Picture of the Week

Also see our pictures of the week on eso.org.
14 January 2013

A busy patch of the Great Attractor

A busy patch of space has been captured in this image from the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope. Scattered with many nearby stars, the field also has numerous galaxies in the background.

Located on the border of Triangulum Australe (The Southern Triangle) and Norma (The Carpenter’s Square), this field covers part of the Norma Cluster (Abell 3627) as well as a dense area of our own galaxy, the Milky Way.

The Norma Cluster is the closest massive galaxy cluster to the Milky Way, and lies about 220 million light-years away. The enormous mass concentrated here, and the consequent gravitational attraction, mean that this region of space is known to astronomers as the Great Attractor, and it dominates our region of the Universe.

The largest galaxy visible in this image is ESO 137-002, a spiral galaxy seen edge on. In this image from Hubble, we see large regions of dust across the galaxy’s bulge. What we do not see here is the tail of glowing X-rays that has been observed extending out of the galaxy — but which is invisible to an optical telescope like Hubble.

Observing the Great Attractor is difficult at optical wavelengths. The plane of the Milky Way — responsible for the numerous bright stars in this image — both outshines (with stars) and obscures (with dust) many of the objects behind it. There are some tricks for seeing through this — infrared or radio observations, for instance — but the region behind the centre of the Milky Way, where the dust is thickest, remains an almost complete mystery to astronomers.

This image consists of exposures in blue and infrared light taken by Hubble’s Advanced Camera for Surveys.


7 January 2013

An archetypal dwarf galaxy

The constellation of Ursa Major (The Great Bear) is home to Messier 101, the Pinwheel Galaxy. One of the biggest and brightest spiral galaxies in the night sky, Messier 101 is also the subject of one of Hubble's most famous images (heic0602). Like the Milky Way, Messier 101 is not alone, with smaller dwarf galaxies in its neighbourhood.

NGC 5477, one of these dwarf galaxies in the Messier 101 group, is the subject of this image from the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope. Without obvious structure, but with visible signs of ongoing starbirth, NGC 5477 looks much like an archetypal dwarf irregular galaxy. The bright nebulae that extend across much of the galaxy are clouds of glowing hydrogen gas in which new stars are forming. These glow pinkish red in real life, although the selection of green and infrared filters through which this image was taken makes them appear almost white.

The observations were taken as part of a project to measure accurate distances to a range of galaxies within about 30 million light-years from Earth, by studying the brightness of red giant stars.

In addition to NGC 5477, the image includes numerous galaxies in the background, including some that are visible right through NGC 5477. This serves as a reminder that galaxies, far from being solid, opaque objects, are actually largely made up of the empty space between their stars.

This image is a combination of exposures taken through green and infrared filters using Hubble's Advanced Camera for Surveys. The field of view is approximately 3.3 by 3.3 arcminutes. 


31 December 2012

Don’t trust your eyes

The Universe loves to fool our eyes, giving the impression that celestial objects are located at the same distance from Earth. A good example can be seen in this spectacular image produced by the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope. The galaxies NGC 5011B and NGC 5011C are imaged against a starry background.

Located in the constellation of Centaurus, the nature of these galaxies has puzzled astronomers. NGC 5011B (on the right) is a spiral galaxy belonging to the Centaurus Cluster of galaxies lying 156 million light-years away from the Earth. Long considered part of the faraway cluster of galaxies as well, NGC 5011C (the bluish galaxy at the centre of the image) is a peculiar object, with the faintness typical of a nearby dwarf galaxy, alongside the size of an early-type spiral.

Astronomers were curious about the appearance of NGC 5011C. If the two galaxies were at roughly the same distance from Earth, they would expect the pair to show signs of interactions between them. However, there was no visual sign of interaction between the two. How could this be possible?

