The Universe loves to fool our eyes, giving the impression that celestial objects are located at the same distance from Earth. A good example can be seen in this spectacular image produced by the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope. The galaxies NGC 5011B and NGC 5011C are imaged against a starry background.
Located in the constellation of Centaurus, the nature of these galaxies has puzzled astronomers. NGC 5011B (on the right) is a spiral galaxy belonging to the Centaurus Cluster of galaxies lying 156 million light-years away from the Earth. Long considered part of the faraway cluster of galaxies as well, NGC 5011C (the bluish galaxy at the centre of the image) is a peculiar object, with the faintness typical of a nearby dwarf galaxy, alongside the size of an early-type spiral.
Astronomers were curious about the appearance of NGC 5011C. If the two galaxies were at roughly the same distance from Earth, they would expect the pair to show signs of interactions between them. However, there was no visual sign of interaction between the two. How could this be possible?
To solve this problem, astronomers studied the velocity at which these galaxies are receding from the Milky Way and found that NGC 5011C is moving away far more slowly than its apparent neighbour, and its motion is more consistent with that of the nearby Centaurus A group at a distance of 13 million light-years. Thus, NGC 5011C, with only about ten million times the mass of the Sun in its stars, must indeed be a nearby dwarf galaxy rather than member of the distant Centaurus Cluster as was believed for many years.
This image was taken with Hubble’s Advanced Camera for Surveys using visual and infrared filters.
The NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope provides us this week with a spectacular image of the bright star-forming ring that surrounds the heart of the barred spiral galaxy NGC 1097. In this image, the larger-scale structure of the galaxy is barely visible: its comparatively dim spiral arms, which surround its heart in a loose embrace, reach out beyond the edges of this frame.
This face-on galaxy, lying 45 million light-years away from Earth in the southern constellation of Fornax (The Furnace), is particularly attractive for astronomers. NGC 1097 is a Seyfert galaxy. Lurking at the very centre of the galaxy, a supermassive black hole 100 million times the mass of our Sun is gradually sucking in the matter around it. The area immediately around the black hole shines powerfully with radiation coming from the material falling in.
The distinctive ring around the black hole is bursting with new star formation due to an inflow of material toward the central bar of the galaxy. These star-forming regions are glowing brightly thanks to emission from clouds of ionised hydrogen. The ring is around 5000 light-years across, although the spiral arms of the galaxy extend tens of thousands of light-years beyond it.
NGC 1097 is also pretty exciting for supernova hunters. The galaxy experienced three supernovae (the violent deaths of high-mass stars) in the 11-year span between 1992 and 2003. This is definitely a galaxy worth checking on a regular basis.
However, what it is really exciting about NGC 1097 is that it is not wandering alone through space. It has two small galaxy companions, which dance “the dance of stars and the dance of space” like the gracious dancer of the famous poem The Dancer by Khalil Gibran.
The satellite galaxies are NGC 1097A, an elliptical galaxy orbiting 42 000 light-years from the centre of NGC 1097 and a small dwarf galaxy named NGC 1097B. Both galaxies are located out beyond the frames of this image and they cannot be seen. Astronomers have indications that NGC 1097 and NGC 1097A have interacted in the past.
This picture was taken with Hubble’s Advanced Camera for Surveys using visual and infrared filters.
A version of this image was submitted to the Hubble’s Hidden Treasures image processing competition by contestant Eedresha Sturdivant.
Like finding a silver needle in the haystack of space, the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope has produced this beautiful image of the spiral galaxy IC 2233, one of the flattest galaxies known.
Typical spiral galaxies like the Milky Way are usually made up of three principal visible components: the disc where the spiral arms and most of the gas and dust is concentrated; the halo, a rough and sparse sphere around the disc that contains little gas, dust or star formation; and the central bulge at the heart of the disc, which is formed by a large concentration of ancient stars surrounding the Galactic Centre.
However, IC 2233 is far from being typical. This object is a prime example of a super-thin galaxy, where the galaxy’s diameter is at least ten times larger than the thickness. These galaxies consist of a simple disc of stars when seen edge on. This orientation makes them fascinating to study, giving another perspective on spiral galaxies. An important characteristic of this type of objects is that they have a low brightness and almost all of them have no bulge at all.
The bluish colour that can be seen along the disc gives evidence of the spiral nature of the galaxy, indicating the presence of hot, luminous, young stars, born out of clouds of interstellar gas. In addition, unlike typical spirals, IC 2233 shows no well-defined dust lane. Only a few small patchy regions can be identified in the inner regions both above and below the galaxy’s mid-plane.
