Picture of the Week

Also see our pictures of the week on eso.org.
12 December 2011

Standing out from the crowd

The compact nature of globular clusters is a double-edged sword. On the one hand, having so many stars of a similar age in one bundle gives astronomers insights into the chemical makeup of our galaxy in its early history. But, at the same time, the high density of stars in the cores of globulars also makes it difficult for astronomers to resolve individual stars.

The core of NGC 6642, shown here in this Hubble Space Telescope image, is particularly dense, making this globular a difficult observational target for most telescopes. Furthermore, it occupies a very central position in our galaxy, which means that images inadvertently capture many stars that don’t belong to the cluster — these “field stars” just get in the way.

However, using Hubble’s powerful Advanced Camera for Surveys (ACS), astronomers can identify and remove such distracting field stars, and resolve the cluster’s dense core in unprecedented detail. Using Hubble’s ACS, astronomers have already made many interesting finds about NGC 6642. For example, many “blue stragglers” (stars which seemingly lag behind in their rate of aging) have been spotted in this globular, and it is known to be lacking in low-mass stars.

This picture was created from visible and infrared images taken with the Wide Field Channel of the Advanced Camera for Surveys. The field of view is approximately 1.6 by 1.6 arcminutes.

5 December 2011

The Frosty Leo Nebula

Three thousand light-years from Earth lies the strange protoplanetary nebula IRAS 09371+1212, nicknamed the Frosty Leo Nebula. Despite their name, protoplanetary nebulae have nothing to do with planets: they are formed from material shed from their aging central star. The Frosty Leo Nebula has acquired its curious name as it has been found to be rich in water in the form of ice grains, and because it lies in the constellation of Leo.

This nebula is particularly noteworthy because it has formed far from the galactic plane, away from interstellar clouds that may block our view. The intricate shape comprises a spherical halo, a disc around the central star, lobes and gigantic loops. This complex structure strongly suggests that the formation processes are complex and it has been suggested that there could be a second star, currently unseen, contributing to the shaping of the nebula.

Protoplanetary nebulae like the Frosty Leo Nebula have brief lifespans by astronomical standards and are precursors to the planetary nebula phase, in which radiation from the star will make the nebula’s gas light up brightly. Their rarity makes studying them a priority for astronomers who seek to understand better the evolution of stars.

This picture was created from images taken with the High Resolution Channel of Hubble’s Advanced Camera for Surveys, which images a small area of sky (only 26 by 29 arcseconds) in high detail.

28 November 2011

The calm after the galactic storm

The NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope has caught sight of a soft, diffuse-looking galaxy that is probably the aftermath of a long-ago galactic collision. Two spiral galaxies, each perhaps much like the Milky Way, swirled together for millions of years.

In such mergers, the original galaxies are often stretched and pulled apart as they wrap around a common centre of gravity. After a few back-and-forths, this starry tempest settles down into a new, round object. The now subdued celestial body, catalogued as SDSS J162702.56+432833.9, is technically known as an elliptical galaxy.

When galaxies collide — a common event in the Universe — a fresh burst of star formation typically takes place as gas clouds mash together. At this point, the galaxy has a blue hue, but the colour does not mean it is cold: it is a result of the intense heat of newly formed blue–white stars. Those stars do not last long, and after a few billion years the reddish hues of aging smaller stars dominate an elliptical galaxy's spectrum. Hubble has helped astronomers learn of this sequence by observing galaxy mergers at all stages of the process.

In SDSS J162702.56+432833.9, some ribbons of dust notably obscure parts of the conglomerated galaxy's central, bluish region. Those dust lanes could be remnants of the spiral arms of the recently departed galaxies.

This picture was snapped by the Wide Field Camera of Hubble’s Advanced Camera for Surveys. The image was made through a red (F625W) and a blue (F438W) filter. The field of view is approximately 2.4 by 2.4 arcminutes.

21 November 2011

Probing a super-giant shell of gas and stars

In one of the largest known star formation regions in the Large Magellanic Cloud (LMC), a small satellite galaxy of the Milky Way, lie young and bright stellar groupings known as OB associations. One of these associations, called LH 72, was captured in this dramatic NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope image. It consists of a few high-mass, young stars embedded in a beautiful and dense nebula of hydrogen gas.

