Picture of the Week

Also see our pictures of the week on eso.org.
27 August 2012

Spotting a supernova in NGC 5806

A new image from the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope shows NGC 5806, a spiral galaxy in the constellation Virgo (the Virgin). It lies around 80 million light years from Earth. Also visible in this image is a supernova explosion called SN 2004dg.

The exposures that are combined into this image were carried out in early 2005 in order to help pinpoint the location of the supernova, which exploded in 2004. The afterglow from this outburst of light, caused by a giant star exploding at the end of its life, can be seen as a faint yellowish dot near the bottom of the galaxy.

NGC 5806 was chosen to be one of a number of galaxies in a study into supernovae because Hubble’s archive already contained high resolution imagery of the galaxy, collected before the star had exploded. Since supernovae are both relatively rare, and impossible to predict with any accuracy, the existence of such before-and-after images is precious for astronomers who study these violent events.

Aside from the supernova, NGC 5806 is a relatively unremarkable galaxy: it is neither particularly large or small, nor especially close or distant.

The galaxy’s bulge (the densest part in the centre of the spiral arms) is a so-called disk-type bulge, in which the spiral structure extends right to the centre of the galaxy, instead of there being a large elliptical bulge of stars present. It is also home to an active galaxy nucleus, a supermassive black hole which is pulling in large amounts of matter from its immediate surroundings. As the matter spirals around the black hole, it heats up and emits powerful radiation.

This image is produced from three exposures in visible and infrared light, observed by Hubble’s Advanced Camera for Surveys. The field of view is approximately 3.3 by 1.7 arcminutes.

A version of this image was entered into the Hubble’s Hidden Treasures Image Processing Competition by contestant Andre van der Hoeven (who won second prize in the competition for his image of Messier 77). 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 has now closed.


20 August 2012

A collection of ancient stars

The NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope has produced this beautiful image of the globular cluster Messier 56 (also known as M 56 or NGC 6779), which is located about 33 000 light years away from the Earth in the constellation of Lyra (The Lyre). The cluster is composed of a large number of stars, tightly bound to each other by gravity.

However, this was not known when Charles Messier first observed it in January 1779.  He described Messier 56 as “a nebula without stars”, like most globular clusters that he discovered — his telescope was not powerful enough to individually resolve any of the stars visible here, making it look like a fuzzy ball through his telescope’s eyepiece. We clearly see from Hubble’s image how the development of technology over the years has helped our understanding of astronomical objects.

Astronomers typically infer important properties of globular clusters by looking at the light of their constituent stars. But they have to be very careful when they observe objects like Messier 56, which is located close to the Galactic plane. This region is crowded by “field-stars”, in other words, stars in the Milky Way that happen to lie in the same direction but do not belong to the cluster. These objects can contaminate the light, and hence undermine the conclusions reached by astronomers.  

A tool often used by scientists for studying stellar clusters is the colour-magnitude (or Hertzsprung-Russell) diagram. This chart compares the brightness and colour of stars – which in turn, tells scientists what the surface temperature of a star is.

By comparing high quality observations taken with the Hubble Space Telescope with results from the standard theory of stellar evolution, astronomers can characterise the properties of a cluster. In the case of Messier 56, this includes its age, which at 13 billion years is approximately three times the age of the Sun. Furthermore, they have also been able to study the chemical composition of Messier 56. The cluster has relatively few elements heavier than hydrogen and helium, typically a sign of stars that were born early in the Universe’s history, before many of the elements in existence today were formed in significant quantities.

Astronomers have found that the majority of clusters with this type of chemical makeup lie along a plane in the Milky Way’s halo. This suggests that such clusters were captured from a satellite galaxy, rather than being the oldest members of the Milky Way's globular cluster system as had been previously thought.

This image consists of visible and near-infrared exposures from Hubble’s Advanced Camera for Surveys. The field of view is approximately 3.3 by 3.3 arcminutes.

A version of this image was entered into the Hubble’s Hidden Treasures Image Processing Competition by contestant Gilles Chapdelaine. 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 has now closed and the results will be published soon.