Lying in the constellation of Lynx, IC 2233 is located about 40 million light-years away from Earth. This galaxy was discovered by British astronomer Isaac Roberts in 1894.
This image was taken with the Hubble’s Advanced Camera for Surveys, combining visible and infrared exposures. The field of view in this image is approximately 3.4 by 3.4 arcminutes.
A version of this image was entered into the Hubble's Hidden Treasures image processing competition by contestant Luca Limatola.
Located in a relatively vacant region of space about 4200 light-years away and difficult to see using an amateur telescope, the lonesome planetary nebula NGC 7354 is often overlooked. However, thanks to this image captured by the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope we are able to see this brilliant ball of smoky light in spectacular detail.
Just as shooting stars are not actually stars and lava lamps do not actually contain lava, planetary nebulae have nothing to do with planets. The name was coined by Sir William Herschel because when he first viewed a planetary nebula through a telescope, he could only identify a hazy smoky sphere, similar to gaseous planets such as Uranus. The name has stuck even though modern telescopes make it obvious that these objects are not planets at all, but the glowing gassy outer layers thrown off by a hot dying star.
It is believed that winds from the central star play an important role in determining the shape and morphology of planetary nebulae. The structure of NGC 7354 is relatively easy to distinguish. It consists of a circular outer shell, an elliptical inner shell, a collection of bright knots roughly concentrated in the middle and two symmetrical jets shooting out from either side. Research suggests that these features could be due to a companion central star, however the presence of a second star in NGC 7354 is yet to be confirmed.
NGC 7354 resides in Cepheus, a constellation named after the mythical King Cepheus of Aethiopia and is about half a light-year in diameter.
A version of this image was entered into the Hubble’s Hidden Treasures image processing competition by contestant Bruno Conti.
The brilliant cascade of stars through the middle of this image is the galaxy ESO 318-13 as seen by the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope. Despite being located millions of light-years from Earth, the stars captured in this image are so bright and clear you could almost attempt to count them.
Although ESO 318-13 is the main event in this image, it is sandwiched between a vast collection of bright celestial objects. Several stars near and far dazzle in comparison to the neat dusting contained within the galaxy. One that particularly stands out is located near the centre of the image, and looks like an extremely bright star located within the galaxy. This is, however, a trick of perspective. The star is located in the Milky Way, our own galaxy, and it shines so brightly because it is so much closer to us than ESO 318-13.
There are also a number of tiny glowing discs scattered throughout the frame that are more distant galaxies. In the top right corner, an elliptical galaxy can be clearly seen, a galaxy which is much larger but more distant than ESO 318-13. More interestingly, peeking through the ESO 318-13, near the right-hand edge of the image, is a distant spiral galaxy.
Galaxies are largely made up of empty space; the stars within them only take up a small volume, and providing a galaxy is not too dusty, it can be largely transparent to light coming from the background. This makes overlapping galaxies like these quite common. One particularly dramatic example of this phenomenon is the galaxy pair NGC 3314 (heic1208).
The NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope provides us this week with an impressive image of the irregular galaxy NGC 5253.
NGC 5253 is one of the nearest of the known Blue Compact Dwarf (BCD) galaxies, and is located at a distance of about 12 million light-years from Earth in the southern constellation of Centaurus. The most characteristic signature of these galaxies is that they harbour very active star-formation regions. This is in spite of their low dust content and comparative lack of elements heavier than hydrogen and helium, which are usually the basic ingredients for star formation.
These galaxies contain molecular clouds that are quite similar to the pristine clouds that formed the first stars in the early Universe, which were devoid of dust and heavier elements. Hence, astronomers consider the BCD galaxies to be an ideal testbed for better understanding the primordial star-forming process.
NGC 5253 does contain some dust and heavier elements, but significantly less than the Milky Way galaxy. Its central regions are dominated by an intense star forming region that is embedded in an elliptical main body, which appears red in Hubble’s image. The central starburst zone consists of a rich environment of hot, young stars concentrated in star clusters, which glow in blue in the image. Traces of the starburst itself can be seen as a faint and diffuse glow produced by the ionised oxygen gas.
The true nature of BCD galaxies has puzzled astronomers for a long time. Numerical simulations following the current leading cosmological theory of galaxy formation, known as the Lambda Cold Dark Matter model, predict that there should be far more satellite dwarf galaxies orbiting big galaxies like the Milky Way. Astronomers refer to this discrepancy as the Dwarf Galaxy Problem.
This galaxy is considered part of the Centaurus A/Messier 83 group of galaxies, which includes the famous radio galaxy Centaurus A and the spiral galaxy Messier 83. Astronomers have pointed out the possibility that the peculiar nature of NGC 5253 could result from a close encounter with Messier 83, its closer neighbour.