Much of the star formation in the LMC occurs in super-giant shells. These regions of interstellar gas are thought to have formed due to strong stellar winds and supernova explosions that cleared away much of the material around the stars creating wind-blown shells. The swept-up gas eventually cools down and fragments into smaller clouds that dot the edges of these regions and eventually collapse to form new stars.

The biggest of these shells, home to LH 72, is designated LMC4. With a diameter of about 6000 light-years, it is the largest in the Local Group of galaxies that is home to both the Milky Way and LMC. Studying gas-embedded young associations of stars like LH 72 is a way of probing the super-giant shells to understand how they formed and evolved.

This image was taken with Hubble’s Wide Field Planetary Camera 2 using five different filters in ultraviolet, visible and infrared light. The field of view is approximately 1.8 by 1.8 arcminutes.

14 November 2011

The belly of the cosmic whale

The NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope has peered deep into NGC 4631, better known as the Whale Galaxy. Here, a profusion of starbirth lights up the galactic centre, revealing bands of dark material between us and the starburst. The galaxy’s activity tapers off  in its outer regions where there are fewer stars and less dust, but these are still punctuated by pockets of star formation.

The Whale Galaxy is about 30 million light-years away from us in the constellation of Canes Venatici (The Hunting Dogs) and is a spiral galaxy much like the Milky Way. From our vantage point, however, we see the Whale Galaxy edge-on, seeing its glowing centre through dusty spiral arms. The galaxy's central bulge and asymmetric tapering disc have suggested the shape of a whale or a herring to past observers.

Many supernovae — the explosions of hot, blue, short-lived stars at least eight times the mass of the Sun — have gone off in the core of the Whale Galaxy. The stellar pyrotechnics have bathed the galaxy in hot gas, visible to X-ray telescopes like ESA’s XMM–Newton. Comparing the optical and near-infrared observations from Hubble with other telescopes sensitive to different wavelengths of light helps astronomers gather the full story behind celestial phenomena.

From such work, the triggers of the starburst in the Whale Galaxy and others can be elucidated. The gravitational "feeding" on intergalactic material, as well as clumping caused by the gravitational interactions with its galactic neighbours, creates the areas of greater density where stars start to coalesce. Just as blue whales, the biggest creatures on Earth, can gorge themselves on comparatively tiny bits of plankton, so the Whale Galaxy has become filled with the gas and dust that powers a high rate of star formation.

7 November 2011

First globular cluster outside the Milky Way

The object shown in this beautiful Hubble image, dubbed Messier 54, could be just another globular cluster, but this dense and faint group of stars was in fact the first globular cluster found that is outside our galaxy. Discovered by the famous astronomer Charles Messier in 1778, Messier 54 belongs to a satellite of the Milky Way called the Sagittarius Dwarf Elliptical Galaxy.

Messier had no idea of the significance of his discovery at the time, and it wasn’t until over two centuries later, in 1994, that astronomers found Messier 54 to be part of the miniature galaxy and not our own. Current estimates indicate that the Sagittarius dwarf, and hence the cluster, is situated almost 90 000 light-years away — more than three times as far from the centre of our galaxy than the Solar System.

Ironically, even though this globular cluster is now understood to lie outside the Milky Way, it will actually become part of it in the future. The strong gravitational pull of our galaxy is slowly engulfing the Sagittarius dwarf, which will eventually merge with the Milky Way creating one much larger galaxy.

This picture is a composite created by combining images taken with the Wide Field Channel of Hubble’s Advanced Camera for Surveys. Light that passed through a yellow-orange (F606W) was coloured blue and light passing through a near-infrared filter (F814W) was coloured red. The total exposure times were 3460 s and 3560 s, respectively and the field of view is approximately 3.4 by 3.4 arcminutes.

31 October 2011

Looking to the heavens

The pearly wisps surrounding the central star IRAS 10082-5647 in this Hubble image certainly draw the eye towards the heavens. The divine-looking cloud is a reflection nebula, made up of gas and dust glowing softly by the reflected light of nearby stars, in this case a young Herbig Ae/Be star.