13 August 2012

A lonely galactic island

In terms of intergalactic real estate, our Solar System has a plumb location as part of a big, spiral galaxy, the Milky Way. Numerous, less glamorous dwarf galaxies, keep the Milky Way company. Many galaxies, however, are comparatively isolated, without close neighbours. One such example is the small galaxy known as DDO 190, snapped here in a new image from the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope.

DDO 190 is classified as a dwarf irregular galaxy as it is relatively small and lacks clear structure. Older, reddish stars mostly populate DDO 190’s outskirts, while some younger, bluish stars gleam in DDO 190’s more crowded interior. Some pockets of ionised gas heated up by stars appear here and there, with the most noticeable one shining towards the bottom of DDO 190 in this picture. Meanwhile, a great number of distant galaxies with evident spiral, elliptical and less-defined shapes glow in the background.

DDO 190 lies around nine million light-years away from our Solar System. It is considered part of the loosely associated Messier 94 group of galaxies, not far from the Local Group of galaxies that includes the Milky Way. Canadian astronomer Sidney van der Bergh was the first to record DDO 190 in 1959 as part of the DDO catalogue of dwarf galaxies. (“DDO” stands for the David Dunlap Observatory, now managed by the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada, where the catalogue was created).

Although within the Messier 94 group, DDO 190 is on its own. The galaxy’s nearest dwarf galaxy neighbour, DDO 187, is thought to be no closer than three million light-years away. In contrast, many of the Milky Way’s companion galaxies, such as the Large and Small Magellanic Clouds, reside within a fifth or so of that distance, and even the giant spiral of the Andromeda Galaxy is closer to the Milky Way than DDO 190 is to its nearest neighbour.

Hubble’s Advanced Camera for Surveys captured this image in visible and infrared light. The field of view is around 3.3 by 3.3 arcminutes

A version of this image was entered into the Hubble’s Hidden Treasures Image Processing Competition by contestant Claude Cornen. 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 has now closed and the results will be published soon.


6 August 2012

Close encounter with the Tarantula

Turning its 2.4-metre eye to the Tarantula Nebula, the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope has taken this close-up of the outskirts of the main cloud of the Nebula.

The bright wispy structures are the signature of an environment rich in ionised hydrogen gas, called H II by astronomers. In reality these appear red, but the choice of filters and colours of this image, which includes exposures both in visible and infrared light, make the gas appear green.

These regions contain recently formed stars, which emit powerful ultraviolet radiation that ionises the gas around them. These clouds are ephemeral as eventually the stellar winds from the newborn stars and the ionisation process will blow away the clouds, leaving stellar clusters like the Pleiades.

Located in the Large Magellanic Cloud, one of our neighbouring galaxies, and situated at a distance of 170 000 light-years away from Earth, the Tarantula Nebula is the brightest known nebula in the Local Group of galaxies. It is also the largest (around 650 light-years across) and most active star-forming region known in our group of galaxies, containing numerous clouds of dust and gas and two bright star clusters. A recent Hubble image shows a large part of the nebula immediately adjacent to this field of view.

The cluster at the Tarantula nebula’s centre is relatively young and very bright. While it is outside the field of view of this image, the energy from it is responsible for most of the brightness of the Nebula, including the part we see here. The nebula is in fact so luminous that if it were located within 1000 light-years from Earth, it would cast shadows on our planet.

The Tarantula Nebula was host to the closest supernova ever detected since the invention of the telescope, supernova 1987A, which was visible to the naked eye.

The image was produced by Hubble’s Advanced Camera for Surveys, and has a field of view of approximately 3.3 by 3.3 arcminutes.

A version of this image was entered into the Hubble’s Hidden Treasures Image Processing Competition by contestant Judy Schmidt. 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 has now closed and the results will be published soon.



30 July 2012

A ten billion year stellar dance

The NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope offers this delightful view of the crowded stellar encampment called Messier 68, a spherical, star-filled region of space known as a globular cluster. Mutual gravitational attraction amongst a cluster’s hundreds of thousands or even millions of stars keeps stellar members in check, allowing globular clusters to hang together for many billions of years.