This image was taken with the Hubble’s Advanced Camera for Surveys, combining visible and infrared exposures. The field of view in this image is approximately 3.4 by 3.4 arcminutes.
A version of this image was entered into the Hubble’s Hidden Treasures image processing competition by contestant Nikolaus Sulzenauer.
The NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope has spotted the spiral galaxy ESO 499-G37, seen here against a backdrop of distant galaxies, scattered with nearby stars.
The galaxy is viewed from an angle, allowing Hubble to reveal its spiral nature clearly. The faint, loose spiral arms can be distinguished as bluish features swirling around the galaxy’s nucleus. This blue tinge emanates from the hot, young stars located in the spiral arms. The arms of a spiral galaxy have large amounts of gas and dust, and are often areas where new stars are constantly forming.
The galaxy’s most characteristic feature is a bright elongated nucleus. The bulging central core usually contains the highest density of stars in the galaxy, where typically a large group of comparatively cool old stars are packed in this compact, spheroidal region.
One feature common to many spiral galaxies is the presence of a bar running across the centre of the galaxy. These bars are thought to act as a mechanism that channels gas from the spiral arms to the centre, enhancing the star formation.
Recent studies suggest that ESO 499-G37’s nucleus sits within a small bar up to a few hundreds of light-years along, about a tenth the size of a typical galactic bar. Astronomers think that such small bars could be important in the formation of galactic bulges since they might provide a mechanism for bringing material from the outer regions down to the inner ones. However, the connection between bars and bulge formation is still not clear since bars are not a universal feature in spiral galaxies.
Lying in the constellation of Hydra, ESO 499-G37 is located about 59 million light-years away from the Sun. The galaxy belongs to the NGC 3175 group.
ESO 499-G37 was first observed in the late seventies within the ESO/Uppsala Survey of the ESO (B) atlas. This was a joint project undertaken by the European Southern Observatory (ESO) and the Uppsala Observatory, which used the ESO 1-metre Schmidt telescope at La Silla Observatory, Chile, to map a large portion of the southern sky looking for stars, galaxies, clusters, and planetary nebulae.
This picture was created from visible and infrared exposures taken with the Wide Field Channel of the Advanced Camera for Surveys. The field of view is approximately 3.4 arcminutes wide.
Luminous galaxies glow like fireflies on a dark night in this image snapped by the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope. The central galaxy in this image is a gigantic elliptical galaxy designated 4C 73.08. A prominent spiral galaxy seen from "above" shines in the lower part of the image, while examples of galaxies viewed edge-on also populate the cosmic landscape.
In the optical and near-infrared light captured to make this image, 4C 73.08 does not appear all that beastly. But when viewed in longer wavelengths the galaxy takes on a very different appearance. Dust-piercing radio waves reveal plumes emanating from the core, where a supermassive black hole spews out twin jets of material. 4C 73.08 is classified as a radio galaxy as a result of this characteristic activity in the radio part of the electromagnetic spectrum.
Astronomers must study objects such as 4C 73.08 in multiple wavelengths in order to learn their true natures, just as seeing a firefly’s glow would tell a scientist only so much about the insect. Observing 4C 73.08 in visible light with Hubble illuminates galactic structure as well as the ages of constituent stars, and therefore the age of the galaxy itself. 4C 73.08 is decidedly redder than the prominent, bluer spiral galaxy in this image. The elliptical galaxy’s redness comes from the presence of many older, crimson stars, which shows that 4C 73.08 is older than its spiral neighbour.
The image was taken using Hubble’s Wide Field Camera 3 through two filters: one which captures green light, and one which captures red and near-infrared light.
The NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope has captured a beautiful galaxy that, with its reddish and yellow central area, looks rather like an explosion from a Hollywood movie. The galaxy, called NGC 5010, is in a period of transition. The aging galaxy is moving on from life as a spiral galaxy, like our Milky Way, to an older, less defined type called an elliptical galaxy. In this in-between phase, astronomers refer to NGC 5010 as a lenticular galaxy, which has features of both spirals and ellipticals.
NGC 5010 is located around 140 million light-years away in the constellation of Virgo (The Virgin). The galaxy is oriented sideways to us, allowing Hubble to peer into it and show the dark, dusty, remnant bands of spiral arms. NGC 5010 has notably started to develop a big bulge in its disc as it takes on a more rounded shape.
Most of the stars in NGC 5010 are red and elderly. The galaxy no longer contains all that many of the fast-lived blue stars common in younger galaxies that still actively produce new populations of stars.
