Picture of the Week

Also see our pictures of the week on eso.org.
12 July 2010

A dying star starts shedding its skin

This Hubble Space Telescope picture captures a brief but beautiful phase late in the life of a star. The curious cloud around this bright star is called IRAS 19475+3119. It lies in the constellation of Cygnus (the Swan) about 15 000 light-years from Earth in the plane of our Milky Way galaxy.

As stars similar to the Sun age they swell into red giant stars and when this phase ends they start to shed their atmospheres into space. The surroundings become rich in dust and the star is still relatively cool. At this point the cloud shines by reflecting the brilliant light of the central star and the warm dust gives off lots of infrared radiation. It was this infrared radiation that was detected by the IRAS satellite in 1983 and brought the object to the attention of astronomers. Jets from the star may create strange hollow lobes, and in the case of IRAS 19475+3119 two such features appear at different angles. These curious objects are rare and short-lived.

As the star continues to shed material the hotter core is gradually revealed. The intense ultraviolet radiation causes the surrounding gas to glow brilliantly and a planetary nebula is born. The objects that come before planetary nebulae, such as IRAS 19475+3119, are known as preplanetary nebulae, or protoplanetary nebulae. They have nothing to do with planets — the name planetary nebula arose as they looked rather like the outer planets Uranus and Neptune when seen through small telescopes.

This image was created from images taken using the High Resolution Channel of the Hubble Space Telescope’s Advanced Camera for Surveys. The red light was captured through a filter letting through yellow and red light (F606W) and the blue was recorded through a standard blue filter (F435W). The green layer of the image was created by combining the blue and red images. The total exposure times were 24 s and 245 s for red and blue respectively. The field of view is about twenty arcseconds across.


5 July 2010

The crowded heart of the Hercules globular cluster

This image, taken by the Advanced Camera for Surveys on the Hubble Space Telescope, shows the core of the great globular cluster Messier 13 and provides an extraordinarily clear view of the hundreds of thousands of stars in the cluster, one of the brightest and best known in the sky. Just 25 000 light-years away and about 145 light-years in diameter, Messier 13 has drawn the eye since its discovery by Edmund Halley, the noted British astronomer, in 1714. The cluster lies in the constellation of Hercules and is so bright that under the right conditions it is even visible to the unaided eye. As Halley wrote: “This is but a little Patch, but it shews it self to the naked Eye, when the Sky is serene and the Moon absent.” Messier 13 was the target of a symbolic Arecibo radio telescope message that was sent in 1974, communicating humanity’s existence to possible extraterrestrial intelligences. However, more recent studies suggest that planets are very rare in the dense environments of globular clusters.

Messier 13 has also appeared in literature. In his 1959 novel, The Sirens of Titan, Kurt Vonnegut wrote “Every passing hour brings the Solar System forty-three thousand miles closer to Globular Cluster M13 in Hercules — and still there are some misfits who insist that there is no such thing as progress.” The step from Halley’s early telescopic view to this Hubble image indicates some measure of the progress in astronomy in the last three hundred years.

This picture was created from images taken with the Wide Field Channel of the Advanced Camera for Surveys on the Hubble Space Telescope. Data through a blue filter (F435W) are coloured blue, data through a red filter (F625W) are coloured green and near-infrared data (through the F814W filter) are coloured red. The exposure times are 1480 s, 380 s and 567 s respectively and the field of view is about 2.5 arcminutes across.


28 June 2010

A star's colourful final splash

The Hubble Space Telescope captured this beautiful image of NGC 6326, a planetary nebula with glowing wisps of outpouring gas that are lit up by a central star nearing the end of its life. When a star ages and the red giant phase of its life comes to an end, it starts to eject layers of gas from its surface leaving behind a hot and compact white dwarf. Sometimes this ejection results in elegantly symmetric patterns of glowing gas, but NGC 6326 is much less structured. This object is located in the constellation of Ara, the Altar, about 11 000 light-years from Earth.

Planetary nebulae are one of the main ways in which elements heavier than hydrogen and helium are dispersed into space after their creation in the hearts of stars. Eventually some of this outflung material may form new stars and planets. The vivid red and blue hues in this image come from the material glowing under the action of the fierce ultraviolet radiation from the still hot central star.

This picture was created from images taken using the Hubble Space Telescope’s Wide Field Planetary Camera 2. The red light was captured through a filter letting through the glow from hydrogen gas (F658N). The blue glow comes from ionised oxygen and was recorded through a green filter (F502N). The green layer of the image, which shows the stars well, was taken through a broader yellow filter (F555W). The total exposure times were 1400 s, 360 s and 260 s respectively. The field of view is about 30 arcseconds across.


21 June 2010

A fine Hydra spiral

The small spiral galaxy NGC 2758 is captured in great detail in this image from the Advanced Camera for Surveys (ACS) on the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope. It was first seen by the American astronomer Frank Muller, at the McCormick Observatory in Virginia in the 1880s. This galaxy lies in the constellation of Hydra (the Sea Serpent), the largest and longest constellation in the sky. This very sharp Hubble image shows many of the bright blue stars within the galaxy’s loosely wound spiral arms as well as a bright companion dwarf galaxy to the upper left. Many more distant galaxies lie in the background.