Astronomers can measure the ages of globular clusters by looking at the light of their constituent stars. The chemical elements leave signatures in this light, and the starlight reveals that globular clusters' stars typically contain fewer heavy elements, such as carbon, oxygen and iron, than stars like the Sun. Since successive generations of stars gradually create these elements through nuclear fusion, stars having fewer of them are relics of earlier epochs in the Universe. Indeed, the stars in globular clusters rank among the oldest on record, dating back more than 10 billion years.

More than 150 of these objects surround our Milky Way galaxy. On a galactic scale, globular clusters are indeed not all that big. In Messier 68's case, its constituent stars span a volume of space with a diameter of little more than a hundred light-years. The disc of the Milky Way, on the other hand, extends over some 100 000 light-years or more.

Messier 68 is located about 33 000 light-years from Earth in the constellation Hydra (The Female Water Snake). French astronomer Charles Messier notched the object as the sixty-eighth entry in his famous catalogue in 1780.

Hubble added Messier 68 to its own impressive list of cosmic targets in this image using the Wide Field Camera of Hubble’s Advanced Camera for Surveys. The image, which combines visible and infrared light, has a field of view of approximately 3.4 by 3.4 arcminutes.


23 July 2012

A galaxy festooned with stellar nurseries

The galaxy NGC 4700 bears the signs of the vigorous birth of many new stars in this image captured by the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope.

The many bright, pinkish clouds in NGC 4700 are known as H II regions, where intense ultraviolet light from hot young stars is causing nearby hydrogen gas to glow. H II regions often come part-and-parcel with the vast molecular clouds that spawn fresh stars, thus giving rise to the locally ionised gas.

In 1610, French astronomer Nicolas-Claude Fabri de Peiresc peered through a telescope and found what turned out to be the first H II region on record: the Orion Nebula, located relatively close to our Solar System here in the Milky Way. Astronomers study these regions throughout the Milky Way and those easily seen in other galaxies to gauge the chemical makeup of cosmic environments and their influence on the formation of stars.

NGC 4700 was discovered back in March 1786 by the British astronomer William Herschel who noted it as a “very faint nebula”. NGC 4700, along with many other relatively close galaxies, is found in the constellation of Virgo (The Virgin) and is classified as a barred spiral galaxy, similar in structure to the Milky Way. It lies about 50 million light-years from us and is moving away from us at about 1400 km/second due to the expansion of the Universe.


16 July 2012

An audience of stellar flashbulbs

The NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope has captured a crowd of stars that looks rather like a stadium darkened before a show, lit only by the flashbulbs of the audience’s cameras. Yet the many stars of this object, known as Messier 107, are not a fleeting phenomenon, at least by human reckoning of time — these ancient stars have gleamed for many billions of years.

Messier 107 is one of more than 150 globular star clusters found around the disc of the Milky Way galaxy. These spherical collections each contain hundreds of thousands of extremely old stars and are among the oldest objects in the Milky Way. The origin of globular clusters and their impact on galactic evolution remains somewhat unclear, so astronomers continue to study them through pictures such as this one obtained by Hubble.

As globular clusters go, Messier 107 is not particularly dense. Visually comparing its appearance to other globular clusters, such as Messier 53 or Messier 54 reveals that the stars within Messier 107 are not packed as tightly, thereby making its members more distinct like individual fans in a stadium's stands.

Messier 107 can be found in the constellation of Ophiuchus (The Serpent Bearer) and is located about 20 000 light-years from the Solar System.

French astronomer Pierre Méchain first noted the object in 1782, and British astronomer William Herschel documented it independently a year later. A Canadian astronomer, Helen Sawyer Hogg, added Messier 107 to Charles Messier's famous astronomical catalogue in 1947.

This picture was obtained with the Wide Field Camera of Hubble’s Advanced Camera for Surveys. The field of view is approximately 3.4 by 3.4 arcminutes.