To solve this problem, astronomers studied the velocity at which these galaxies are receding from the Milky Way and found that NGC 5011C is moving away far more slowly than its apparent neighbour, and its motion is more consistent with that of the nearby Centaurus A group at a distance of 13 million light-years. Thus, NGC 5011C, with only about ten million times the mass of the Sun in its stars, must indeed be a nearby dwarf galaxy rather than member of the distant Centaurus Cluster as was believed for many years.

Problem solved.

This image was taken with Hubble’s Advanced Camera for Surveys using visual and infrared filters.


24 December 2012

A wanderer dancing the dance of stars and space

The NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope provides us this week with a spectacular image of the bright star-forming ring that surrounds the heart of the barred spiral galaxy NGC 1097. In this image, the larger-scale structure of the galaxy is barely visible: its comparatively dim spiral arms, which surround its heart in a loose embrace, reach out beyond the edges of this frame.

This face-on galaxy, lying 45 million light-years away from Earth in the southern constellation of Fornax (The Furnace), is particularly attractive for astronomers. NGC 1097 is a Seyfert galaxy. Lurking at the very centre of the galaxy, a supermassive black hole 100 million times the mass of our Sun is gradually sucking in the matter around it. The area immediately around the black hole shines powerfully with radiation coming from the material falling in.

The distinctive ring around the black hole is bursting with new star formation due to an inflow of material toward the central bar of the galaxy. These star-forming regions are glowing brightly thanks to emission from clouds of ionised hydrogen. The ring is around 5000 light-years across, although the spiral arms of the galaxy extend tens of thousands of light-years beyond it.

NGC 1097 is also pretty exciting for supernova hunters. The galaxy experienced three supernovae (the violent deaths of high-mass stars) in the 11-year span between 1992 and 2003. This is definitely a galaxy worth checking on a regular basis.

However, what it is really exciting about NGC 1097 is that it is not wandering alone through space. It has two small galaxy companions, which dance “the dance of stars and the dance of space” like the gracious dancer of the famous poem The Dancer by Khalil Gibran.

The satellite galaxies are NGC 1097A, an elliptical galaxy orbiting 42 000 light-years from the centre of NGC 1097 and a small dwarf galaxy named NGC 1097B. Both galaxies are located out beyond the frames of this image and they cannot be seen. Astronomers have indications that NGC 1097 and NGC 1097A have interacted in the past.

This picture was taken with Hubble’s Advanced Camera for Surveys using visual and infrared filters.

A version of this image was submitted to the Hubble’s Hidden Treasures image processing competition by contestant Eedresha Sturdivant.


17 December 2012

The Needle Galaxy

Like finding a silver needle in the haystack of space, the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope has produced this beautiful image of the spiral galaxy IC 2233, one of the flattest galaxies known.

Typical spiral galaxies like the Milky Way are usually made up of three principal visible components: the disc where the spiral arms and most of the gas and dust is concentrated; the halo, a rough and sparse sphere around the disc that contains little gas, dust or star formation; and the central bulge at the heart of the disc, which is formed by a large concentration of ancient stars surrounding the Galactic Centre.

However, IC 2233 is far from being typical. This object is a prime example of a super-thin galaxy, where the galaxy’s diameter is at least ten times larger than the thickness. These galaxies consist of a simple disc of stars when seen edge on. This orientation makes them fascinating to study, giving another perspective on spiral galaxies. An important characteristic of this type of objects is that they have a low brightness and almost all of them have no bulge at all.

The bluish colour that can be seen along the disc gives evidence of the spiral nature of the galaxy, indicating the presence of hot, luminous, young stars, born out of clouds of interstellar gas. In addition, unlike typical spirals, IC 2233 shows no well-defined dust lane. Only a few small patchy regions can be identified in the inner regions both above and below the galaxy’s mid-plane.

Lying in the constellation of Lynx, IC 2233 is located about 40 million light-years away from Earth. This galaxy was discovered by British astronomer Isaac Roberts in 1894.

This image was taken with the Hubble’s Advanced Camera for Surveys, combining visible and infrared exposures. The field of view in this image is approximately 3.4 by 3.4 arcminutes.

