Picture of the Week

Also see our pictures of the week on eso.org.
26 August 2013

Dark, dusty shells

The NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope has captured this image of PGC 10922, an example of a lenticular galaxy — a galaxy type that lies on the border between ellipticals and spirals.

Seen face-on, the image shows the disc and tightly-wound spiral structures of dark dust encircling the bright centre of the galaxy. There is also a remarkable outer halo of faint wide arcs or shells extending outwards, covering much of the picture. These are likely to have been formed by a gravitational encounter or even a merger with another galaxy. Some dust also appears to have escaped from the central structure and has spread out across the inner shells.

An extraordinarily rich background of more remote galaxies can also be seen in the image.

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


19 August 2013

A cosmic optical illusion

At first glance, this Hubble picture appears to capture two space colossi entangled in a fierce celestial battle, with two galaxies entwined and merging to form one. But this shows just how easy it is to misinterpret the jumble of sparkling stars and get the wrong impression — as it’s all down to a trick of perspective.

By chance, these galaxies appear to be aligned from our point of view. In the foreground, the irregular dwarf galaxy PGC 16389 — seen here as a cloud of stars — covers its neighbouring galaxy APMBGC 252+125-117, which appears edge-on as a streak. This wide-field image also captures many other more distant galaxies, including a quite prominent face-on spiral towards the right of the picture.

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


12 August 2013

Stars fleeing a cosmic crash

Astronomical pictures sometimes deceive us with tricks of perspective. Right in the centre of this image, two spiral galaxies appear to be suffering a spectacular collision, with a host of stars appearing to flee the scene of the crash in a chaotic stampede.

However, this is just a trick of perspective. It is true that two spiral galaxies are colliding, but they are millions of light-years away, far beyond the cloud of blue and red stars near the merging spiral. This sprinkling of stars is actually an isolated, irregular dwarf galaxy named ESO 489-056. The dwarf galaxy is actually much more distant than many bright stars in the foreground of the image, which are located much closer to us, in the Milky Way.

ESO 489-056 is located 16 million light-years from Earth in the constellation of Canis Major (The Greater Dog), in our local Universe. It is composed of a few billion red and blue stars — a very small number when compared to galaxies like the Milky Way, which is estimated to contain around 200 to 400 billion stars, or the Andromeda Galaxy, which contains a mind-boggling one trillion.

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


5 August 2013

Sunset in Mordor

Don’t be fooled by the title; the mysterious, almost mystical bright light emerging from these thick, ominous clouds is actually a telltale sign of star formation. Here, a very young star is being born in the guts of the dark cloud LDN 43 — a massive blob of gas, dust, and ices, gathered 520 light-years from Earth in the constellation of Ophiuchus (The Serpent Bearer).

Stars are born from cosmic dust and gas, which floats freely in space until gravity forces it to bind together. The hidden newborn star in this image, revealed only by light reflected onto the plumes of the dark cloud, is named RNO 91. It is what astronomers call a pre-main sequence star, meaning that it has not yet started burning hydrogen in its core.

The energy that allows RNO 91 to shine comes from gravitational contraction. The star is being compressed by its own weight until, at some point, a critical mass will be reached and hydrogen, its main component, will begin to fuse together, releasing huge amounts of energy in the process. This will mark the beginning of adulthood for the star. But even before this happens the adolescent star is bright enough to shine and generate powerful stellar winds, emitting intense X-ray and radio emission.

RNO 91 is a variable star around half the mass of the Sun. Astronomers have been able to observe the existence of a dusty, icy disc surrounding it, stretching out to over 1700 times the distance from Earth to the Sun. It is believed that this disc may host protoplanets — planets in the process of being formed — and will eventually evolve into a fully-fledged planetary system.

This image is based on data gathered by the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope. A version of this image was entered into the Hubble’s Hidden Treasures image processing competition by contestant Judy Schmidt.