The star, like others of this type, is still a relative youngster, only a few million years old. It has not yet reached the so-called main sequence phase, where it will spend around 80% of its life creating energy by burning hydrogen in its core. Until then the star heats itself by gravitational collapse, as the material in the star falls in on itself, becoming ever denser and creating immense pressure which in turn gives off copious amounts of heat.

Stars only spend around 1% of their lives in this pre-main sequence phase. Eventually, gravitational collapse will heat the star’s core enough for hydrogen fusion to begin, propelling the star into the main sequence phase, and adulthood.

The Advanced Camera for Surveys aboard the Hubble Space Telescope captured the whorls and arcs of this nebula, lit up with the light from IRAS 10082-5647. Visible (555 nm) and near-infrared (814 nm) filters were used, coloured blue and red respectively. The field of view is around 1.3 by 1.3 arcminutes.

24 October 2011

Hubble sizes up a dwarf galaxy

The NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope has taken this image of the Phoenix Dwarf Galaxy, which is located 1.4 million light-years away from Earth. It is located in the constellation of Phoenix in the southern sky. The object, a dwarf irregular galaxy, features younger stars in its inner regions and older ones at its outskirts. 

Dwarf galaxies are small galaxies composed of a few billion stars, compared to fully-fledged galaxies which can contain hundreds of billions of stars. In the Local Group, there are a number of such dwarf galaxies orbiting the larger galaxies such as the Milky Way or the Andromeda Galaxy. They are thought to have been created by tidal forces in the early stages of the creation of these galaxies, or as a result of collisions between galaxies, forming from ejected streams of material and dark matter from the parent galaxies. The Milky Way galaxy features at least 14 satellite dwarf galaxies orbiting it. 

Because of their shape, dwarf irregulars have often been mistaken for globular clusters: they do not feature a bulge or spiral arms like larger galaxies. However, their importance in terms of cosmology is in stark contrast to their unspectacular shapes, as their chemical makeup and high levels of gas are believed to be similar to those of the earliest galaxies that populated the Universe. They are thought to be contemporary versions of some of the remote galaxies observed in deep field galaxy surveys, and can thus help to understand the early stages of galaxy and star formation in the young Universe.

The galaxy was discovered in 1976 by Hans-Emil Schuster and Richard Martin West. Hans-Emil Schuster was acting director of ESO’s La Silla Observatory in Chile and was involved in the selection and testing of the sites for the observatories of both La Silla and Paranal. His great contribution to astronomy and to ESO was recognised by the Chilean government last week when he was awarded the medal of the Order of Bernardo O’Higgins

17 October 2011

Hubble revisits an old friend

Supernova SN 1987A, one of the brightest stellar explosions since the invention of the telescope more than 400 years ago, is no stranger to the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope. The observatory has been on the frontline of studies into this brilliant dying star since its launch in 1990, three years after the supernova exploded on 23 February 1987. This image of Hubble’s old friend, retreived from the telescope’s data archive, may be the best ever of this object, and reminds us of the many mysteries still surrounding it.

Dominating this picture are two glowing loops of stellar material and a very bright ring surrounding the dying star at the centre of the frame. Although Hubble has provided important clues on the nature of these structures, their origin is still largely unknown.

Another mystery is that of the missing neutron star. The violent death of a high-mass star, such as SN 1987A, leaves behind a stellar remnant — a neutron star or a black hole. Astronomers expect to find a neutron star in the remnants of this supernova, but they have not yet been able to peer through the dense dust to confirm it is there.

The supernova belongs to the Large Magellanic Cloud, a nearby galaxy about 168 000 light-years away. Even though the stellar explosion took place around 166 000 BC, its light arrived here less than 25 years ago.

This picture is based on observations done with the High Resolution Channel of Hubble’s Advanced Camera for Surveys. The field of view is approximately 25 by 25 arcseconds.

10 October 2011

A snapshot of galactic evolution

Galaxies come in a variety of shapes and sizes, and these features change as they evolve. Some, like the galaxy in the centre of this NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope image, are beautiful spirals with graceful curved arms, while others are fuzzy oval-shaped blobs like the large object showing up near the bottom right of the frame. Others still are rather irregular in shape, such as the orange galaxy at the top of the image, which resembles a tiny wobbling string.