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


10 December 2012

Smoky Shells

Located in a relatively vacant region of space about 4200 light-years away and difficult to see using an amateur telescope, the lonesome planetary nebula NGC 7354 is often overlooked. However, thanks to this image captured by the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope we are able to see this brilliant ball of smoky light in spectacular detail.

Just as shooting stars are not actually stars and lava lamps do not actually contain lava, planetary nebulae have nothing to do with planets. The name was coined by Sir William Herschel because when he first viewed a planetary nebula through a telescope, he could only identify a hazy smoky sphere, similar to gaseous planets such as Uranus. The name has stuck even though modern telescopes make it obvious that these objects are not planets at all, but the glowing gassy outer layers thrown off by a hot dying star.

It is believed that winds from the central star play an important role in determining the shape and morphology of planetary nebulae. The structure of NGC 7354 is relatively easy to distinguish. It consists of a circular outer shell, an elliptical inner shell, a collection of bright knots roughly concentrated in the middle and two symmetrical jets shooting out from either side. Research suggests that these features could be due to a companion central star, however the presence of a second star in NGC 7354 is yet to be confirmed.

NGC 7354 resides in Cepheus, a constellation named after the mythical King Cepheus of Aethiopia and is about half a light-year in diameter.

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


3 December 2012

Glitter galaxy — An edge-on view of the ESO 318-13 galaxy

The brilliant cascade of stars through the middle of this image is the galaxy ESO 318-13 as seen by the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope. Despite being located millions of light-years from Earth, the stars captured in this image are so bright and clear you could almost attempt to count them.

Although ESO 318-13 is the main event in this image, it is sandwiched between a vast collection of bright celestial objects. Several stars near and far dazzle in comparison to the neat dusting contained within the galaxy. One that particularly stands out is located near the centre of the image, and looks like an extremely bright star located within the galaxy. This is, however, a trick of perspective. The star is located in the Milky Way, our own galaxy, and it shines so brightly because it is so much closer to us than ESO 318-13.

There are also a number of tiny glowing discs scattered throughout the frame that are more distant galaxies. In the top right corner, an elliptical galaxy can be clearly seen, a galaxy which is much larger but more distant than ESO 318-13. More interestingly, peeking through the ESO 318-13, near the right-hand edge of the image, is a distant spiral galaxy.

Galaxies are largely made up of empty space; the stars within them only take up a small volume, and providing a galaxy is not too dusty, it can be largely transparent to light coming from the background. This makes overlapping galaxies like these quite common. One particularly dramatic example of this phenomenon is the galaxy pair NGC 3314 (heic1208). 


26 November 2012

A Peculiar Compact Blue Dwarf Galaxy

The NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope provides us this week with an impressive image of the irregular galaxy NGC 5253.

NGC 5253 is one of the nearest of the known Blue Compact Dwarf (BCD) galaxies, and is located at a distance of about 12 million light-years from Earth in the southern constellation of Centaurus. The most characteristic signature of these galaxies is that they harbour very active star-formation regions. This is in spite of their low dust content and comparative lack of elements heavier than hydrogen and helium, which are usually the basic ingredients for star formation.

These galaxies contain molecular clouds that are quite similar to the pristine clouds that formed the first stars in the early Universe, which were devoid of dust and heavier elements. Hence, astronomers consider the BCD galaxies to be an ideal testbed for better understanding the primordial star-forming process.

NGC 5253 does contain some dust and heavier elements, but significantly less than the Milky Way galaxy. Its central regions are dominated by an intense star forming region that is embedded in an elliptical main body, which appears red in Hubble’s image. The central starburst zone consists of a rich environment of hot, young stars concentrated in star clusters, which glow in blue in the image. Traces of the starburst itself can be seen as a faint and diffuse glow produced by the ionised oxygen gas.

The true nature of BCD galaxies has puzzled astronomers for a long time. Numerical simulations following the current leading cosmological theory of galaxy formation, known as the Lambda Cold Dark Matter model, predict that there should be far more satellite dwarf galaxies orbiting big galaxies like the Milky Way. Astronomers refer to this discrepancy as the Dwarf Galaxy Problem.