29 July 2013

A spiral galaxy crowned by a star

Another treasure unearthed from the Hubble archives, this beautiful image shows a spiral galaxy named NGC 4517. Slightly bigger than our Milky Way, it is seen edge-on, crowned by a very bright star. The star is actually much closer to us than the galaxy, explaining why it appears to be so big and bright in the picture. 

NGC 4517 is located approximately 40 million light-years away in the constellation of Virgo (The Virgin). It has a bright centre, but this is not visible in this Hubble image. Its orientation has led to it being included in many studies of globular clusters, clumps of stars that orbit the centres of galaxies like satellites.

The galaxy was discovered in 1784 by William Herschel, who described this region as having “a pretty bright star situated exactly north of the centre of an extended milky ray”. Of course the “milky ray” seen by Herschel is actually this spiral galaxy, but with his 17th century observing gear he could only tell that there a fuzzy, blurry structure below the much brighter star.

This image is composed from visible and infrared light gathered by NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope. A version of this image was entered into the Hubble’s Hidden treasures image processing competition by contestant Gilles Chapdelaine.


22 July 2013

A mysterious old spiral

This striking cosmic whirl is the centre of galaxy NGC 524, as seen with the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope. This galaxy is located in the constellation of Pisces, some 90 million light-years from Earth.

NGC 524 is a lenticular galaxy. Lenticular galaxies are believed to be an intermediate state in galactic evolution — they are neither elliptical nor spiral. Spirals are middle-aged galaxies with vast, pinwheeling arms that contain millions of stars. Along with these stars are large clouds of gas and dust that, when dense enough, are the nurseries where new stars are born. When all the gas is either depleted or lost into space, the arms gradually fade away and the spiral shape begins to weaken. At the end of this process, what remains is a lenticular galaxy — a bright disc full of old, red stars surrounded by what little gas and dust the galaxy has managed to cling on to.

This image shows the shape of NGC 524 in detail, formed by the remaining gas surrounding the galaxy’s central bulge. Observations of this galaxy have revealed that it maintains some spiral-like motion, explaining its intricate structure.

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


15 July 2013

A stranger in the crowd

The constellation of Virgo (The Virgin) is the largest of the Zodiac constellations, and the second largest overall after Hydra (The Water Snake). Its most appealing feature, however, is the sheer number of galaxies that lie within it. In this picture, among a crowd of face- and edge-on spiral, elliptical, and irregular galaxies, lies NGC 4866, a lenticular galaxy situated about 80 million light-years from Earth.

Lenticular galaxies are somewhere between spirals and ellipticals in terms of shape and properties. From the picture, we can appreciate the bright central bulge of NGC 4886, which contains primarily old stars, but no spiral arms are visible. The galaxy is seen from Earth as almost edge-on, meaning that the disc structure — a feature not present in elliptical galaxies — is clearly visible. Faint dust lanes trace across NGC 4866 in this image, obscuring part of the galaxy’s light.

To the right of the galaxy is a very bright star that appears to lie within NGC 4886’s halo. However, this star actually lies much closer to us; in front of the galaxy, along our line of sight. These kinds of perspective tricks are common when observing, and can initially deceive astronomers as to the true nature and position of objects such as galaxies, stars, and clusters.

This sharp image of NGC 4866 was captured by the Advanced Camera for Surveys, an instrument on the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope. A version was entered into the Hubble’s Hidden Treasures image processing competition by contestant Gilles Chapdelaine.


8 July 2013

Stars that go out with a whimper

This NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope image shows the planetary nebula IC 289, located in the northern constellation of Cassiopeia. Formerly a star like our Sun, it is now just a cloud of ionised gas being pushed out into space by the remnants of the star’s core, visible as a small bright dot in the middle of the cloud.

Weirdly enough, planetary nebulae have nothing to do with planets. Early observers, when looking through small telescopes, could only see undefined, smoky forms that looked like gaseous planets — hence the name. The term has stuck even though modern telescopes like Hubble have made it clear that these objects are not planets at all, but the outer layers of dying stars being thrown off into space.