Much of the dusty and gaseous fuel needed to create fresh stars has already been used up in NGC 5010. Overt time, the galaxy will grow progressively more "red and dead”, as astronomers describe elliptical galaxies.
Hubble's Advanced Camera for Surveys (ACS) snapped this image in violet and infrared light.
The NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope offers an impressive view of the centre of globular cluster NGC 6362. The image of this spherical collection of stars takes a deeper look at the core of the globular cluster, which contains a high concentration of stars with different colours.
Tightly bound by gravity, globular clusters are composed of old stars, which, at around 10 billion years old, are much older than the Sun. These clusters are fairly common, with more than 150 currently known in our galaxy, the Milky Way, and more which have been spotted in other galaxies.
Globular clusters are among the oldest structures in the Universe that are accessible to direct observational investigation, making them living fossils from the early years of the cosmos.
Astronomers infer important properties of globular clusters by looking at the light from their constituent stars. For many years, they were regarded as ideal laboratories for testing the standard stellar evolution theory. Among other things, this theory suggests that most of the stars within a globular cluster should be of a similar age.
Recently, however, high precision measurements performed in numerous globular clusters, primarily with the Hubble Space Telescope, has led some to question this widely accepted theory. In particular, certain stars appear younger and bluer than their companions, and they have been dubbed blue stragglers. NGC 6362 contains many of these stars.
Since they are usually found in the core regions of clusters, where the concentration of stars is large, the most likely explanation for this unexpected population of objects seems to be that they could be either the result of stellar collisions or transfer of material between stars in binary systems. This influx of new material would heat up the star and make it appear younger than its neighbours.
NGC 6362 is located about 25 000 light-years from Earth in the constellation of Ara (The Altar). British astronomer James Dunlop first observed this globular cluster on 30 June 1826.
This image was created combining ultraviolet, visual and infrared images taken with the Wide Field Channel of the Advanced Camera for Surveys and the Wide Field Camera 3. An image image of NGC 6362 taken by the MPG/ESO 2.2-metre telescope will be published by the European Southern Observatory on Wednesday. See it on www.eso.org from 12:00 on 31 October.
The NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope has imaged the faint irregular galaxy NGC 3738, a starburst galaxy. The galaxy is in the midst of a violent episode of star formation, during which it is converting reservoirs of hydrogen gas harboured in the galaxy’s centre into stars. Hubble spots this gas glowing red around NGC 3738, one of the most distinctive signs of ongoing star formation.
Lying in the constellation of Ursa Major (The Great Bear), NGC 3738 is located about 12 million light-years from the Sun, and belongs to the Messier 81 group of galaxies. This galaxy — first observed by astronomer William Herschel back in 1789 — is a nearby example of a blue compact dwarf, the faintest type of starburst galaxy. Blue compact dwarfs are small compared to large spiral galaxies — NGC 3738 is around 10 000 light-years across, just one tenth of the size of the Milky Way.
This type of galaxy is blue in appearance by virtue of containing large clusters of hot, massive stars, which ionise the surrounding interstellar gas with their intense ultraviolet radiation. They are relatively faint and appear to be irregular in shape. Unlike spirals or elliptical galaxies, irregular galaxies do not have any distinctive features, such as a nuclear bulge or spiral arms. Rather, they are extremely chaotic in appearance. These galaxies are thought to resemble some of the earliest that formed in the Universe and may provide clues as to how stars appeared shortly after the Big Bang.
This image was created by combining visual and infrared images taken with the Wide Field Channel of the Advanced Camera for Surveys aboard the Hubble Space Telescope. The field of view of the Wide Field Channel is approximately 3.4 by 3.4 arcminutes wide.
NGC 3344 is a glorious spiral galaxy around half the size of the Milky Way, which lies 25 million light-years distant. We are fortunate enough to see NGC 3344 face-on, allowing us to study its structure in detail.
The galaxy features an outer ring swirling around an inner ring with a subtle bar structure in the centre. The central regions of the galaxy are predominately populated by young stars, with the galactic fringes also featuring areas of active star formation.
Central bars are found in around two thirds of spiral galaxies. NGC 3344’s is clearly visible here, although it is not as dramatic as some (see for example heic1202).
The high density of stars in galaxies’ central regions gives them enough gravitational influence to affect the movement of other stars in their galaxy. However, NGC 3344’s outer stars are moving in an unusual manner, although the presence of the bar cannot entirely account for this, leaving astronomers puzzled. It is possible that in its past NGC 3344 passed close by another galaxy and accreted stars from it, but more research is needed to state this with confidence.