This galaxy is considered part of the Centaurus A/Messier 83 group of galaxies, which includes the famous radio galaxy Centaurus A and the spiral galaxy Messier 83. Astronomers have pointed out the possibility that the peculiar nature of NGC 5253 could result from a close encounter with Messier 83, its closer neighbour.

This image was taken with the Hubble’s Advanced Camera for Surveys, combining visible and infrared exposures. The field of view in this image is approximately 3.4 by 3.4 arcminutes.

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


19 November 2012

A loose spiral galaxy

The NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope has spotted the spiral galaxy ESO 499-G37, seen here against a backdrop of distant galaxies, scattered with nearby stars.

The galaxy is viewed from an angle, allowing Hubble to  reveal its spiral nature clearly. The faint, loose spiral arms can be distinguished as bluish features swirling around the galaxy’s nucleus. This blue tinge emanates from the hot, young stars located in the spiral arms. The arms of a spiral galaxy have large amounts of gas and dust, and are often areas where new stars are constantly forming.

The galaxy’s most characteristic feature is a bright elongated nucleus. The bulging central core usually contains the highest density of stars in the galaxy, where typically a large group of comparatively cool old stars are packed in this compact, spheroidal region.

One feature common to many spiral galaxies is the presence of a bar running across the centre of the galaxy. These bars are thought to act as a mechanism that channels gas from the spiral arms to the centre, enhancing the star formation.

Recent studies suggest that ESO 499-G37’s nucleus sits within a small bar up to a few hundreds of light-years along, about a tenth the size of a typical galactic bar. Astronomers think that such small bars could be important in the formation of galactic bulges since they might provide a mechanism for bringing material from the outer regions down to the inner ones. However, the connection between bars and bulge formation is still not clear since bars are not a universal feature in spiral galaxies.

Lying in the constellation of Hydra, ESO 499-G37 is located about 59 million light-years away from the Sun. The galaxy belongs to the NGC 3175 group.

ESO 499-G37 was first observed in the late seventies within the ESO/Uppsala Survey of the ESO (B) atlas. This was a joint project undertaken by the European Southern Observatory (ESO) and the Uppsala Observatory, which used the ESO 1-metre Schmidt telescope at La Silla Observatory, Chile, to map a large portion of the southern sky looking for stars, galaxies, clusters, and planetary nebulae.

This picture was created from visible and infrared exposures taken with the Wide Field Channel of the Advanced Camera for Surveys. The field of view is approximately 3.4 arcminutes wide.


12 November 2012

Galactic fireflies

Luminous galaxies glow like fireflies on a dark night in this image snapped by the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope. The central galaxy in this image is a gigantic elliptical galaxy designated 4C 73.08. A prominent spiral galaxy seen from "above" shines in the lower part of the image, while examples of galaxies viewed edge-on also populate the cosmic landscape.

In the optical and near-infrared light captured to make this image, 4C 73.08 does not appear all that beastly. But when viewed in longer wavelengths the galaxy takes on a very different appearance. Dust-piercing radio waves reveal plumes emanating from the core, where a supermassive black hole spews out twin jets of material. 4C 73.08 is classified as a radio galaxy as a result of this characteristic activity in the radio part of the electromagnetic spectrum.

Astronomers must study objects such as 4C 73.08 in multiple wavelengths in order to learn their true natures, just as seeing a firefly’s glow would tell a scientist only so much about the insect. Observing 4C 73.08 in visible light with Hubble illuminates galactic structure as well as the ages of constituent stars, and therefore the age of the galaxy itself. 4C 73.08 is decidedly redder than the prominent, bluer spiral galaxy in this image. The elliptical galaxy’s redness comes from the presence of many older, crimson stars, which shows that 4C 73.08 is older than its spiral neighbour.