NGC 2758 is a fine example of a spiral galaxy that is close enough for the structure to be seen very clearly. In this case the Hubble images were obtained as part of a study of the central redder “bulge” component of galaxies and how they form and evolve.

This picture was created from ACS Hubble images taken through blue (F435W) and near-infrared (F814W) filters. The exposure times were 1050 s per filter and the field of view was about 3.4 arcminutes across.


14 June 2010

A lucky observation of an enigmatic cloud

The little-known nebula IRAS 05437+2502 billows out among the bright stars and dark dust clouds that surround it in this striking image from the Hubble Space Telescope. It is located in the constellation of Taurus (the Bull), close to the central plane of our Milky Way galaxy. Unlike many of Hubble’s targets, this object has not been studied in detail and its exact nature is unclear. At first glance it appears to be a small, rather isolated, region of star formation and one might assume that the effects of fierce ultraviolet radiation from bright young stars probably were the cause of the eye-catching shapes of the gas. However, the bright boomerang-shaped feature may tell a more dramatic tale. The interaction of a high velocity young star and the cloud of gas and dust may have created this unusually sharp-edged bright arc. Such a reckless star would have been ejected from the distant young cluster where it was born and would travel at 200 000 km/hour or more through the nebula.

This faint cloud was originally discovered in 1983 by the Infrared Astronomical Satellite (IRAS), the first space telescope to survey the whole sky in the infrared. IRAS was run by the United States, the Netherlands, and the United Kingdom and found huge numbers of new objects that were invisible from the ground.

This image was taken with the Wide Field Channel of the Advanced Camera for Surveys on Hubble. It was part of a “snapshot” survey. These are lists of observations that are fitted into Hubble’s busy schedule when possible, without any guarantee that the observation will take place — so it was fortunate that the observation was made at all! This picture was created from images taken through yellow (F606W) and near-infrared (F814W) filters. The exposure times were about eleven minutes per filter and the field of view is about 100 arcseconds across.

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7 June 2010

The unique Red Rectangle: sharper than ever before

The star HD 44179 is surrounded by an extraordinary structure known as the Red Rectangle. It acquired its moniker because of its shape and its apparent colour when seen in early images from Earth. This strikingly detailed new Hubble image reveals how, when seen from space, the nebula, rather than being rectangular, is shaped like an X with additional complex structures of spaced lines of glowing gas, a little like the rungs of a ladder. The star at the centre is similar to the Sun, but at the end of its lifetime, pumping out gas and other material to make the nebula, and giving it the distinctive shape. It also appears that the star is a close binary that is surrounded by a dense torus of dust — both of which may help to explain the very curious shape. Precisely how the central engine of this remarkable and unique object spun the gossamer threads of nebulosity remains mysterious. It is likely that precessing jets of material played a role.

The Red Rectangle is an unusual example of what is known as a proto-planetary nebula. These are old stars, on their way to becoming planetary nebulae. Once the expulsion of mass is complete a very hot white dwarf star will remain and its brilliant ultraviolet radiation will cause the surrounding gas to glow. The Red Rectangle is found about 2 300 light-years away in the constellation Monoceros (the Unicorn).

The High Resolution Channel of the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope’s Advanced Camera for Surveys captured this view of HD 44179 and the surrounding Red Rectangle nebula — the sharpest view so far. Red light from glowing Hydrogen was captured through the F658N filter and coloured red. Orange-red light over a wider range of wavelengths through a F625W filter was coloured blue.

The field of view is about 25 by 20 arcseconds.


31 May 2010

NGC 3810: A Picture-perfect Spiral

The bright galaxy NGC 3810 demonstrates classical spiral structure in this very detailed image from Hubble. The bright central region is thought to be forming many new stars and is outshining the outer areas of the galaxy by some margin. Further out the galaxy displays strikingly rich dust clouds along its spiral arms. A close look shows that Hubble’s sharp vision also allows many individual stars to be seen. Hot young blue stars show up in giant clusters far from the centre and the arms are also littered with bright red giant stars.

The original images were acquired by astronomers studying a supernova discovered late in the year 2000. It was the second supernova found in the galaxy in quick succession following another discovered in 1997. NGC 3810 is located about 50 million light-years from Earth in the constellation of Leo (the lion). It was discovered by William Herschel in 1784 and is easily seen as a faint smudge in small telescopes.

The NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope's Advanced Camera for Surveys captured this image of NGC 3810. It was observed through three filters letting through blue, green and near-infrared list respectively (F435W, F555W and F814W). The exposure times were about seven minutes per filter and the field of view is about 3.4 x 1.7 arcminutes.


24 May 2010

Hubble on the face of the Sun

This remarkable and unique image of the space shuttle Atlantis and the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope silhouetted against the dazzling disc of the Sun was captured from the ground near the start of the Servicing Mission 4 on 13 May 2009. The picture was taken from Florida, 100 kilometres south of the Kennedy Space Center as Hubble was about to be grappled by the Shuttle’s robot arm. The Shuttle and Hubble appear as small black specks at the lower left, the Shuttle is the larger of the two. The solar disc was unusually quiet in a deep solar minimum and there are no sunspots visible.