Stars shine as a result of nuclear fusion reactions in their cores, converting hydrogen to helium. All stars are stable, balancing the inward push caused by their gravity with the outwards thrust from the inner fusion reactions in their cores. When all the hydrogen is consumed the equilibrium is broken; the gravitational forces become more powerful than the outward pressure from the fusion process and the core starts to collapse, heating up as it does so.

When the hot, shrinking core gets hot enough, the helium nuclei begin to fuse into carbon and oxygen and the collapse stops. However, this helium-burning phase is highly unstable and huge pulsations build up, eventually becoming large enough to blow the whole star’s atmosphere away.

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


1 July 2013

Stalking our celebrity neighbours

This is the spiral galaxy NGC 3185, located some 80 million light-years away from us in the constellation of Leo (The Lion). The image shows the galaxy’s spiral arms, which can be traced from the centre of the galaxy out towards the rim, where they appear to meet a sparkling blue disc.

At the centre of NGC 3185 is a small but very bright nucleus containing a supermassive black hole. Black holes like this one can have masses many thousands of times that of the Sun, and they become active when matter falls towards them. When this happens the black hole lights up, sending away streams of particles and radiation at almost the speed of light.

NGC 3185 is a member of a small, four-galaxy group called Hickson 44, which has a celebrity in its midsts — the group is also home to another spiral galaxy called NGC 3190. NGC 3190 may be very familiar to you; the technology giant Apple Inc. used a blue-tinted image of it as a desktop image for one of its operating systems.

These data were unearthed from the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope Legacy Archive by contestant Judy Schmidt, who entered a version of this image into the Hubble’s Hidden treasures image processing competition.


24 June 2013

Inseparable galactic twins

Looking towards the constellation of Triangulum (The Triangle), in the northern sky, lies the galaxy pair MRK 1034. The two very similar galaxies, named PGC 9074 and PGC 9071, are close enough to one another to be bound together by gravity, although no gravitational disturbance can yet be seen in the image. These objects are probably only just beginning to interact gravitationally.

Both are spiral galaxies, and are presented to our eyes face-on, so we are able to appreciate their distinctive shapes. On the left of the image, spiral galaxy PGC 9074 shows a bright bulge and two spiral arms tightly wound around the nucleus, features which have led scientists to classify it as a type Sa galaxy. Close by, PGC 9071 — a type Sb galaxy — although very similar and almost the same size as its neighbour, has a fainter bulge and a slightly different structure to its arms: their coils are further apart.

The spiral arms of both objects clearly show dark patches of dust obscuring the light of the stars lying behind, mixed with bright blue clusters of hot, recently-formed stars. Older, cooler stars can be found in the glowing, compact yellowish bulge towards the centre of the galaxy. The whole structure of each galaxy is surrounded by a much fainter round halo of old stars, some residing in globular clusters.

Gradually, these two neighbours will attract each other, the process of star formation will be increased and tidal forces will throw out long tails of stars and gas. Eventually, after maybe hundreds of millions of years, the structures of the interacting galaxies will merge together into a new, larger galaxy.

The images combined to create this picture were captured by Hubble's Advanced Camera for Surveys (ACS). A version of this image was submitted to the Hubble’s Hidden Treasures image processing competition by Judy Schmidt.

 

 

 


17 June 2013

Messier 61 looks straight into the camera

The NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope has captured this image of nearby spiral galaxy Messier 61, also known as NGC 4303. The galaxy, located only 55 million light-years away from Earth, is roughly the size of the Milky Way, with a diameter of around 100 000 light-years. The galaxy is notable for one particular reason — six supernovae have been observed within Messier 61, a total that places it in the top handful of galaxies alongside Messier 83, also with six, and NGC 6946, with a grand total of nine observed supernovae.

In this Hubble image the galaxy is seen face-on as if posing for a photograph, allowing us to study its structure closely. The spiral arms can be seen in stunning detail, swirling inwards to the very centre of the galaxy, where they form a smaller, intensely bright spiral. In the outer regions, these vast arms are sprinkled with bright blue regions where new stars are being formed from hot, dense clouds of gas.

