Picture of the Week

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


9 April 2012

Tight and bright

In this image, the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope has captured the brilliance of the compact centre of Messier 70, a globular cluster. Quarters are always tight in globular clusters, where the mutual hold of gravity binds together hundreds of thousands of stars in a small region of space. Having this many shining stars piled on top of one another from our perspective makes globular clusters a popular target for amateur skywatchers and scientists alike. Messier 70 offers a special case because it has undergone what is known as a core collapse. In these clusters, even more stars squeeze into the object's core than on average, such that the brightness of the cluster increases steadily towards its centre.

The legions of stars in a globular cluster orbit about a shared centre of gravity. Some stars maintain relatively circular orbits, while others loop out into the cluster's fringes. As the stars interact with each other over time, lighter stars tend to pick up speed and migrate out toward the cluster's edges, while the heavier stars slow and congregate in orbits toward the centre. This huddling effect produces the denser, brighter centres characteristic of core-collapsed clusters. About a fifth of the more than 150 globular clusters in the Milky Way have undergone a core collapse.

Although many globular clusters call the galaxy's edges home, Messier 70 orbits close to the Milky Way's centre, around 30 000 light-years away from the Solar System. It is remarkable that Messier 70 has held together so well, given the strong gravitational pull of the Milky Way's hub.

Messier 70 is only about 68 light-years in diameter and can be seen, albeit very faintly, with binoculars in dark skies in the constellation of Sagittarius (The Archer). French astronomer Charles Messier documented the object in 1780 as the seventieth entry in his famous astronomical catalogue.

This picture was obtained with the Wide Field Camera of Hubble’s Advanced Camera for Surveys. The field of view is around 3.3 by 3.3 arcminutes.


2 April 2012

A spiral galaxy in Hydra

This image from the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope shows NGC 4980, a spiral galaxy in the southern constellation of Hydra. The shape of NGC 4980 appears slightly deformed, something which is often a sign of recent tidal interactions with another galaxy. In this galaxy’s case, however, this appears not to be the case as there are no other galaxies in its immediate vicinity.

The image was produced as part of a research program into the nature of galactic bulges, the bright, dense, elliptical centres of galaxies. Classical bulges are relatively disordered, with stars orbiting the galactic centre in all directions. In contrast, in galaxies with so-called pseudobulges, or disc-type bulges, the movement of the spiral arms is preserved right to the centre of the galaxy.

Although the spiral structure is relatively subtle in this image, scientists have shown that NGC 4980 has a disc-type bulge, and its rotating spiral structure extends to the very centre of the galaxy.

Galaxies’ bright arms are the location of new star formation in spiral galaxies, and NGC 4980 is no exception. The galaxy’s arms are traced out by blue pockets of extremely hot newborn stars are visible across much of its disc. This sets it apart from the reddish galaxies visible in the background, which are distant elliptical galaxies made up of much older, and hence redder, stars.

This image is composed of exposures taken in visible and infrared light by Hubble’s Advanced Camera for Surveys. The image is approximately 3.3 by 1.5 arcminutes in size.


26 March 2012

Hubble Spies a UFO

The NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope has spotted a UFO — well, the UFO Galaxy, to be precise. NGC 2683 is a spiral galaxy seen almost edge-on, giving it the shape of a classic science fiction spaceship. This is why the astronomers at the Astronaut Memorial Planetarium and Observatory gave it this attention-grabbing nickname.

While a bird’s eye view lets us see the detailed structure of a galaxy (such as this Hubble image of a barred spiral), a side-on view has its own perks. In particular, it gives astronomers a great opportunity to see the delicate dusty lanes of the spiral arms silhouetted against the golden haze of the galaxy’s core. In addition, brilliant clusters of young blue stars shine scattered throughout the disc, mapping the galaxy’s star-forming regions.

Perhaps surprisingly, side-on views of galaxies like this one do not prevent astronomers from deducing their structures. Studies of the properties of the light coming from NGC 2683 suggest that this is a barred spiral galaxy, even though the angle we see it at does not let us see this directly.

NGC 2683, discovered on 5 February 1788 by the famous astronomer William Herschel, lies in the Northern constellation of Lynx. A constellation named not because of its resemblance to the feline animal, but because it is fairly faint, requiring the “sensitive eyes of a cat” to discern it. And when you manage to get a look at it, you’ll find treasures like this, making it well worth the effort.

This image is produced from two adjacent fields observed in visible and infrared light by Hubble’s Advanced Camera for Surveys. A narrow strip which appears slightly blurred and crosses most the image horizontally is a result of a gap between Hubble’s detectors. This strip has been patched using images from observations of the galaxy made by ground-based telescopes, which show significantly less detail.