The image is a combination of exposures taken in visible and near-infrared light, using Hubble’s Advanced Camera for Surveys. The field of view is around 3.4 by 3.4 arcminutes, or around a tenth of the diameter of the full Moon.
The Universe is filled with mysterious objects. Many of them are as strange as they are beautiful. Among these, planetary nebulae are probably one of the most fascinating objects to behold in the night sky. No other type of object has such a large variety of shapes and structures. The NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope provides us this week with a striking image of Hen 3-1475, a planetary nebula in the making.
Planetary nebulae — the name arises because most of these objects resembled a planet when they were first discovered through early telescopes — are expanding, glowing shells of gas coming from Sun-like stars at the ends of their lives. They glow brightly because of the radiation that comes from a hot, compact core, which remains after the outer envelope is ejected, and is powerful enough to make these gossamer shells shine.
Each planetary nebula is complex and unique. Hen 3-1475 is a great example of a planetary nebula in the making, a phase which is known to astronomers as a protoplanetary or preplanetary nebula.
Since the central star has not yet blown away its complete shell, the star is not hot enough to ionise the shell of gas and so the nebula does not shine. Rather, we see the expelled gas thanks to light reflected off it. When the star’s envelope is fully ejected, it will begin to glow and become a planetary nebula.
Hen 3-1475 is located in the constellation of Sagittarius around 18 000 light-years away from us. The central star is more than 12 000 times as luminous as our Sun. Its most characteristic feature is a thick torus of dust around the central star and two S-shaped jets that are emerging from the pole regions of the central star. These jets are long outflows of fast-moving gas travelling at hundreds of kilometres per second.
The formation of these bipolar jets has puzzled astronomers for a long time. How can a spherical star form these complex structures? Recent studies suggest that the object’s characteristic shape and the large velocity outflow is created by a central source that ejects streams of gas in opposite directions and precesses once every thousand years. It is like an enormous, slowly rotating garden sprinkler in the middle of the sky. No wonder astronomers also have nicknamed this object the “Garden-sprinkler Nebula”.
This picture was taken with Hubble’s Wide Field Camera 3, which provides significantly higher resolution than previous observations made with the Wide Field and Planetary Camera 2 (heic0308).
- Hubblecast 52: The Death of Stars explains how Sun-like stars end their lives as planetary nebulae
This dazzling image shows the globular cluster Messier 69, or M 69 for short, as viewed through the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope. Globular clusters are dense collections of old stars. In this picture, foreground stars look big and golden when set against the backdrop of the thousands of white, silvery stars that make up M 69.
Another aspect of M 69 lends itself to the bejewelled metaphor: As globular clusters go, M 69 is one of the most metal-rich on record. In astronomy, the term “metal” has a specialised meaning: it refers to any element heavier than the two most common elements in our Universe, hydrogen and helium. The nuclear fusion that powers stars created all of the metallic elements in nature, from the calcium in our bones to the carbon in diamonds. Successive generations of stars have built up the metallic abundances we see today.
Because the stars in globular clusters are ancient, their metallic abundances are much lower than more recently formed stars, such as the Sun. Studying the makeup of stars in globular clusters like M 69 has helped astronomers trace back the evolution of the cosmos.
M 69 is located 29 700 light-years away in the constellation Sagittarius (the Archer). The famed French comet hunter Charles Messier added M 69 to his catalogue in 1780. It is also known as NGC 6637.
The image is a combination of exposures taken in visible and near-infrared light by Hubble’s Advanced Camera for Surveys, and covers a field of view of approximately 3.4 by 3.4 arcminutes.
The NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope has provided us with another outstanding image of a nearby galaxy. This week, we highlight the galaxy NGC 4183, seen here with a beautiful backdrop of distant galaxies and nearby stars. Located about 55 million light-years from the Sun and spanning about eighty thousand light-years, NGC 4183 is a little smaller than the Milky Way. This galaxy, which belongs to the Ursa Major Group, lies in the northern constellation of Canes Venatici (The Hunting Dogs).
NGC 4183 is a spiral galaxy with a faint core and an open spiral structure. Unfortunately, this galaxy is viewed edge-on from the Earth, and we cannot fully appreciate its spiral arms. But we can admire its galactic disc.
The discs of galaxies are mainly composed of gas, dust and stars. There is evidence of dust over the galactic plane, visible as dark intricate filaments that block the visible light from the core of the galaxy. In addition, recent studies suggest that this galaxy may have a bar structure. Galactic bars are thought to act as a mechanism that channels gas from the spiral arms to the centre, enhancing star formation, which is typically more pronounced in the spiral arms than in the bulge of the galaxy.
British astronomer William Herschel first observed NGC 4183 on 14 January 1778.