Messier 61 is part of the Virgo Galaxy Cluster, a massive group of galaxies in the constellation of Virgo (the Virgin). Galaxy clusters, or groups of galaxies, are among the biggest structures in the Universe to be held together by gravity alone. The Virgo Cluster contains more than 1300 galaxies and forms the central region of the Local Supercluster, an even bigger gathering of galaxies.

The image was taken using data from Hubble’s Wide Field Camera 2. Different versions of this image were submitted to the Hubble’s Hidden Treasures image processing competition by contestants Gilles Chapdelaine, Luca Limatola, and Robert Gendler.

Links


10 June 2013

A very bright contortionist

The contorted object captured by Hubble in this picture is IRAS 22491-1808, also known as the South America Galaxy. It is an ultraluminous infrared galaxy (ULIRG) that emits a huge amount of light at infrared wavelengths. The reason for this intense infrared emission lies in an episode of strong star formation activity, which was set off by a collision between two interacting galaxies. 

In this image the twisted shape hides a number of features. In the central region, which is very complex and disturbed, scientists have been able to distinguish two nuclei, remains of the two different galaxies that are currently colliding to form a new one. IRAS 22491-1808 is amongst the most luminous of these types of galaxies, and is considered to be mid-way through its merging stage.

The centre of this appealing object also shows several intense star-forming knots which, as seen in the picture, actually outshine the nuclei in optical wavelengths. To pick out the two merging nuclei in IRAS 22491-1808, scientists have had to observe it in infrared wavelengths, where they are more distinct.

Other traces of the galactic collision are the three very noticeable tails in the image — two linear and one circular. The tail extending towards the bottom of the image from the main body exhibits a red clump of star formation at its base.


3 June 2013

NGC 1579: The Trifid of the North

Unlike the venomous fictional plants that share its name, the Trifid of the North, otherwise known as the Northern Trifid or NGC 1579, poses no threat to your vision. The nebula’s moniker is inspired by the better-known Messier 20, the Trifid Nebula, which lies very much further south in the sky and displays strikingly similar swirling clouds of gas and dust.

The Trifid of the North is a large, dusty region that is currently forming new stars. These stars are very hot and therefore appear to be very blue. During their short lives they radiate strongly into the gas surrounding them, causing it to glow brightly. Many regions like the Trifid of the North — named H II regions — are clumpy and strangely shaped due to the powerful winds emanating from the stars within them. H II regions also have relatively short lives, furiously forming baby stars until the immense winds from these bodies blow the gas and dust away, leaving just stars behind.

The image above, captured by the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope, shows the bright body of the nebula, with dark dust lanes snaking across the frame. The Trifid of the North glows strongly due to the many stars within it, like young binary EM* LkHA 101. Visible to the bottom right of the image, this binary is thought to be surrounded by a hundred or so fainter and less massive stars, making up a recently formed cluster. It lies behind a cloud of dust so thick that it is almost invisible to astronomers at optical wavelengths. Infrared imaging has now penetrated this dusty veil and is uncovering the secrets of this binary star, which is about five thousand times brighter than our own Sun.

A version of this image by Bruno Conti was entered into the Hubble’s Hidden Treasures competition.


27 May 2013

The messy result of a galactic collision

This new image from the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope captures an ongoing cosmic collision between two galaxies — a spiral galaxy is in the process of colliding with a lenticular galaxy. The collision looks almost as if it is popping out of the screen in 3D, with parts of the spiral arms clearly embracing the lenticular galaxy’s bulge.

The image also reveals further evidence of the collision. There is a bright stream of stars coming out from the merging galaxies, extending out towards the right of the image. The bright spot in the middle of the plume, known as ESO 576-69, is what makes this image unique. This spot is believed to be the nucleus of the former spiral galaxy, which was ejected from the system during the collision and is now being shredded by tidal forces to produce the visible stellar stream.