This picture is one of the few hundred exposures taken with Hubble’s Advanced Camera for Surveys to assemble the “Extended Groth Strip”. This strip, named after the Princeton University astronomer Edward Groth, is a composite picture of a rectangular region of the sky in the constellation of Ursa Major. It covers a relatively small area in the sky — equivalent to roughly the width of a finger stretched at arms’ length — but includes at least 50 000 galaxies.

The images that make up the Extended Groth Strip allow astronomers to peer into the last eight billion years of the Universe’s history and to see galaxies at various stages of their evolution. The large elliptical and spiral objects we see in the foreground of this image are fully-formed adult galaxies. But many of the ones in the background, fuzzier and more peculiar in shape, are representative of a time when galaxies were undergoing active formation.

Images like these help astronomers to understand how galaxies change in size and shape as they evolve, from their early formative years — punctuated by violent events such as the growth of the vast black holes at their centres and collisions with other galaxies — into their quieter adult lives.

This picture was created from visible and infrared exposures taken with the Wide Field Channel of Hubble’s Advanced Camera for Surveys

3 October 2011

Spot the difference — Hubble spies another globular cluster, but with a secret

Thousands and thousands of brilliant stars make up this globular cluster, Messier 53, captured with crystal clarity in this image from the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope. Bound tightly by gravity, the cluster is roughly spherical and becomes denser towards its heart.

These enormous sparkling spheres are by no means rare, and over 150 exist in the Milky Way alone, including Messier 53. It lies on the outer edges of the galaxy, where many other globular clusters are found, almost equally distant from both the centre of our galaxy and the Sun. Although they are relatively common, the famous astronomer William Herschel, not at all known for his poetic nature, once described a globular cluster as “one of the most beautiful objects I remember to have seen in the heavens”, and it is clear to see why.

Globular clusters are much older and larger than open clusters, meaning they are generally expected to contain more old red stars and fewer massive blue stars. But Messier 53 has surprised astronomers with its unusual number of a type of star called blue stragglers.

These youngsters are rebelling against the theory of stellar evolution. All the stars in a globular cluster are expected to form around the same time, so they are expected follow a specific trend set by the age of the cluster and based on their mass. But blue stragglers don’t follow that rule; they appear to be brighter and more youthful than they have any right to be. Although their precise nature remains mysterious these unusual objects are probably formed by close encounters, possibly collisions, between stars in the crowded centres of globular clusters.

This picture was put together from visible and infrared exposures taken with the Wide Field Channel of Hubble's Advanced Camera for Surveys.The field of view is approximately 3.4 arcminutes across.

26 September 2011

An arc sculpted by gravity

This NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope image shows remarkable structures in a galaxy cluster around an object called LRG-4-606. LRG stands for Luminous Red Galaxy, and is the acronym given to a large collection of bright red galaxies found in the Sloan Digital Sky Survey (SDSS). These objects are mostly massive elliptical galaxies composed of huge numbers of old stars.

It is sobering to contemplate the sheer number of stars that this image must contain — hundreds of billions — but it also features one of the strangest phenomena known to astronomers. This particular red galaxy and its surrounding galaxies happen to be positioned so that their strong gravitational field has a dramatic effect.

Left of centre in the picture, blue galaxies in the background have been stretched and warped out of shape into narrow, pale blue arcs. This is because of an effect called gravitational lensing. The galaxy cluster has such a strong gravitational field that it is curving the fabric of space and amplifying the starlight from much more distant galaxies. Gravitational lensing normally creates elongated arcs and here, unusually, the alignment of the galaxies has made the separate arcs combine to form a half-circle.

This picture was assembled from a collection of exposures in visible and near infrared light taken with Hubble’s Wide Field Camera 3. The field of view is approximately 3 by 3 arcminutes.

19 September 2011

Galaxies in a swarm of star clusters

In this NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope image, NGC 4874 is the brightest object, located to the right of the frame and seen as a bright star-like core surrounded by a hazy halo. A few of the other galaxies of the cluster are also visible, looking like flying saucers dancing around NGC 4874. But the really remarkable feature of this image is the point-like objects around NGC 4874, revealed on a closer look: almost all of them are clusters of stars that belong to the galaxy. Each of these globular star clusters contains many hundreds of thousands of stars.