The field of view is approximately 6.5 by 3.3 arcminutes.


19 March 2012

Quasars Acting as Gravitational Lenses

Astronomers using the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope have made images of several galaxies containing quasars, which act as gravitational lenses to amplify and distort images of the galaxies aligned behind them.

Quasars are among the brightest objects in the Universe, far outshining the total output of their host galaxies. They are powered by supermassive black holes, which pull in surrounding material that then heats up as it falls towards the black hole. The path that the light from even more distant galaxies takes on its journey towards us is bent by the enormous masses at the centre of these galaxies. Gravitational lensing is a subtle effect which requires extremely high resolution observations, something for which Hubble is extremely well suited.

To find these rare cases of galaxy–quasar combinations acting as lenses, a team of astronomers led by Frederic Courbin at the Ecole Polytechnique Federale de Lausanne (EPFL, Switzerland) selected 23 000 quasar spectra in the Sloan Digital Sky Survey (SDSS). They looked for the spectral imprint of galaxies at much greater distances that happened to align with foreground galaxies. Once candidates were identified, Hubble’s sharp vision was used to look for the characteristic gravitational arcs and rings that would be produced by gravitational lensing.

In Hubble’s images, the quasars are the bright spots visible at the centre of the galaxies, while the lensed images of distant galaxies are visible as fainter arc-shaped forms that surround them. From left to right, the galaxies are: SDSS J0919+2720, with two bluish lensed images clearly visible above and below the galaxy’s centre; SDSS J1005+4016, with one yellowish arc visible to the right of the galaxy’s centre; and SDSS J0827+5224, with two lensed images very faintly visible, one above and to the right, and one below and to the left of the galaxy’s centre.

Quasar host galaxies are hard or sometimes even impossible to see because the central quasar far outshines the galaxy. Therefore, it is difficult to estimate the mass of a host galaxy based on the collective brightness of its stars. However, gravitational lensing candidates are invaluable for estimating the mass of a quasar’s host galaxy because the amount of distortion in the lens can be used to estimate a galaxy’s mass.


12 March 2012

Stellar voyage of a butterfly-like planetary nebula

The breathtaking butterfly-like planetary nebula NGC 6881 is visible here in an image taken by the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope. Located in the constellation of Cygnus, it is formed of an inner nebula, estimated to be about one fifth of a light-year across, and symmetrical “wings” that spread out about one light-year from one tip to the other. The symmetry could be due to a binary star at the nebula’s centre.

NGC 6881 has a dying star at its core which is about 60% of the mass of the Sun. It is an example of a quadrupolar planetary nebula, made from two pairs of bipolar lobes pointing in different directions, and consisting of four pairs of flat rings. There are also three rings in the centre.

A planetary nebula is a cloud of ionised gas, emitting light of various colours. It typically forms when a dying star — a red giant — throws off its outer layers, because of pulsations and strong stellar winds.

The star’s exposed hot, luminous core starts emitting ultraviolet radiation, exciting the outer layers of the star, which then become a newly born planetary nebula. At some point, the nebula is bound to dissolve in space, leaving the central star as a white dwarf — the final evolutionary state of stars.

The name “planetary” dates back to the 18th century, when such nebulae were first discovered — and when viewed through small optical telescopes, they looked a lot like giant planets.

Planetary nebulae usually live for a few tens of thousands of years, a short phase in the lifetime of a star.

The image was taken through three filters which isolate the specific wavelength of light emitted by nitrogen (shown in red), hydrogen (shown in green) and oxygen (shown in blue).


5 March 2012

Galaxies' El Dorado

The NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope has produced this beautiful image of the galaxy NGC 1483. NGC 1483 is a barred spiral galaxy located in the southern constellation of Dorado — the dolphinfish in Spanish. The nebulous galaxy features a bright central bulge and diffuse arms with distinct star-forming regions. In the background, many other distant galaxies can be seen.

The constellation Dorado is home to the Dorado Group of galaxies, a loose group comprising an estimated 70 galaxies and located some 62 million light-years away. The Dorado group is much larger than the Local Group that includes the Milky Way (and which contains around 30 galaxies) and approaches the size of a galaxy cluster. Galaxy clusters are the largest groupings of galaxies (and indeed the largest structures of any type) in the Universe to be held together by their gravity.  

Barred spiral galaxies are so named because of the prominent bar-shaped structures found in their centre. They form about two thirds of all spiral galaxies, including the Milky Way. Recent studies suggest that bars may be a common stage in the formation of spiral galaxies, and may indicate that a galaxy has reached full maturity.