This picture was created from visible and infrared images taken with the Wide Field Channel of the Advanced Camera for Surveys. The field of view is approximately 3.4 arcminutes wide.
This image uses data identified by Luca Limatola in the Hubble's Hidden Treasures image processing competition.
The NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope has produced a sharp image of NGC 4634, a spiral galaxy seen exactly side-on. Its disc is slightly warped by ongoing interactions with a nearby galaxy, and it is crisscrossed by clearly defined dust lanes and bright nebulae.
NGC 4634, which lies around 70 million light-years from Earth in the constellation of Coma Berenices, is one of a pair of interacting galaxies. Its neighbour, NGC 4633, lies just outside the upper right corner of the frame, and is visible in wide-field views of the galaxy. While it may be out of sight, it is not out of mind: its subtle effects on NGC 4634 are easy to see to a well-trained eye.
Gravitational interactions pull the neat spiral forms of galaxies out of shape as they get closer to each other, and the disruption to gas clouds triggers vigorous episodes of star formation. While this galaxy’s spiral pattern is not directly visible thanks to our side-on perspective, its disc is slightly warped, and there is clear evidence of star formation.
Along the full length of the galaxy, and scattered around parts of its halo, are bright pink nebulae. Similar to the Orion Nebula in the Milky Way, these are clouds of gas that are gradually coalescing into stars. The powerful radiation from the stars excites the gas and makes it light up, much like a fluorescent sign. The large number of these star formation regions is a telltale sign of gravitational interaction.
The dark filamentary structures that are scattered along the length of the galaxy are caused by cold interstellar dust blocking some of the starlight.
Hubble’s image is a combination of exposures in visible light produced by Hubble’s Advanced Camera for Surveys and the Wide Field and Planetary Camera 2.
This image portrays a beautiful view of the galaxy NGC 7090, as seen by the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope. The galaxy is viewed edge-on from the Earth, meaning we cannot easily see the spiral arms, which are full of young, hot stars.
However, our side-on view shows the galaxy’s disc and the bulging central core, where typically a large group of cool old stars are packed in a compact, spheroidal region. In addition, there are two interesting features present in the image that are worth mentioning.
First, we are able to distinguish an intricate pattern of pinkish red regions over the whole galaxy. This indicates the presence of clouds of hydrogen gas. These structures trace the location of ongoing star formation, visual confirmation of recent studies that classify NGC 7090 as an actively star-forming galaxy.
Second, we observe dust lanes, depicted as dark regions inside the disc of the galaxy. In NGC 7090, these regions are mostly located in lower half of the galaxy, showing an intricate filamentary structure. Looking from the outside in through the whole disc, the light emitted from the bright centre of the galaxy is absorbed by the dust, silhouetting the dusty regions against the bright light in the background.
Dust in our galaxy, the Milky Way, has been one of the worst enemies of observational astronomers for decades. But this does not mean that these regions are quite blind spots in the sky. At near-infrared wavelengths — slightly longer wavelengths than visible light — this dust is largely transparent and astronomers are able to study what is really behind it. At still longer wavelengths, the realm of radio astronomy, the dust itself can actually be observed, letting astronomers study the structure and properties of dust clouds and their relationship with star formation.
Lying in the southern constellation of Indus (The Indian), NGC 7090 is located about thirty million light-years from the Sun. Astronomer John Herschel first observed this galaxy on 4 October, 1834.
The image was taken using the Wide Field Channel of the Advanced Camera for Surveys aboard the Hubble Space Telescope and combines orange light (coloured blue here), infrared (coloured red) and emissions from glowing hydrogen gas (also in red).
A version of this image of NGC 7090 was entered into the Hubble’s Hidden Treasures Image Processing Competition by contestant Rasid Tugral. Hidden Treasures is an initiative to invite astronomy enthusiasts to search the Hubble archive for stunning images that have never been seen by the general public. The competition is now closed and the list of winners is available here.
This sparkling picture taken by the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope shows the centre of globular cluster M 4. The power of Hubble has resolved the cluster into a multitude of glowing orbs, each a colossal nuclear furnace.
M 4 is relatively close to us, lying 7200 light-years distant, making it a prime object for study. It contains several tens of thousand stars and is noteworthy in being home to many white dwarfs — the cores of ancient, dying stars whose outer layers have drifted away into space.
In July 2003, Hubble helped make the astounding discovery of a planet called PSR B1620-26 b, 2.5 times the mass of Jupiter, which is located in this cluster. Its age is estimated to be around 13 billion years — almost three times as old as the Solar System! It is also unusual in that it orbits a binary system of a white dwarf and a pulsar (a type of neutron star).