9 July 2012

A galactic disc, edge-on and up close

This image snapped by the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope reveals an exquisitely detailed view of part of the disc of the spiral galaxy NGC 4565. This bright galaxy is one of the most famous examples of an edge-on spiral galaxy, oriented perpendicularly to our line of sight so that we see right into its luminous disc. NGC 4565 has been nicknamed the Needle Galaxy because, when seen in full, it appears as a very narrow streak of light on the sky.

The edgewise view into the Needle Galaxy shown here looks very similar to the view we have from our Solar System into the core of the Milky Way. In both cases ribbons of dust block some of the light coming from the galactic disc. To the lower right, the dust stands in even starker contrast against the copious yellow light from the star-filled central regions. NGC 4565’s core is off camera to the lower right. For a full view of NGC 4565 for comparison’s sake, see this wider field of view from ESO’s Very Large Telescope.

Studying galaxies like NGC 4565 helps astronomers learn more about our home, the Milky Way. At a distance of only about 40 million light-years, NGC 4565 is relatively close by, and being seen edge-on makes it a particularly useful object for comparative study. As spiral galaxies go, NGC 4565 is a whopper — about a third as big again as the Milky Way.

The image was taken with Hubble’s Advanced Camera for Surveys and has a field of view of 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 Josh Barrington. 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 has now closed and the results will be published soon.


2 July 2012

Red giant blows a bubble

A bright star is surrounded by a tenuous shell of gas in this unusual image from the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope. U Camelopardalis, or U Cam for short, is a star nearing the end of its life. As it begins to run low on fuel, it is becoming unstable. Every few thousand years, it coughs out a nearly spherical shell of gas as a layer of helium around its core begins to fuse. The gas ejected in the star’s latest eruption is clearly visible in this picture as a faint bubble of gas surrounding the star.

U Cam is an example of a carbon star. This is a rare type of star whose atmosphere contains more carbon than oxygen. Due to its low surface gravity, typically as much as half of the total mass of a carbon star may be lost by way of powerful stellar winds.

Located in the constellation of Camelopardalis (The Giraffe), near the North Celestial Pole, U Cam itself is actually much smaller than it appears in Hubble’s picture. In fact, the star would easily fit within a single pixel at the centre of the image. Its brightness, however, is enough to overwhelm the capability of Hubble’s Advanced Camera for Surveys making the star look much bigger than it really is.

The shell of gas, which is both much larger and much fainter than its parent star, is visible in intricate detail in Hubble’s portrait. While phenomena that occur at the ends of stars’ lives are often quite irregular and unstable (see for example Hubble’s images of Eta Carinae, potw1208a), the shell of gas expelled from U Cam is almost perfectly spherical.

The image was produced with the High Resolution Channel of the Advanced Camera for Surveys.


25 June 2012

A vapour of stars

Relatively few galaxies possess the sweeping, luminous spiral arms or brightly glowing centre of our home galaxy the Milky Way. In fact, most of the Universe's galaxies look like small, amorphous clouds of vapour. One of these galaxies is DDO 82, captured here in an image from the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope. Though tiny compared to the Milky Way, such dwarf galaxies still contain between a few million and a few billion stars.

DDO 82, also known by the designation UGC 5692, is not without a hint of structure, however. Astronomers classify it as an Sm galaxy, or Magellanic spiral galaxy, named after the Large Magellanic Cloud, a dwarf galaxy that orbits the Milky Way. That galaxy, like DDO 82, is said to have one spiral arm.

In the case of DDO 82, gravitational interactions over its history seem to have discombobulated it so that this structure is not as evident as in the Large Magellanic Cloud. Accordingly, astronomers also refer to DDO 82 and others of a similar unshapely nature as dwarf irregular galaxies.       

DDO 82 can be found in the constellation of Ursa Major (the Great Bear) approximately 13 million light-years away. The object is considered part of the M81 Group of around three dozen galaxies. DDO 82 gets its name from its entry number in the David Dunlap Observatory Catalogue. Canadian astronomer Sidney van den Bergh originally compiled this list of dwarf galaxies in 1959.