27 February 2012

Antlia Dwarf Galaxy peppers the sky with stars

The myriad faint stars that comprise the Antlia Dwarf galaxy are more than four million light-years from Earth, but this NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope image offers such clarity that they could be mistaken for much closer stars in our own Milky Way. This very faint and sparsely populated small galaxy was only discovered in 1997.

Although small, the Antlia Dwarf is a dynamic site featuring stars at many different stages of evolution, from young to old. The freshest stars are only found in the central regions where there is significant ongoing star formation. Older stars and globular clusters are found in the outer areas.

It is not entirely clear whether the Antlia Dwarf is a member our galactic neighbourhood, called the Local Group. It probably lies just beyond the normally accepted outer limits of the group. Although it is fairly isolated, some believe it has interacted with other star groups. Evidence comes from galaxy NGC 3109, close to the Antlia Dwarf (but not visible in this image). Both galaxies feature rifts of stars moving at comparable velocities; a telltale sign that they were gravitationally linked at some point in the past.

This picture was created from observations in visible and infrared light taken with the Wide Field Channel of Hubble’s Advanced Camera for Surveys. The field of view is approximately 3.2 by 1.5 arcminutes.


20 February 2012

Preview of a forthcoming supernova

At the turn of the 19th century, the binary star system Eta Carinae was faint and undistinguished. In the first decades of the century, it became brighter and brighter, until, by April 1843, it was the second brightest star in the sky, outshone only by Sirius (which is almost a thousand times closer to Earth). In the years that followed, it gradually dimmed again and by the 20th century was totally invisible to the naked eye.

The star has continued to vary in brightness ever since, and while it is once again visible to the naked eye on a dark night, it has never again come close to its peak of 1843.

The larger of the two stars in the Eta Carinae system is a huge and unstable star that is nearing the end of its life, and the event that the 19th century astronomers observed was a stellar near-death experience. Scientists call these outbursts supernova impostor events, because they appear similar to supernovae but stop just short of destroying their star.

Although 19th century astronomers did not have telescopes powerful enough to see the 1843 outburst in detail, its effects can be studied today. The huge clouds of matter thrown out a century and a half ago, known as the Homunculus Nebula, have been a regular target for Hubble since its launch in 1990. This image, taken with the Advanced Camera for Surveys High Resolution Channel is the most detailed yet, and shows how the material from the star was not thrown out in a uniform manner, but forms a huge dumbbell shape.

Eta Carinae is not only interesting because of its past, but also because of its future. It is one of the closest stars to Earth that is likely to explode in a supernova in the relatively near future (though in astronomical timescales the “near future” could still be a million years away). When it does, expect an impressive view from Earth, far brighter still than its last outburst: SN 2006gy, the brightest supernova ever observed, came from a star of the same type.

This image consists of ultraviolet and visible light images from the High Resolution Channel of Hubble’s Advanced Camera for Surveys. The field of view is approximately 30 arcseconds across.

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13 February 2012

A sheep in Wolf-Rayet’s clothing

It’s well known that the Universe is changeable: even the stars that appear static and predictable every night are subject to change.

This image from the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope shows planetary nebula Hen 3-1333. Planetary nebulae are nothing to do with planets — they actually represent the death throes of mid-sized stars like the Sun. As they puff out their outer layers, large, irregular globes of glowing gas expand around them, which appeared planet-like through the small telescopes that were used by their first discoverers.

The star at the heart of Hen 3-1333 is thought to have a mass of around 60% that of the Sun, but unlike the Sun, its apparent brightness varies substantially over time. Astronomers believe this variability is caused by a disc of dust which lies almost edge-on when viewed from Earth, which periodically obscures the star.

It is a Wolf–Rayet type star — a late stage in the evolution of Sun-sized stars. These are named after (and share many observational characteristics with) Wolf–Rayet stars, which are much larger. Why the similarity? Both Wolf–Rayet and Wolf–Rayet type stars are hot and bright because their helium cores are exposed: the former because of the strong stellar winds characteristic of these stars; the latter because the outer layers of the stars have been puffed away as the star runs low on fuel.

The exposed helium core, rich with heavier elements, means that the surfaces of these stars are far hotter than the Sun, typically 25 000 to 50 000 degrees Celsius (the Sun has a comparatively chilly surface temperature of just 5500 degrees Celsius).

So while they are dramatically smaller in size, the Wolf–Rayet type stars such as the one at the core of Hen 3-1333 effectively mimic the appearance of their much bigger and more energetic namesakes: they are sheep in Wolf–Rayet clothing.

This visible-light image was taken by the high resolution channel of Hubble’s Advanced Camera for Surveys. The field of view is approximately 26 by 26 arcseconds.


