surveys on the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope shows one of the most perfect geometrical forms created in space. It captures the formation of an unusual pre-planetary nebula, known as IRAS 23166+1655, around the star LL Pegasi (also known as AFGL 3068) in the constellation of Pegasus (the Winged Horse).

The striking picture shows what appears to be a thin spiral pattern of astonishingly regularity winding around the star, which is itself hidden behind thick dust. The spiral pattern suggests a regular periodic origin for the nebula’s shape. The material forming the spiral is moving outwards a speed of about 50 000 km/hour and, by combining this speed with the distance between layers, astronomers calculate that the shells are each separated by about 800 years.

The spiral is thought to arise because LL Pegasi is a binary system, with the star that is losing material and a companion star orbiting each other. The spacing between layers in the spiral is expected to directly reflect the orbital period of the binary, which is indeed estimated to be also about 800 years.

The creation and shaping of planetary nebulae is an exciting area of stellar evolution. Stars with masses from about half that of the Sun up to about eight times that of the Sun do not explode as supernovae at the ends of their lives. Instead a more regal end awaits them as their outer layers of gas are shed and drift into space, creating striking and intricate structures that to Earth-bound observers often look like dramatic watercolour paintings. IRAS 23166+1655 is just starting this process and the central star has yet to emerge from the cocoon of enveloping dust.

This picture was created from images from the Wide Field Channel of the Advanced Camera for Surveys on Hubble. Images through a yellow filter (F606W, coloured blue) were combined with images through a near-infra red filter (F804W, coloured red). The exposure times were 11 minutes and 22 minutes respectively and the field of view spans about 80 arcseconds.

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30 August 2010

Young stars biting the cloud that feeds them

A billowing cloud of hydrogen in the Triangulum galaxy (Messier 33), about 2.7 million light-years away from Earth, glows with the energy released by hundreds of young, bright stars. This NASA/ESA Hubble Spare Telescope image provides the sharpest view of NGC 604 so far obtained.

Some 1500 light-years across, this is one of the largest, brightest concentrations of ionised hydrogen (H II) in our local group of galaxies, and is a major centre of star formation.

The gas in NGC 604, around nine tenths of it hydrogen, is gradually collapsing under the force of gravity to create new stars. Once these stars have formed, the vigorous ultraviolet radiation they emit excites the remaining gas in the cloud, making it glow a distinct shade of red. This colour is typical not only of NGC 604 but of other H II regions too. Although it is part of Messier 33 this object is so bright and prominent that it was given its own NGC number.

The fierce ultraviolet radiation released by the stars that give these hydrogen clouds their distinctive glow is also the cause of their uneven appearance and eventual disappearance. The radiation and winds blowing from the surface of these stars gradually erode the cloud they formed from, causing the gases to slowly disperse. The complex structure of NGC 604, with irregular bubbles and wispy filament-like structures alongside denser, redder areas is due to the same forces that will eventually make the cloud disappear. The blister-like cavities show areas of stronger erosion of the cloud. While these areas appear dark in this photograph, they shine brightly at X-ray wavelengths.

This image was created from images taken using the High Resolution Channel of Hubble's Advanced Camera for Surveys. It is a composite of images taken through a total of seven different filters spanning a huge range of wavelengths — from 220 nm in the ultraviolet all the way up to the near infrared at one micron. The field of view is about 31 by 22 arcseconds.


23 August 2010

Messier 71: an unusual globular cluster

This spectacular NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope image shows a bright scattering of stars in the small constellation of Sagitta (the Arrow). This is the centre of the globular cluster Messier 71, a great ball of ancient stars on the edge of our galaxy around 13 000 light-years from Earth. M71 is around 27 light-years across.

Globular clusters are like galactic suburbs, pockets of stars that exist on the edge of major galaxies. These clusters are tightly bound together by their gravitational attraction, hence their spherical shape and their name: globulus means “little sphere” in Latin.

Around 150 such globular clusters are known to exist around our Milky Way, each one of them containing several hundred thousand stars.

Messier 71 has been known for a long time, having been first spotted in the mid eighteenth century by Swiss astronomer Jean-Philippe de Cheseaux. Cheseaux discovered a number of nebulae in his career, and also spent much time studying religion: one posthumously published work attempted to derive the exact date of Christ’s crucifixion from astronomical events noted in the Bible.

Despite being a familiar object, Messier 71’s precise nature was disputed until recently. Was it simply an open cluster, a loosely bound group of stars? This was for many years the dominant view. But in the 1970s, astronomers came to the view that it is in fact a relatively sparse globular cluster.

The stars in Messier 71, as is usual in such clusters, are relatively old, at around 9 to 10 billion years, and consequently are low in elements other than hydrogen and helium.

This picture was created from images taken with the Wide Field Channel of the Advanced Camera for Surveys on Hubble. It is a combination of images taken through yellow (F606W — coloured blue) and near-infrared (F814W — coloured red) filters. The exposure times were 304 s and 324 s respectively. The field of view is about 3.4 arcminutes across.


16 August 2010

A snowstorm of distant galaxies

At first glance, the scatter of pale dots on this NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope image looks like a snowstorm in the night sky. But almost every one of these delicate snowflakes is a distant galaxy in the cluster MACS J0717.5+3745 and each is home to billions of stars. This apparently placid scene also hides a storm of epic scale. This picture shows a region where three galaxy clusters are merging and releasing enormous amounts of energy in the form of X-rays. These distant objects are around 5.4 billion light-years from Earth, and were imaged during the Massive Cluster Survey, a project to study distant clusters of galaxies using Hubble.

The amount of mass in this sea of galaxies is huge, and is great enough to visibly bend the fabric of spacetime. The strange distortion in the shapes of many of the galaxies in this picture, which appear stretched and bent as if they were looked at through a glass bottle, is a result of gravitational lensing, where the gravitational fields around massive objects bend light around them.

Predicted by Einstein in his famous general theory of relativity, gravity’s ability to distort light was first demonstrated in 1919 in a well-known experiment carried out by Sir Arthur Eddington, who led an expedition to the island of Principe, off the coast of Africa, to measure the apparent shift of a star when observed close to the edge of the Sun’s disc during a solar eclipse.

This picture was created from images taken through near-infrared (F814W) and yellow (F555W) filters using the Wide Field Channel of Hubble’s Advanced Camera for Surveys. The exposure times were about 67 minutes and 33 minutes respectively and the field of view of the image is about 3 arcminutes across.

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