The image is made up of exposures taken in visible and infrared light by Hubble’s Advanced Camera for Surveys. The field of view is approximately 3.3 by 3.3 arcminutes.


18 June 2012

Globular Cluster M 10

Like many of the most famous objects in the sky, globular cluster Messier 10 was of little interest to its discoverer: Charles Messier, the 18th century French astronomer, catalogued over 100 galaxies and clusters, but was primarily interested in comets. Through the telescopes available at the time, comets, nebulae, globular clusters and galaxies appeared just as faint, diffuse blobs and could easily be confused for one another.

Only by carefully observing their motion — or lack of it — were astronomers able to distinguish them: comets move slowly relative to the stars in the background, while other more distant astronomical objects do not move at all.

Messier’s decision to catalogue all the objects that he could find and that were not comets, was a pragmatic solution which would have a huge impact on astronomy. His catalogue of just over 100 objects includes many of the most famous objects in the night sky. Messier 10, seen here in an image from the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope, is one of them. Messier described it in the very first edition of his catalogue, which was published in 1774 and included the first 45 objects he identified.

Messier 10 is a ball of stars that lies about 15 000 light-years from Earth, in the constellation of Ophiuchus (The Serpent Bearer). Approximately 80 light-years across, it should therefore appear about two thirds the size of the Moon in the night sky. However, its outer regions are extremely diffuse, and even the comparatively bright core is too dim to see with the naked eye.

Hubble, which has no problems seeing faint objects, has observed the brightest part of the centre of the cluster in this image, a region which is about 13 light-years across.

This image is made up of observations made in visible and infrared light using Hubble’s Advanced Camera for Surveys. The observations were carried out as part of a major Hubble survey of globular clusters in the Milky Way.

A version of this image was entered into the Hubble’s Hidden Treasures Image Processing Competition by contestant flashenthunder. 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 has now closed and the results will be published soon.



11 June 2012

Compact blue dwarf can’t hide

The NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope has captured this view of the dwarf galaxy UGC 5497, which looks a bit like salt dashed on black velvet in this image.

The object is a compact blue dwarf galaxy that is infused with newly formed clusters of stars. The bright, blue stars that arise in these clusters help to give the galaxy an overall bluish appearance that lasts for several million years until these fast-burning stars explode as supernovae.

UGC 5497 is considered part of the M 81 group of galaxies, which is located about 12 million light-years away in the constellation Ursa Major (The Great Bear). UGC 5497 turned up in a ground-based telescope survey back in 2008 looking for new dwarf galaxy candidates associated with Messier 81.

According to the leading cosmological theory of galaxy formation, called Lambda Cold Dark Matter, there should be far more satellite dwarf galaxies associated with big galaxies like the Milky Way and Messier 81 than are currently known. Finding previously overlooked objects such as this one has helped cut into the expected tally — but only by a small amount.

Astrophysicists therefore remain puzzled over the so-called "missing satellite" problem.

The field of view in this image, which is a combination of visible and infrared exposures from Hubble’s Advanced Camera for Surveys, is approximately 3.4 by 3.4 arcminutes.


4 June 2012

A bright spark in a nearby spiral galaxy

This image, taken by the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope, shows a detailed view of the spiral arms on one side of the galaxy Messier 99. Messier 99 is a so-called grand design spiral, with long, large and clearly defined spiral arms — giving it a structure somewhat similar to the Milky Way.

Lying around 50 million light-years away, Messier 99 is one of over a thousand galaxies that make up the Virgo Cluster, the closest cluster of galaxies to us. Messier 99 itself is relatively bright and large, meaning it was one of the first galaxies to be discovered, way back in the 18th century. This earned it a place in Charles Messier’s famous catalogue of astronomical objects.

In recent years, a number of unexplained phenomena in Messier 99 have been studied by astronomers. Among these is the nature of one of the brighter stars visible in this image. Catalogued as PTF 10fqs, and visible as a yellow-orange star in the top-left corner of this image, it was first spotted by the Palomar Transient Facility, which scans the skies for sudden changes in brightness (or transient phenomena, to use astronomers’ jargon). These can be caused by different kinds of event, including variable stars and supernova explosions.