Recently, astronomers discovered that a few of these point-like objects are not star clusters but ultra-compact dwarf galaxies, also under the gravitational influence of NGC 4874. Being only about 200 light-years across and mostly made up of old stars, these galaxies resemble brighter and larger versions of globular clusters. They are thought to be the cores of small elliptical galaxies that, due to the violent interactions with other galaxies in the cluster, lost their gas and surrounding stars.

This Hubble image also shows many more distant galaxies that do not belong to the cluster, seen as small smudges in the background. While the galaxies in the Coma Cluster are located about 350 million light-years away, these other objects are much further out. Their light took several hundred million to billions of years to reach us.

Most unusually, the image also shows a very faint blue satellite trail, extending across the whole image, from the upper left corner of the frame to the lower right. Because Hubble’s cameras can only see a tiny part of the sky at one time, such trails are very rare.

This picture was created from optical and near-infrared exposures taken with the Wide Field Channel of Hubble’s Advanced Camera for Surveys. The field of view is 3.3 arcminutes across.

12 September 2011

A remote outpost of the Milky Way

This NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope image shows a compact and distant globular star cluster that lies in one of the smallest constellations in the night sky, Delphinus (The Dolphin). Due to its modest size, great distance and relatively low brightness, NGC 7006 is often ignored by amateur astronomers. But even remote globular clusters such as this one appear bright and clear when imaged by Hubble’s Advanced Camera for Surveys.

NGC 7006 resides in the outskirts of the Milky Way. It is about 135 000 light-years away, five times the distance between the Sun and the centre of the galaxy, and it is part of the galactic halo. This roughly spherical region of the Milky Way is made up of dark matter, gas and sparsely distributed stellar clusters.

Like other remote globular clusters, NGC 7006 provides important clues that help astronomers to understand how stars formed and assembled in the halo. The cluster now pictured by Hubble has a very eccentric orbit indicating that it may have formed independently, in a small galaxy outside our own that was then captured by the Milky Way.

Although NGC 7006 is very distant for a Milky Way globular cluster, it is much closer than the many faint galaxies that can be seen in the background of this image. Each of these faint smudges is probably accompanied by many globular clusters similar to NGC 7006 that are too faint to be seen even by Hubble.

This image was taken using the Wide Field Channel of the Advanced Camera for Surveys, in a combination of visible and near-infrared light. The field of view is a little over 3 by 3 arcminutes.

5 September 2011

A starfish in the sky

Protoplanetary nebulae offer glimpses of how stars similar to the Sun end their lives and how they make the transition to white dwarfs surrounded by planetary nebulae. As it ages, a Sun-like star eventually sheds its outer layers into space, creating a beautiful and often intricately shaped cloud of gas and dust around it. At first, still relatively cool, the star is unable to ionise this gas, which shines only by reflected and scattered stellar light. Only when the temperature of the star increases enough to ionise this protoplanetary nebula does the pattern of gas and dust become a fully fledged planetary nebula.

Protoplanetary nebulae are relatively rare and short-lived objects that provide astronomers with clues into how the often strangely asymmetric planetary nebulae are formed. Clearly visible in this image are five blue lobes that extend away from the central star and give the nebula its asymmetric starfish shape. While astronomers have come up with theories for the origin of these structures, such as direction-changing jets or explosive ejections of matter from the star, their formation is not entirely understood.

IRAS 19024+0044 is blue in colour as the blue component of the light coming from the star is more easily scattered by the gas and dust in the nebula, while the red and orange rays are relatively unaffected. This is similar to what happens to sunlight in the Earth’s atmosphere, giving the sky its distinctive shade of blue.

This picture was created from images taken with the High Resolution Channel of Hubble’s Advanced Camera for Surveys. It is a composite image created by the combination of exposures taken through a yellow–orange filter (F606W, coloured blue) and a near-infrared filter (F814W, coloured red). The total exposure times were 880 s and 140 s, respectively and the field of view is approximately 13 by 13 arcseconds.