The image was taken using Hubble’s Wide Field Camera 3 through two filters: one which captures green light, and one which captures red and near-infrared light.


5 November 2012

A galaxy colourfully on the wane ain't dead yet

The NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope has captured a beautiful galaxy that, with its reddish and yellow central area, looks rather like an explosion from a Hollywood movie. The galaxy, called NGC 5010, is in a period of transition. The aging galaxy is moving on from life as a spiral galaxy, like our Milky Way, to an older, less defined type called an elliptical galaxy. In this in-between phase, astronomers refer to NGC 5010 as a lenticular galaxy, which has features of both spirals and ellipticals.

NGC 5010 is located around 140 million light-years away in the constellation of Virgo (The Virgin). The galaxy is oriented sideways to us, allowing Hubble to peer into it and show the dark, dusty, remnant bands of spiral arms. NGC 5010 has notably started to develop a big bulge in its disc as it takes on a more rounded shape.

Most of the stars in NGC 5010 are red and elderly. The galaxy no longer contains all that many of the fast-lived blue stars common in younger galaxies that still actively produce new populations of stars.

Much of the dusty and gaseous fuel needed to create fresh stars has already been used up in NGC 5010. Overt time, the galaxy will grow progressively more "red and dead”, as astronomers describe elliptical galaxies.

Hubble's Advanced Camera for Surveys (ACS) snapped this image in violet and infrared light.


29 October 2012

An unexpected population of young-looking stars

The NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope offers an impressive view of the centre of globular cluster NGC 6362. The image of this spherical collection of stars takes a deeper look at the core of the globular cluster, which contains a high concentration of stars with different colours.

Tightly bound by gravity, globular clusters are composed of old stars, which, at around 10 billion years old, are much older than the Sun. These clusters are fairly common, with more than 150 currently known in our galaxy, the Milky Way, and more which have been spotted in other galaxies.

Globular clusters are among the oldest structures in the Universe that are accessible to direct observational investigation, making them living fossils from the early years of the cosmos.

Astronomers infer important properties of globular clusters by looking at the light from their constituent stars. For many years, they were regarded as ideal laboratories for testing the standard stellar evolution theory. Among other things, this theory suggests that most of the stars within a globular cluster should be of a similar age.

Recently, however, high precision measurements performed in numerous globular clusters, primarily with the Hubble Space Telescope, has led some to question this widely accepted theory. In particular, certain stars appear younger and bluer than their companions, and they have been dubbed blue stragglers. NGC 6362 contains many of these stars.

Since they are usually found in the core regions of clusters, where the concentration of stars is large, the most likely explanation for this unexpected population of objects seems to be that they could be either the result of stellar collisions or transfer of material between stars in binary systems. This influx of new material would heat up the star and make it appear younger than its neighbours.

NGC 6362 is located about 25 000 light-years from Earth in the constellation of Ara (The Altar). British astronomer James Dunlop first observed this globular cluster on 30 June 1826.

This image was created combining ultraviolet, visual and infrared images taken with the Wide Field Channel of the Advanced Camera for Surveys and the Wide Field Camera 3. An image image of NGC 6362 taken by the MPG/ESO 2.2-metre telescope will be published by the European Southern Observatory on Wednesday. See it on www.eso.org from 12:00 on 31 October.


22 October 2012

Violent star formation episodes in dwarf galaxies

The NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope has imaged the faint irregular galaxy NGC 3738, a starburst galaxy. The galaxy is in the midst of a violent episode of star formation, during which it is converting reservoirs of hydrogen gas harboured in the galaxy’s centre into stars. Hubble spots this gas glowing red around NGC 3738, one of the most distinctive signs of ongoing star formation.

Lying in the constellation of Ursa Major (The Great Bear), NGC 3738 is located about 12 million light-years from the Sun, and belongs to the Messier 81 group of galaxies. This galaxy — first observed by astronomer William Herschel  back in 1789 — is a nearby example of a blue compact dwarf, the faintest type of starburst galaxy. Blue compact dwarfs are small compared to large spiral galaxies — NGC 3738 is around 10 000 light-years across, just one tenth of the size of the Milky Way.