What is unusual about PTF 10fqs is that it has so far defied classification: it is brighter than a nova (a bright eruption on a star’s surface), but fainter than a supernova (the explosion that marks the end of life for a large star). Scientists have offered a number of possible explanations, including the intriguing suggestion that it could have been caused by a giant planet plunging into its parent  star.

This Hubble image was made in June 2010, during the period when the outburst was fading, so PTF 10fqs’s location could be pinpointed with great precision. These measurements will allow other telescopes to home in on the star in future, even when the afterglow of the outburst has faded to nothing.

A version of this image of M 99 was entered into the Hubble’s Hidden Treasures Competition by contestant Matej Novak. 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 winners will be announced soon.


28 May 2012

The swan and the butterfly

This image from the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope shows NGC 7026, a planetary nebula. Located just beyond the tip of the tail of the constellation of Cygnus (The Swan), this butterfly-shaped cloud of glowing gas and dust is the wreckage of a star similar to the Sun.

Planetary nebulae, despite their name, have nothing to do with planets. They are in fact a relatively short-lived phenomenon that occurs at the end of the life of mid-sized stars. As a star’s source of nuclear fuel runs out, its outer layers are puffed out, leaving only the hot core of the star behind. As the gaseous envelope heats up, the atoms in it are excited, and it lights up like a fluorescent sign.

Fluorescent lights on Earth get their bright colours from the gases they are filled with. Neon signs, famously, produce a bright red colour, while ultraviolet lights (black lights) typically contain mercury. The same goes for nebulae: their vivid colours are produced by the mix of gases present in them.

This image of NGC 7026 shows starlight in green, light from glowing nitrogen gas in red, and light from oxygen in blue (in reality, this appears green, but the colour in this image has been shifted to increase the contrast).

As well as visible light, NGC 7026 emits X-ray radiation, and has been studied by ESA’s XMM-Newton space telescope. X-rays are a result of the extremely high temperatures of the gas in NGC 7026.

This image was produced by the Wide Field and Planetary Camera 2 aboard the Hubble Space Telescope. The image is 35 by 35 arcseconds.

A version of this image was entered into the Hubble’s Hidden Treasures Competition by contestant Linda Morgan-O'Connor. 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.


21 May 2012

A spiral within a spiral

The NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope captured this image of the spiral galaxy known as ESO 498-G5. One interesting feature of this galaxy is that its spiral arms wind all the way into the centre, so that ESO 498-G5's core looks like a bit like a miniature spiral galaxy. This sort of structure is in contrast to the elliptical star-filled centres (or bulges) of many other spiral galaxies, which instead appear as glowing masses, as in the case of NGC 6384.

Astronomers refer to the distinctive spiral-like bulge of galaxies such as ESO 498-G5 as disc-type bulges, or pseudobulges, while bright elliptical centres are called classical bulges. Observations from the Hubble Space Telescope, which does not have to contend with the distorting effects of Earth's atmosphere, have helped to reveal that these two different types of galactic centres exist. These observations have also shown that star formation is still going on in disc-type bulges and has ceased in classical bulges. This means that galaxies can be a bit like Russian matryoshka dolls: classical bulges look much like a miniature version of an elliptical galaxy, embedded in the centre of a spiral, while disc-type bulges look like a second, smaller spiral galaxy located at the heart of the first — a spiral within a spiral.

The similarities between types of galaxy bulge and types of galaxy go beyond their appearance. Just like giant elliptical galaxies, the classical bulges consist of great swarms of stars moving about in random orbits. Conversely, the structure and movement of stars within disc-type bulges mirror the spiral arms arrayed in a galaxy's disc. These differences suggest different origins for the two types of bulges: while classical bulges are thought to develop through major events, such as mergers with other galaxies, disc-type bulges evolve gradually, developing their spiral pattern as stars and gas migrate to the galaxy’s centre.