29 August 2011

Astronomical vision test

Peering into the depths of space, the sharp-eyed NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope has imaged the nearby but faint dwarf galaxy ESO 540-030. This object itself appears as a huge swarm of dim stars, but ESO 540-030 is actually just one point of interest in the picture.

ESO 540-030 is just over 11 million light-years distant, and is part of the Sculptor group of galaxies. This collection is the closest neighbour to our own Local Group of galaxies that includes the Milky Way. Due to its proximity the Sculptor group contains some of the brightest galaxies in the southern skies, although ESO 540-030 is not one of these; dwarf galaxies generally have low surface brightness, which make observations difficult.

Hubble has captured a snapshot of galaxy types in the background, with spirals, barred spirals, ellipticals and irregulars on display. Careful examination of this picture should allow examples of each galaxy type to be found. Some galaxies lie directly behind ESO 540-030, increasing the challenge. As well as the galaxies there are also five bright stars, which are much closer to us than the galaxies. The telltale diffraction spikes — four sharp lines of light emanating at 90 degree angles, caused by light diffracting in the telescope — are unmistakable signs of the stars in the picture.

Cataloguing galaxy types is an important task for scientists attempting to understand more about how our Universe evolved. Our own eyes are excellent tools for this, as participants of the Galaxy Zoo Hubble project will confirm [1].

This picture was created from images taken with the Wide Field Channel of Hubble’s Advanced Camera for Surveys. Images through a yellow-orange filter (F606W, coloured blue) were combined with images taken in the near-infrared (F814W, coloured red). The total exposure times were 4480 s and 3360 s, respectively and the field of view is about 3.1 arcminutes across.


[1] http://www.galaxyzoo.org/

22 August 2011

Feeling the strain

NGC 2146 is classified as a barred spiral due to its shape, but the most distinctive feature is the dusty spiral arm that has looped in front of the galaxy's core as seen from our perspective. The forces required to pull this structure out of its natural shape and twist it up to 45 degrees are colossal. The most likely explanation is that a neighbouring galaxy is gravitationally perturbing it and distorting the orbits of many of NGC 2146’s stars. It is probable that we are currently witnessing the end stages of a process which has been occurring for tens of millions of years.

NCG 2146 is undergoing intense bouts of star formation, to such an extent that it is referred to as a starburst galaxy. This is a common state for barred spirals, but the extra gravitational disruption that NGC 2146 is enduring no doubt exacerbates the situation, compressing hydrogen-rich nebulae and triggering stellar birth.

Measuring about 80 000 light-years from end to end, NGC 2146 is slightly smaller than the Milky Way. It lies approximately 70 million light-years distant in the faint northern constellation of Camelopardalis (The Giraffe). Although it is fairly easy to see with a moderate-sized telescope as a faint elongated blur of light it was not spotted until 1876 when the German astronomer Friedrich Winnecke found it visually using just a 16 cm telescope.

This picture was created from images taken with the Wide Field Channel of Hubble’s Advanced Camera for Surveys. Images through a near-infrared filter (F814W, coloured blue and orange/brown) were combined with images taken in a filter that isolates the glow from hydrogen gas (F658N, coloured red). An additional green colour channel was also created by combining the two to help to create a realistic colour rendition for the final picture from this unusual filter combination. The total exposure times were 120 s and 700 s respectively and the field of view is covers 2.6 x 1.6 arcminutes.

15 August 2011

Hubble offers a dazzling necklace

A giant cosmic necklace glows brightly in this NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope image.

The object, aptly named the Necklace Nebula, is a recently discovered planetary nebula, the glowing remains of an ordinary, Sun-like star. The nebula consists of a bright ring, measuring about two light-years across, dotted with dense, bright knots of gas that resemble diamonds in a necklace. The knots glow brightly due to absorption of ultraviolet light from the central stars.

A pair of tightly orbiting stars produced the nebula, also called PN G054.2-03.4. About 10 000 years ago one of the aging stars ballooned to the point where it engulfed its companion star. The smaller star continued orbiting inside its larger companion, increasing the giant’s rotation rate, so that the bloated star span so fast that a large part of its gaseous envelope expanded into space. Most of the gas escaped along the star’s equator, producing a ring. The bright knots are dense gas clumps in the ring.