This type of galaxy is blue in appearance by virtue of containing large clusters of hot, massive stars, which ionise the surrounding interstellar gas with their intense ultraviolet radiation. They are relatively faint and appear to be irregular in shape. Unlike spirals or elliptical galaxies, irregular galaxies do not have any distinctive features, such as a nuclear bulge or spiral arms. Rather, they are extremely chaotic in appearance. These galaxies are thought to resemble some of the earliest that formed in the Universe and may provide clues as to how stars appeared shortly after the Big Bang. 

This image was created by combining visual and infrared images taken with the Wide Field Channel of the Advanced Camera for Surveys aboard the Hubble Space Telescope. The field of view of the Wide Field Channel is approximately 3.4 by 3.4 arcminutes wide.


15 October 2012

Galaxy in a spin

NGC 3344 is a glorious spiral galaxy around half the size of the Milky Way, which lies 25 million light-years distant. We are fortunate enough to see NGC 3344 face-on, allowing us to study its structure in detail.

The galaxy features an outer ring swirling around an inner ring with a subtle bar structure in the centre. The central regions of the galaxy are predominately populated by young stars, with the galactic fringes also featuring areas of active star formation.

Central bars are found in around two thirds of spiral galaxies. NGC 3344’s is clearly visible here, although it is not as dramatic as some (see for example heic1202).

The high density of stars in galaxies’ central regions gives them enough gravitational influence to affect the movement of other stars in their galaxy. However, NGC 3344’s outer stars are moving in an unusual manner, although the presence of the bar cannot entirely account for this, leaving astronomers puzzled. It is possible that in its past NGC 3344 passed close by another galaxy and accreted stars from it, but more research is needed to state this with confidence.

The image is a combination of exposures taken in visible and near-infrared light, using Hubble’s Advanced Camera for Surveys. The field of view is around 3.4 by 3.4 arcminutes, or around a tenth of the diameter of the full Moon.


8 October 2012

A cosmic garden sprinkler

The Universe is filled with mysterious objects. Many of them are as strange as they are beautiful. Among these, planetary nebulae are probably one of the most fascinating objects to behold in the night sky. No other type of object has such a large variety of shapes and structures. The NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope provides us this week with a striking image of Hen 3-1475, a planetary nebula in the making.

Planetary nebulae — the name arises because most of these objects resembled a planet when they were first discovered through early telescopes — are expanding, glowing shells of gas coming from Sun-like stars at the ends of their lives. They glow brightly because of the radiation that comes from a hot, compact core, which remains after the outer envelope is ejected, and is powerful enough to make these gossamer shells shine.

Each planetary nebula is complex and unique. Hen 3-1475 is a great example of a planetary nebula in the making, a phase which is known to astronomers as a protoplanetary or preplanetary nebula.

Since the central star has not yet blown away its complete shell, the star is not hot enough to ionise the shell of gas and so the nebula does not shine. Rather, we see the expelled gas thanks to light reflected off it. When the star’s envelope is fully ejected, it will begin to glow and become a planetary nebula.

Hen 3-1475 is located in the constellation of Sagittarius around 18 000 light-years away from us. The central star is more than 12 000 times as luminous as our Sun. Its most characteristic feature is a thick torus of dust around the central star and two S-shaped jets that are emerging from the pole regions of the central star. These jets are long outflows of fast-moving gas travelling at hundreds of kilometres per second.

The formation of these bipolar jets has puzzled astronomers for a long time. How can a spherical star form these complex structures? Recent studies suggest that the object’s characteristic shape and the large velocity outflow is created by a central source that ejects streams of gas in opposite directions and precesses once every thousand years. It is like an enormous, slowly rotating garden sprinkler in the middle of the sky. No wonder astronomers also have nicknamed this object the “Garden-sprinkler Nebula”.