ESO 498-G5 is located around 100 million light-years away in the constellation of Pyxis (The Compass). This image is made up of exposures in visible and infrared light taken by Hubble’s Advanced Camera for Surveys. The field of view is approximately 3.3 by 1.6 arcminutes.


14 May 2012

Edge-on beauty

Visible in the constellation of Andromeda, NGC 891 is located approximately 30 million light-years away from Earth. The NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope turned its powerful wide field Advanced Camera for Surveys towards this spiral galaxy and took this close-up of its northern half. The galaxy's central bulge is just out of the image on the bottom left.

The galaxy, spanning some 100 000 light-years, is seen exactly edge-on, and reveals its thick plane of dust and interstellar gas. While initially thought to look like our own Milky Way if seen from the side, more detailed surveys revealed the existence of filaments of dust and gas escaping the plane of the galaxy into the halo over hundreds of light-years. They can be clearly seen here against the bright background of the galaxy halo, expanding into space from the disc of the galaxy.

Astronomers believe these filaments to be the result of the ejection of material due to supernovae or intense stellar formation activity. By lighting up when they are born, or exploding when they die, stars cause powerful winds that can blow dust and gas over hundreds of light-years in space.

A few foreground stars from the Milky Way shine brightly in the image, while distant elliptical galaxies can be seen in the lower right of the image.

NGC 891 is part of a small group of galaxies bound together by gravity. 

A version of this image was entered into the Hubble’s Hidden Treasures Image Processing Competition by contestant Nick Rose. 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.


7 May 2012

Using the Moon as a mirror — Hubble to watch transit of Venus in reflected light

This mottled landscape showing the impact crater Tycho is among the most violent-looking places on our Moon. But astronomers didn’t aim the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope in this direction to study Tycho itself. The image was taken in preparation for the transit of Venus across the Sun’s face on on 5-6 June 2012.

Hubble cannot look at the Sun directly, so astronomers are planning to point the telescope at Earth’s Moon and use it as a mirror to capture reflected sunlight. During the transit a small fraction of that light will have passed through Venus’s atmosphere and imprinted on that light astronomers expect to find the fingerprints of the planet’s atmospheric makeup.

These observations will mimic a technique that is already being used to sample the atmospheres of giant planets outside our Solar System passing in front of their stars. In the case of the Venus transit observations, astronomers already know the chemical makeup of Venus’s atmosphere, and that it shows no signs of life. But they can use the event to test whether their technique has a chance of detecting the very faint fingerprints of the atmosphere of an Earth-like planet around another star.

This image shows an area approximately 700 kilometres across, and reveals lunar features as small as roughly 170 metres across. The large bullseye near the top of the picture is the impact crater itself, caused by an asteroid strike about 100 million years ago. The bright trail radiating from the crater were formed by material ejected from the impact area during the asteroid collision. Tycho is about 80 kilometers wide and is circled by a rim of material rising almost 5 kilometers above the crater floor.

Because the astronomers only have one shot at observing the transit, they had to carefully plan how the study would be carried out. Part of their planning included these test observations of the Moon made on 11 January 2012.

This is the last time this century sky watchers can view Venus passing in front of the Sun, as the next transit will not happen until 2117.

The image was produced by Hubble’s Advanced Camera for Surveys. A narrow strip along the centre, and small parts of the upper left part of the image were not imaged by Hubble during its observations, and show data from lower-resolution observations made by a ground-based telescope.


30 April 2012

The eye of the storm

This image from the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope could seem like a quiet patch of sky at first glance. But zooming into the central part of a galaxy cluster — one of the largest structures of the Universe — is rather like looking at the eye of the storm.

Clusters of galaxies are large groups consisting of dozens to hundreds of galaxies, which are bound together by gravity. The galaxies sometimes stray too close to one another and the huge gravitational forces at play can distort them or even rip matter off when they collide with one another.