Amateur stargazers may like to track M 4 down in the night sky. Use binoculars or a small telescope to scan the skies near the orange-red star Antares in Scorpius. M 4 is bright for a globular cluster, but it won’t look anything like Hubble’s detailed image: it will appear as a fuzzy ball of light in your eyepiece.
On Wednesday 5 September, the European Southern Observatory (ESO) will publish a wide-field image of M 4, showing the full spheroidal shape of the globular cluster. See it at www.eso.org on Wednesday.
A new image from the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope shows NGC 5806, a spiral galaxy in the constellation Virgo (the Virgin). It lies around 80 million light years from Earth. Also visible in this image is a supernova explosion called SN 2004dg.
The exposures that are combined into this image were carried out in early 2005 in order to help pinpoint the location of the supernova, which exploded in 2004. The afterglow from this outburst of light, caused by a giant star exploding at the end of its life, can be seen as a faint yellowish dot near the bottom of the galaxy.
NGC 5806 was chosen to be one of a number of galaxies in a study into supernovae because Hubble’s archive already contained high resolution imagery of the galaxy, collected before the star had exploded. Since supernovae are both relatively rare, and impossible to predict with any accuracy, the existence of such before-and-after images is precious for astronomers who study these violent events.
Aside from the supernova, NGC 5806 is a relatively unremarkable galaxy: it is neither particularly large or small, nor especially close or distant.
The galaxy’s bulge (the densest part in the centre of the spiral arms) is a so-called disk-type bulge, in which the spiral structure extends right to the centre of the galaxy, instead of there being a large elliptical bulge of stars present. It is also home to an active galaxy nucleus, a supermassive black hole which is pulling in large amounts of matter from its immediate surroundings. As the matter spirals around the black hole, it heats up and emits powerful radiation.
This image is produced from three exposures in visible and infrared light, observed by Hubble’s Advanced Camera for Surveys. The field of view is approximately 3.3 by 1.7 arcminutes.
A version of this image was entered into the Hubble’s Hidden Treasures Image Processing Competition by contestant Andre van der Hoeven (who won second prize in the competition for his image of Messier 77). Hidden Treasures is an initiative to invite astronomy enthusiasts to search the Hubble archive for stunning images that have never been seen by the general public. The competition has now closed.
The NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope has produced this beautiful image of the globular cluster Messier 56 (also known as M 56 or NGC 6779), which is located about 33 000 light years away from the Earth in the constellation of Lyra (The Lyre). The cluster is composed of a large number of stars, tightly bound to each other by gravity.
However, this was not known when Charles Messier first observed it in January 1779. He described Messier 56 as “a nebula without stars”, like most globular clusters that he discovered — his telescope was not powerful enough to individually resolve any of the stars visible here, making it look like a fuzzy ball through his telescope’s eyepiece. We clearly see from Hubble’s image how the development of technology over the years has helped our understanding of astronomical objects.
Astronomers typically infer important properties of globular clusters by looking at the light of their constituent stars. But they have to be very careful when they observe objects like Messier 56, which is located close to the Galactic plane. This region is crowded by “field-stars”, in other words, stars in the Milky Way that happen to lie in the same direction but do not belong to the cluster. These objects can contaminate the light, and hence undermine the conclusions reached by astronomers.
A tool often used by scientists for studying stellar clusters is the colour-magnitude (or Hertzsprung-Russell) diagram. This chart compares the brightness and colour of stars – which in turn, tells scientists what the surface temperature of a star is.
By comparing high quality observations taken with the Hubble Space Telescope with results from the standard theory of stellar evolution, astronomers can characterise the properties of a cluster. In the case of Messier 56, this includes its age, which at 13 billion years is approximately three times the age of the Sun. Furthermore, they have also been able to study the chemical composition of Messier 56. The cluster has relatively few elements heavier than hydrogen and helium, typically a sign of stars that were born early in the Universe’s history, before many of the elements in existence today were formed in significant quantities.
Astronomers have found that the majority of clusters with this type of chemical makeup lie along a plane in the Milky Way’s halo. This suggests that such clusters were captured from a satellite galaxy, rather than being the oldest members of the Milky Way's globular cluster system as had been previously thought.
This image consists of visible and near-infrared exposures from Hubble’s Advanced Camera for Surveys. The field of view is approximately 3.3 by 3.3 arcminutes.
A version of this image was entered into the Hubble’s Hidden Treasures Image Processing Competition by contestant Gilles Chapdelaine. Hidden Treasures is an initiative to invite astronomy enthusiasts to search the Hubble archive for stunning images that have never been seen by the general public. The competition has now closed and the results will be published soon.