This picture was taken with Hubble’s Wide Field Camera 3, which provides significantly higher resolution than previous observations made with the Wide Field and Planetary Camera 2 (heic0308).

Links


1 October 2012

Cosmic riches

This dazzling image shows the globular cluster Messier 69, or M 69 for short, as viewed through the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope. Globular clusters are dense collections of old stars. In this picture, foreground stars look big and golden when set against the backdrop of the thousands of white, silvery stars that make up M 69.

Another aspect of M 69 lends itself to the bejewelled metaphor: As globular clusters go, M 69 is one of the most metal-rich on record. In astronomy, the term “metal” has a specialised meaning: it refers to any element heavier than the two most common elements in our Universe, hydrogen and helium. The nuclear fusion that powers stars created all of the metallic elements in nature, from the calcium in our bones to the carbon in diamonds. Successive generations of stars have built up the metallic abundances we see today.

Because the stars in globular clusters are ancient, their metallic abundances are much lower than more recently formed stars, such as the Sun. Studying the makeup of stars in globular clusters like M 69 has helped astronomers trace back the evolution of the cosmos.

M 69 is located 29 700 light-years away in the constellation Sagittarius (the Archer). The famed French comet hunter Charles Messier added M 69 to his catalogue in 1780. It is also known as NGC 6637.

The image is a combination of exposures taken in visible and near-infrared light by Hubble’s Advanced Camera for Surveys, and covers a field of view of approximately 3.4 by 3.4 arcminutes.


24 September 2012

Hubble portrays a dusty spiral galaxy

The NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope has provided us with another outstanding image of a nearby galaxy. This week, we highlight the galaxy NGC 4183, seen here with a beautiful backdrop of distant galaxies and nearby stars. Located about 55 million light-years from the Sun and spanning about eighty thousand light-years, NGC 4183 is a little smaller than the Milky Way. This galaxy, which belongs to the Ursa Major Group, lies in the northern constellation of Canes Venatici (The Hunting Dogs).

NGC 4183 is a spiral galaxy with a faint core and an open spiral structure. Unfortunately, this galaxy is viewed edge-on from the Earth, and we cannot fully appreciate its spiral arms. But we can admire its galactic disc.

The discs of galaxies are mainly composed of gas, dust and stars. There is evidence of dust over the galactic plane, visible as dark intricate filaments that block the visible light from the core of the galaxy. In addition, recent studies suggest that this galaxy may have a bar structure. Galactic bars are thought to act as a mechanism that channels gas from the spiral arms to the centre, enhancing star formation, which is typically more pronounced in the spiral arms than in the bulge of the galaxy.

British astronomer William Herschel first observed NGC 4183 on 14 January 1778.

This picture was created from visible and infrared images taken with the Wide Field Channel of the Advanced Camera for Surveys. The field of view is approximately 3.4 arcminutes wide.

This image uses data identified by Luca Limatola in the Hubble's Hidden Treasures image processing competition.


17 September 2012

Glowing gas and dark dust in a side-on spiral

The NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope has produced a sharp image of NGC 4634, a spiral galaxy seen exactly side-on. Its disc is slightly warped by ongoing interactions with a nearby galaxy, and it is crisscrossed by clearly defined dust lanes and bright nebulae.

NGC 4634, which lies around 70 million light-years from Earth in the constellation of Coma Berenices, is one of a pair of interacting galaxies. Its neighbour, NGC 4633, lies just outside the upper right corner of the frame, and is visible in wide-field views of the galaxy. While it may be out of sight, it is not out of mind: its subtle effects on NGC 4634 are easy to see to a well-trained eye.

Gravitational interactions pull the neat spiral forms of galaxies out of shape as they get closer to each other, and the disruption to gas clouds triggers vigorous episodes of star formation. While this galaxy’s spiral pattern is not directly visible thanks to our side-on perspective, its disc is slightly warped, and there is clear evidence of star formation.

