Picture of the Week

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


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.


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