The image was acquired with a 130 mm aperture refracting telescope equipped with a special solar prism to reduce the intensity along with a standard digital camera. The transit across the disc of the Sun took less than one second and the path across the ground where it could be observed was only a few kilometres wide — giving some idea of the extraordinarily careful planning needed.


17 May 2010

A clump of galaxy misfits

That galaxies come in very different shapes and sizes is dramatically demonstrated by this striking Hubble image of the Hickson Compact Group 59. Named by astronomer Paul Hickson in 1982, this is the 59th such collection of galaxies in his catalogue of unusually close groups. What makes this image interesting is the variety on display. There are two large spiral galaxies, one face-on with smooth arms and delicate dust tendrils, and one highly inclined, as well as a strangely disorderly galaxy featuring clumps of blue young stars. We can also see many apparently smaller, probably more distant, galaxies visible in the background. Hickson groups display many peculiarities, often emitting in the radio and infrared and featuring active star-forming regions. In addition their galaxies frequently contain Active Galactic Nuclei powered by supermassive black holes, as well large quantities of dark matter.

The NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope's Advanced Camera for Surveys, using the Wide Field Channel, captured this image of HCG059 in 2007. The picture was created from images taken through blue, yellow and near-infrared filters (F435W, F606W and F814W). The total exposure times per filter were 57 minutes, 41 minutes and 35 minutes respectively. The field of view is about 3.4 arcminutes across.


10 May 2010

IC4634’s Glowing Waves

This striking Hubble image of the planetary nebula IC 4634 reveals two shining, S-shaped ejections from a dying star. This star, awash in glowing material at the centre of the picture, bloated as it aged and launched its outer layers off into space. The star’s very hot, exposed core has since beamed intense ultraviolet radiation at these lost shells of gas, making them glow in rich colours.

This process has been far from orderly or calm, however, as revealed by the distinct, separate waves of thrown-off gases. One is more distant and therefore was spewed first, followed by a more recently ejected tide of matter that formed the tighter S-shape. The result is remarkably symmetric on each side of the central star.

The NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope’s Wide Field Planetary Camera 2 (WFPC2) captured this image of IC 4634, which is found more than about 7500 light-years away in the constellation of Ophiuchus (the Serpent Holder). IC 4634 and other objects like it are known as planetary nebulae due to their appearance through early telescopes as rounded, faintly luminous discs similar to the distant planets Uranus and Neptune. The picture was created from images through five different filters (F487N, F502N, F574M, F656N and F658N) that captured light emitted by different elements in the gaseous features. The total aggregate exposure time was 4000 seconds and the field of view is just 29 arcseconds across.


3 May 2010

The dusty beauty of NGC 2082

The richly textured spiral galaxy NGC 2082 is found about 60 million light-years away in the constellation of Dorado (the Swordfish), deep in the southern sky. As seen here in a very detailed image from the Advanced Camera for Surveys on the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope, filaments of dark dust splay across NGC 2082’s luminous curved arms and dense central bulge of stars. Hubble’s sharp vision also reveals many of the individual bright blue stars dotting the galaxy’s rather ragged spiral arms as well as many much more distant galaxies in the background.

This galaxy is faintly visible in backyard telescopes and was first recorded by Sir John Herschel during his visit to the Cape of Good Hope in South Africa in the 1830s. NGC 2082 was also the host of a bright supernova that was spotted by the great visual supernova discoverer Rev R. Evans back in 1992.

This picture was created from images taken through blue and near-infrared filters (F435W and F814W) using the Wide Field Channel of the Advanced Camera for Surveys. The total exposure time was 19 minutes per filter and the field of view is about 2.2 x 1.6 arcminutes in size.


22 April 2010

Messier 72, a celestial city from above

As the first in the new weekly series of spectacular images from the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope, the Hubble Picture of the Week, ESA/Hubble presents a stunning image of an unfamiliar star cluster.

This rich collection of scattered stars, known as Messier 72, looks like a city seen from an airplane window at night, as small glints of light from suburban homes dot the outskirts of the bright city centre. Messier 72 is actually a globular cluster, an ancient spherical collection of old stars packed much closer together at its centre, like buildings in the heart of a city compared to less urban areas. As well as huge numbers of stars in the cluster itself the picture also captures the images of many much more distant galaxies seen between and around the cluster stars.

French astronomer Pierre Méchain discovered this rich cluster in August of 1780, but we take Messier 72’s most common name from Méchain’s colleague Charles Messier, who recorded it as the 72nd entry in his famous catalogue of comet-like objects just two months later. This globular cluster lies in the constellation of Aquarius (the Water Bearer) about 50 000 light-years from Earth.

This striking image was taken with the Wide Field Channel of the Advanced Camera for Surveys on the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope. The image was created from pictures taken through yellow and near-infrared filters (F606W and F814W). The exposure times were about ten minutes per filter and the field of view is about 3.4 arcminutes across.


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