Along the full length of the galaxy, and scattered around parts of its halo, are bright pink nebulae. Similar to the Orion Nebula in the Milky Way, these are clouds of gas that are gradually coalescing into stars. The powerful radiation from the stars excites the gas and makes it light up, much like a fluorescent sign. The large number of these star formation regions is a telltale sign of gravitational interaction.

The dark filamentary structures that are scattered along the length of the galaxy are caused by cold interstellar dust blocking some of the starlight.

Hubble’s image is a combination of exposures in visible light produced by Hubble’s Advanced Camera for Surveys and the Wide Field and Planetary Camera 2.


10 September 2012

NGC 7090 — An actively star-forming galaxy

This image portrays a beautiful view of the galaxy NGC 7090, as seen by the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope. The galaxy is viewed edge-on from the Earth, meaning we cannot easily see the spiral arms, which are full of young, hot stars.

However, our side-on view shows the galaxy’s disc and the bulging central core, where typically a large group of cool old stars are packed in a compact, spheroidal region. In addition, there are two interesting features present in the image that are worth mentioning.

First, we are able to distinguish an intricate pattern of pinkish red regions over the whole galaxy. This indicates the presence of clouds of hydrogen gas. These structures trace the location of ongoing star formation, visual confirmation of recent studies that classify NGC 7090 as an actively star-forming galaxy.

Second, we observe dust lanes, depicted as dark regions inside the disc of the galaxy. In NGC 7090, these regions are mostly located in lower half of the galaxy, showing an intricate filamentary structure. Looking from the outside in through the whole disc, the light emitted from the bright centre of the galaxy is absorbed by the dust, silhouetting the dusty regions against the bright light in the background.

Dust in our galaxy, the Milky Way, has been one of the worst enemies of observational astronomers for decades. But this does not mean that these regions are quite blind spots in the sky. At near-infrared wavelengths — slightly longer wavelengths than visible light — this dust is largely transparent and astronomers are able to study what is really behind it. At still longer wavelengths, the realm of radio astronomy, the dust itself can actually be observed, letting astronomers study the structure and properties of dust clouds and their relationship with star formation.

Lying in the southern constellation of Indus (The Indian), NGC 7090 is located about thirty million light-years from the Sun. Astronomer John Herschel first observed this galaxy on 4 October, 1834.

The image was taken using the Wide Field Channel of the Advanced Camera for Surveys aboard the Hubble Space Telescope and combines orange light (coloured blue here), infrared (coloured red) and emissions from glowing hydrogen gas (also in red).

A version of this image of NGC 7090 was entered into the Hubble’s Hidden Treasures Image Processing Competition by contestant Rasid Tugral. Hidden Treasures is an initiative to invite astronomy enthusiasts to search the Hubble archive for stunning images that have never been seen by the general public. The competition is now closed and the list of winners is available here.


3 September 2012

Ancient orbs

This sparkling picture taken by the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope shows the centre of globular cluster M 4. The power of Hubble has resolved the cluster into a multitude of glowing orbs, each a colossal nuclear furnace.

M 4 is relatively close to us, lying 7200 light-years distant, making it a prime object for study. It contains several tens of thousand stars and is noteworthy in being home to many white dwarfs — the cores of ancient, dying stars whose outer layers have drifted away into space.

In July 2003, Hubble helped make the astounding discovery of a planet called PSR B1620-26 b, 2.5 times the mass of Jupiter, which is located in this cluster. Its age is estimated to be around 13 billion years — almost three times as old as the Solar System! It is also unusual in that it orbits a binary system of a white dwarf and a pulsar (a type of neutron star).

Amateur stargazers may like to track M 4 down in the night sky. Use binoculars or a small telescope to scan the skies near the orange-red star Antares in Scorpius. M 4 is bright for a globular cluster, but it won’t look anything like Hubble’s detailed image: it will appear as a fuzzy ball of light in your eyepiece.

On Wednesday 5 September, the European Southern Observatory (ESO) will publish a wide-field image of M 4, showing the full spheroidal shape of the globular cluster. See it at www.eso.org on Wednesday.


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