6 February 2012

Transforming galaxies

Many of the Universe’s galaxies are like our own, displaying beautiful spiral arms wrapping around a bright nucleus. Examples in this stunning image, taken with the Wide Field Camera 3 on the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope, include the tilted galaxy at the bottom of the frame, shining behind a Milky Way star, and the small spiral at the top centre.

Other galaxies are even odder in shape. Markarian 779, the galaxy at the top of this image, has a distorted appearance because it is likely the product of a recent galactic merger between two spirals. This collision destroyed the spiral arms of the galaxies and scattered much of their gas and dust, transforming them into a single peculiar galaxy with a unique shape.

This galaxy is part of the Markarian catalogue, a database of over 1500 galaxies named after B. E. Markarian, the Armenian astronomer who studied them in the 1960s. He surveyed the sky for bright objects with unusually strong emission in the ultraviolet.

Ultraviolet radiation can come from a range of sources, so the Markarian catalogue is quite diverse. An excess of ultraviolet emissions can be the result of the nucleus of an “active” galaxy, powered by a supermassive black hole at its centre. It can also be due to events of intense star formation, called starbursts, possibly triggered by galactic collisions. Markarian galaxies are, therefore, often the subject of studies aimed at understanding active galaxies, starburst activity, and galaxy interactions and mergers.


30 January 2012

Young stars at home in an ancient cluster

Looking like a hoard of gems fit for an emperor’s collection, this deep sky object called NGC 6752 is in fact far more worthy of admiration. It is a globular cluster, and at over 10 billion years old is one the most ancient collections of stars known. It has been blazing for well over twice as long long as our Solar System has existed.

NGC 6752 contains a high number of “blue straggler” stars, some of which are visible in this image. These stars display characteristics of stars younger than their neighbours, despite models suggesting that most of the stars within globular clusters should have formed at approximately the same time. Their origin is therefore something of a mystery.

Studies of NGC 6752 may shed light on this situation. It appears that a very high number — up to 38% — of the stars within its core region are binary systems. Collisions between stars in this turbulent area could produce the blue stragglers that are so prevalent.

Lying 13 000 light-years distant, NGC 6752 is far beyond our reach, yet the clarity of Hubble’s images brings it tantalisingly close.


23 January 2012

Seeing quadruple

This NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope picture may trick you into thinking that the galaxy in it — known as UZC J224030.2+032131 — has not one but five different nuclei. In fact, the core of the galaxy is only the faint and diffuse object seen at the centre of the cross-like structure formed by the other four dots, which are images of a distant quasar located in the background of the galaxy.

The picture shows a famous cosmic mirage known as the Einstein Cross, and is a direct visual confirmation of the theory of general relativity. It is one of the best examples of the phenomenon of gravitational lensing — the bending of light by gravity as predicted by Einstein in the early 20th century. In this case, the galaxy’s powerful gravity acts as a lens that bends and amplifies the light from the quasar behind it, producing four images of the distant object.

The quasar is seen as it was around 11 billion light-years ago, in the direction of the constellation of Pegasus, while the galaxy that works as a lens is some ten times closer. The alignment between the two objects is remarkable (within 0.05 arcseconds), which is in part why such a special type of gravitational lensing is observed.

This image is likely the sharpest image of the Einstein Cross ever made, and was produced by Hubble’s Wide Field and Planetary Camera 2, and has a field of view of 26 by 26 arcseconds.


16 January 2012

Core of Messier 100 in super high res

Messier 100 is a perfect example of a grand design spiral galaxy, a type of galaxy with prominent and very well-defined spiral arms. These dusty structures swirl around the galaxy’s nucleus, and are marked by a flurry of star formation activity that dots Messier 100 with bright blue, high-mass stars.

This image from the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope, the most detailed made to date, shows the bright core of the galaxy and the innermost parts of its spiral arms. Messier 100 has an active galactic nucleus — a bright region at the galaxy’s core caused by a supermassive black hole that is actively swallowing material, which radiates brightly as it falls inwards.

The galaxy’s spiral arms also host smaller black holes, including the youngest ever observed in our cosmic neighbourhood, the result of a supernova observed in 1979.

Messier 100 is located in the direction of the constellation of Coma Berenices, about 50 million light-years distant.

The galaxy became famous in the early 1990s with the release of two images of the object taken with Hubble before and after a major repair to the telescope, which illustrated the dramatic improvement in Hubble’s observations.

This image, taken with the high resolution channel of Hubble’s Advanced Camera for Surveys demonstrates the continued evolution of Hubble’s capabilities over two decades in orbit. This image, like all high resolution channel images, has a relatively small field of view: only around 25 by 25 arcseconds.

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