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


20 May 2013

A swirl of star formation

This beautiful, glittering swirl is named, rather unpoetically, J125013.50+073441.5. A glowing haze of material seems to engulf the galaxy, stretching out into space in different directions and forming a fuzzy streak in this image. It is a starburst galaxy — a name given to galaxies that show unusually high rates of star formation. The regions where new stars are being born are highlighted by sparkling bright blue regions along the galactic arms.

Studying starburst galaxies can tell us a lot about galactic evolution and star formation. These galaxies start off with huge amounts of gas, which is used to form new stars. This period of furious star formation is only a phase; once all the gas is used up, this starbirth slows down. Other famous starbursts captured by Hubble include the Antennae Galaxies and Messier 82, the latter of which is forming new stars ten times faster than our galaxy, the Milky Way.

The data for this image were collected as part of a study named LARS (Lyman Alpha Reference Sample) [1], which is investigating the interaction between radiation and matter in relatively nearby starburst galaxies. J125013.50+073441.5 is included as one of its fourteen targets. This study has characterised how a certain type of emission known as Lyman-alpha emission interacts with nearby gas, affecting how it travels out into space.

The data for this image were collected using Hubble’s Wide Field Camera 3.

More information

[1] Hayes, Östlin et al., The Lyman Alpha Reference Sample: extended Lyman alpha halos produced at low dust content, The Astrophysical Journal, 2013.


13 May 2013

A spacetime magnifying glass

This Hubble image shows the galaxy cluster Abell S1077. Galaxy clusters are large groupings of galaxies, each of them including millions of stars. They are the largest existing structures in the Universe to be held together by their gravity.

The amount of matter condensed in such groupings is so high that their gravity is enough to warp the fabric of spacetime, distorting the path that light takes when it travels through the cluster. In some cases, this phenomenon produces an effect somewhat like a magnifying lens, allowing us to see objects that are aligned behind the cluster and which would otherwise be undetectable from Earth. In this image, you see stretched stripes that look like scratches on a lens but are, in fact, galaxies whose light is heavily distorted by the gravitational field of the cluster.

Astronomers use tools like the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope and the effects of gravitational lensing to peer far back in time and space to see the furthest objects located in the early Universe. One of the record holders is MACS0647-JD, a galaxy seen by Hubble and the Spitzer Space Telescope with the help of a gravitational lens much like this one in the galaxy cluster MACS J0647.7+7015. Its light has taken 13.3 billion years to reach us.

This image is based in part on data spotted by Nick Rose in the Hubble’s Hidden Treasures image processing competition.


6 May 2013

A tale of galactic collisions

When we look into the distant cosmos, the great majority of the objects we see are galaxies: immense gatherings of stars, planets, gas, dust, and dark matter, showing up in all kind of shapes. This Hubble picture registers several, but the galaxy catalogued as 2MASX J05210136-2521450 stands out at a glance due to its interesting shape.

This object is an ultraluminous infrared galaxy which emits a tremendous amount of light at infrared wavelengths. Scientists connect this to intense star formation activity, triggered by a collision between two interacting galaxies.

The merging process has left its signs: 2MASX J05210136-2521450 presents a single, bright nucleus and a spectacular outer structure that consists of a one-sided extension of the inner arms, with a tidal tail heading in the opposite direction, formed from material ripped out from the merging galaxies by gravitational forces.

The image is a combination of exposures taken by Hubble’s Advanced Camera for Surveys, using near-infrared and visible light. A version of this image was submitted to the Hubble’s Hidden Treasures image processing competition by contestant Luca Limatola.

 


29 April 2013

The remains of a star gone supernova

These delicate wisps of gas make up an object known as SNR B0519-69.0, or SNR 0519 for short. The thin, blood-red shells are actually the remnants from when an unstable progenitor star exploded violently as a supernova around 600 years ago. There are several types of supernova, but for SNR 0519 the star that exploded is known to have been a white dwarf star — a Sun-like star in the final stages of its life.