The pair is so close, only a few million kilometres apart, that they appear as one bright dot in the centre of this image. The stars are furiously whirling around each other, completing an orbit in a little more than a day. For comparison, Mercury, the innermost planet of our Solar System, orbits the Sun in 88 days.

The Necklace Nebula is located 15 000 light-years away in the constellation of Sagitta (The Arrow). In this composite image, taken on 2 July, Hubble’s Wide Field Camera 3 captured the glow of hydrogen (blue), oxygen (green), and nitrogen (red).

8 August 2011

Crowded, but suspiciously quiet?

The NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope has imaged part of the Hickson Compact Group 7, or HCG 7 for short. This grouping is composed of one lenticular (lens-shaped) and three spiral galaxies in close proximity. In this image, one of the spirals dominates the foreground, with many more distant galaxies peppering the background. Observing tightly-knit galaxy groups like HCG 7 is important because they evolve in a different way from their more spaced-out counterparts in less crowded regions of the Universe. 

A recent study using Hubble data analysed the star clusters in HCG 7. Three hundred young clusters and 150 globular clusters were charted, and their ages and distributions measured. The results suggest that the rate of star formation has been fairly steady through time, although quite high in the central regions. Additional studies, including searches for material between the galaxies, hint that the stars in the HCG 7 galaxies formed by converting their gas without any gravitational influences caused by merging with other galaxies. This is puzzling, as the galaxies are depleting their supplies of gas at a rate that suggests that they have merged in the past. 

This raises the question of whether the group really has evolved serenely, or if there are mysterious processes at work that are yet to be understood. The currently known information is contradictory and an encouragement for further studies to discover the real story behind HCG 7.

This picture was created from images taken with the Wide Field Channel of the Advanced Camera for Surveys. Images through a blue filter (F435W, coloured blue), yellow-orange (F606W, coloured green) and near-infrared (F814W, coloured red) filters were combined. The total exposure times were 1710 s, 1230 s and 1065 s per filter, respectively, and the field of view is 3.3 x 3.0 arcminutes.

A paper from the Astrophysical Journal discussing these recent discoveries about HCG 7 can be read here.

1 August 2011

Enigmatic cluster targeted by Hubble

The NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope has used its powerful optics to separate the globular cluster NGC 6401 into its constituent stars. What was once only visible as a ghostly mist in the eyepieces of astronomical instruments has been transformed into a stunning stellar landscape.

NGC 6401 can be found within the constellation of Ophiuchus (The Serpent Bearer). The globular cluster itself is relatively faint, so a telescope and some observational experience are required to see it. Globular clusters are very rich, and generally spherical, collections of stars, hence the name. They orbit the cores of galaxies, with the force of gravity also keeping the stars bound as a group. There are around 160 globular clusters associated with our Milky Way, of which NGC 6401 is one. These objects are very old, containing some of the most ancient stars known. However, there are many mysteries surrounding them, with the origin of globular clusters and their role within galaxy evolution not being completely understood.

The famous astronomer William Herschel discovered this cluster in 1784 with his 47 cm telescope, but mistakenly believed it to be a bright nebula. Later his son, John Herschel, was to make the same error — evidently the technology of the day was insufficient to allow the individual stars to be resolved visually.

NGC 6401 has confused more modern astronomers as well. In 1977 it was thought that a low-mass star in the cluster had been discovered venting its outer layers (known as a planetary nebula). However, a further study in 1990 concluded that the object is in fact a symbiotic star: a binary composed of a red giant and a small hot star such as a white dwarf, with surrounding nebulosity. It could be that the study in 1977 was simply a few thousand years ahead of its time, as symbiotic stars are thought to become a type of planetary nebula.

This picture was created from images taken with the Wide Field Channel of Hubble’s Advanced Camera for Surveys. Images through a yellow-orange filter (F606W, coloured blue) were combined with images taken in the near-infrared (F814W, coloured red). The total exposure times were 680 s and 580 s, respectively and the field of view is 3.3 x 1.5 arcminutes.

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