This particular cluster, called Abell 1185, is a chaotic one. Galaxies of various shapes and sizes are drifting dangerously close to one another. Some have already been ripped apart in this cosmic maelstrom, shedding trails of matter into the void following their close encounter. They have formed a familiar shape called The Guitar, located just outside the frame of this image.

Abell 1185 is located approximately 400 million light-years away from Earth and spans one million light-years across. A few of the elliptical galaxies that form the cluster are visible in the corners of this image, but mostly, the small elliptical shapes seen are faraway galaxies in the background, located much further away, in a quieter area of the Universe.


23 April 2012

Hubble images searchlight beams from a preplanetary nebula

The NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope has been at the cutting edge of research into what happens to stars like our Sun at the ends of their lives (see for example Hubblecast 51). One stage that stars pass through as they run out of nuclear fuel is the preplanetary, or protoplanetary nebula. This Hubble image of the Egg Nebula shows one of the best views to date of this brief but dramatic phase in a star’s life.

The preplanetary nebula phase is a short period in the cycle of stellar evolution — over a few thousand years, the hot remains of the star in the centre of the nebula heat it up, excite the gas, and make it glow as a planetary nebula. The short lifespan of preplanetary nebulae means there are relatively few of them in existence at any one time. Moreover, they are very dim, requiring powerful telescopes to be seen. This combination of rarity and faintness means they were only discovered comparatively recently. The Egg Nebula, the first to be discovered, was first spotted less than 40 years ago, and many aspects of this class of object remain shrouded in mystery.

At the centre of this image, and hidden in a thick cloud of dust, is the nebula’s central star. While we can’t see the star directly, four searchlight beams of light coming from it shine out through the nebula. It is thought that ring-shaped holes in the thick cocoon of dust, carved by jets coming from the star, let the beams of light emerge through the otherwise opaque cloud. The precise mechanism by which stellar jets produce these holes is not known for certain, but one possible explanation is that a binary star system, rather than a single star, exists at the centre of the nebula.

The onion-like layered structure of the more diffuse cloud surrounding the central cocoon is caused by periodic bursts of material being ejected from the dying star. The bursts typically occur every few hundred years.

The distance to the Egg Nebula is only known very approximately, the best guess placing it at around 3000 light-years from Earth. This in turn means that astronomers do not have any accurate figures for the size of the nebula (it may be larger and further away, or smaller but nearer).

This image is produced from exposures in visible and infrared light from Hubble’s Wide Field Camera 3.


16 April 2012

Hubble peeks inside a stellar cloud

These bright stars shining through what looks like a haze in the night sky are part of a young stellar grouping in one of the largest known star formation regions of the Large Magellanic Cloud (LMC), a dwarf satellite galaxy of the Milky Way. The image was captured by the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope’s Wide Field Planetary Camera 2.

The stellar grouping is known to stargazers as NGC 2040 or LH 88. It is essentially a very loose star cluster whose stars have a common origin and are drifting together through space. There are three different types of stellar associations defined by their stellar properties. NGC 2040 is an OB association, a grouping that usually contains 10–100 stars of type O and B — these are high-mass stars that have short but brilliant lives. It is thought that most of the stars in the Milky Way were born in OB associations.

There are several such groupings of stars in the LMC, including one previously featured as a Hubble Picture of the Week. Just like the others, LH 88 consists of several high-mass young stars in a large nebula of partially ionised hydrogen gas, and lies in what is known to be a supergiant shell of gas called LMC 4.

Over a period of several million years, thousands of stars may form in these supergiant shells, which are the largest interstellar structures in galaxies. The shells themselves are believed to have been created by strong stellar winds and clustered supernova explosions of massive stars that blow away surrounding dust and gas, and in turn trigger further episodes of star formation.

The LMC is the third closest galaxy to our Milky Way. It is located some 160 000 light-years away, and is about 100 times smaller than our own.

This image, which shows ultraviolet, visible and infrared light, covers a field of view of approximately 1.8 by 1.8 arcminutes.

A version of this image was entered into the Hubble’s Hidden Treasures Image Processing Competition by contestant Eedresha Sturdivant. 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.


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