SNR 0519 is located over 150 000 light-years from Earth in the southern constellation of Dorado (The Dolphinfish), a constellation that also contains most of our neighbouring galaxy the Large Magellanic Cloud (LMC). Because of this, this region of the sky is full of intriguing and beautiful deep sky objects.

The LMC orbits the Milky Way galaxy as a satellite and is the fourth largest in our group of galaxies, the Local Group. SNR 0519 is not alone in the LMC; the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope also came across a similar bauble a few years ago in SNR B0509-67.5, a supernova of the same type as SNR 0519 with a strikingly similar appearance.

A version of this image was submitted to the Hubble’s Hidden Treasures Image Processing Competition by Claude Cornen, and won sixth prize.


22 April 2013

A changing fan

The Universe is rarely static, although the timescales involved can be very long. Since modern astronomical observations began we have been observing the birthplaces of new stars and planets, searching for and studying the subtle changes that help us to figure out what is happening within.

The bright spot located at the edge of the bluish fan-shaped structure in this Hubble image is a young star called V* PV Cephei, or PV Cep. It is a favourite target for amateur astronomers because the fan-shaped nebulosity, known as GM 1-29 or Gyulbudaghian’s Nebula, changes over a timescale of months. The brightness of the star has also varied over time.

Images of PV Cep taken in 1952 showed a nebulous streak, similar to a comet’s tail. However, these had vanished when new images of the star were obtained some twenty-five years later. Instead, the blue fan-shaped nebula had appeared. Twenty-five years is a very short period on cosmic timescales, so astronomers think that the mysterious streak may have been a temporary phenomenon, such as the remnants of a massive stellar flare — similar to the solar flares we are used to seeing in the Solar System.

At the same time as this was happening, the star itself was brightening. This provided the light to illuminate the newly formed fan-shaped nebula. This brightening might be related to the start of the hydrogen-burning phase of the star, which would mean that it was reaching maturity.

PV Cep is thought to be surrounded by a disc of gas and dust, which would stop light from escaping in all directions. The fan-like appearance is therefore probably a result of starlight escaping from the dust disc and projecting onto the nebula.

PV Cep is located in the northern constellation of Cepheus at a distance of over 1600 light-years from Earth.

A version of this image was entered into the Hubble’s Hidden Treasures competition by contestant Alexey Romashin.


15 April 2013

A unique cluster: one of the hidden 15

Globular clusters are relatively common in our sky, and generally look similar. However, this image, taken using the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope, shows a unique example of such a cluster — Palomar 2.

Palomar 2 is part of a group of 15 globulars known as the Palomar clusters. These clusters, as the name suggests, were discovered in survey plates from the first Palomar Observatory Sky Survey in the 1950s, a project that involved some of the most well-known astronomers of the day, including Edwin Hubble. They were discovered quite late because they are so faint — each is either extremely remote, very heavily hidden behind blankets of dust, or has a very small number of remaining stars.

This particular cluster is unique in more than one way. For one, it is the only globular cluster that we see in this part of the sky, the northern constellation of Auriga (The Charioteer). Globular clusters orbit the centre of a galaxy like the Milky Way in the same way that satellites circle around the Earth. This means that they normally lie closer in to the galactic centre than we do, and so we almost always see them in the same region of the sky. Palomar 2 is an exception to this, as it is around five times further away from the centre of the Milky Way than other clusters. It also lies in the opposite direction — further out than Earth — and so it is classed as an “outer halo” globular.

It is also unusual due to its brightness. The cluster is veiled by a mask of dust, dampening the apparent brightness of the stars within it and making it appear as a very faint burst of stars. The stunning NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope image above shows Palomar 2 in a way that could not be captured from smaller or ground-based telescopes —  some amateur astronomers with large telescopes attempt to observe all of the obscure and well-hidden Palomar 15 as a challenge, to see how many they can pick out from the starry sky.


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