In terms of intergalactic real estate, our Solar System has a plumb location as part of a big, spiral galaxy, the Milky Way. Numerous, less glamorous dwarf galaxies, keep the Milky Way company. Many galaxies, however, are comparatively isolated, without close neighbours. One such example is the small galaxy known as DDO 190, snapped here in a new image from the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope.
DDO 190 is classified as a dwarf irregular galaxy as it is relatively small and lacks clear structure. Older, reddish stars mostly populate DDO 190’s outskirts, while some younger, bluish stars gleam in DDO 190’s more crowded interior. Some pockets of ionised gas heated up by stars appear here and there, with the most noticeable one shining towards the bottom of DDO 190 in this picture. Meanwhile, a great number of distant galaxies with evident spiral, elliptical and less-defined shapes glow in the background.
DDO 190 lies around nine million light-years away from our Solar System. It is considered part of the loosely associated Messier 94 group of galaxies, not far from the Local Group of galaxies that includes the Milky Way. Canadian astronomer Sidney van der Bergh was the first to record DDO 190 in 1959 as part of the DDO catalogue of dwarf galaxies. (“DDO” stands for the David Dunlap Observatory, now managed by the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada, where the catalogue was created).
Although within the Messier 94 group, DDO 190 is on its own. The galaxy’s nearest dwarf galaxy neighbour, DDO 187, is thought to be no closer than three million light-years away. In contrast, many of the Milky Way’s companion galaxies, such as the Large and Small Magellanic Clouds, reside within a fifth or so of that distance, and even the giant spiral of the Andromeda Galaxy is closer to the Milky Way than DDO 190 is to its nearest neighbour.
Hubble’s Advanced Camera for Surveys captured this image in visible and infrared light. The field of view is around 3.3 by 3.3 arcminutes
A version of this image was entered into the Hubble’s Hidden Treasures Image Processing Competition by contestant Claude Cornen. Hidden Treasures is an initiative to invite astronomy enthusiasts to search the Hubble archive for stunning images that have never been seen by the general public. The competition has now closed and the results will be published soon.
Turning its 2.4-metre eye to the Tarantula Nebula, the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope has taken this close-up of the outskirts of the main cloud of the Nebula.
The bright wispy structures are the signature of an environment rich in ionised hydrogen gas, called H II by astronomers. In reality these appear red, but the choice of filters and colours of this image, which includes exposures both in visible and infrared light, make the gas appear green.
These regions contain recently formed stars, which emit powerful ultraviolet radiation that ionises the gas around them. These clouds are ephemeral as eventually the stellar winds from the newborn stars and the ionisation process will blow away the clouds, leaving stellar clusters like the Pleiades.
Located in the Large Magellanic Cloud, one of our neighbouring galaxies, and situated at a distance of 170 000 light-years away from Earth, the Tarantula Nebula is the brightest known nebula in the Local Group of galaxies. It is also the largest (around 650 light-years across) and most active star-forming region known in our group of galaxies, containing numerous clouds of dust and gas and two bright star clusters. A recent Hubble image shows a large part of the nebula immediately adjacent to this field of view.
The cluster at the Tarantula nebula’s centre is relatively young and very bright. While it is outside the field of view of this image, the energy from it is responsible for most of the brightness of the Nebula, including the part we see here. The nebula is in fact so luminous that if it were located within 1000 light-years from Earth, it would cast shadows on our planet.
The Tarantula Nebula was host to the closest supernova ever detected since the invention of the telescope, supernova 1987A, which was visible to the naked eye.
The image was produced by Hubble’s Advanced Camera for Surveys, and has a field of view of approximately 3.3 by 3.3 arcminutes.
A version of this image was entered into the Hubble’s Hidden Treasures Image Processing Competition by contestant Judy Schmidt. Hidden Treasures is an initiative to invite astronomy enthusiasts to search the Hubble archive for stunning images that have never been seen by the general public. The competition has now closed and the results will be published soon.
The NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope offers this delightful view of the crowded stellar encampment called Messier 68, a spherical, star-filled region of space known as a globular cluster. Mutual gravitational attraction amongst a cluster’s hundreds of thousands or even millions of stars keeps stellar members in check, allowing globular clusters to hang together for many billions of years.
Astronomers can measure the ages of globular clusters by looking at the light of their constituent stars. The chemical elements leave signatures in this light, and the starlight reveals that globular clusters' stars typically contain fewer heavy elements, such as carbon, oxygen and iron, than stars like the Sun. Since successive generations of stars gradually create these elements through nuclear fusion, stars having fewer of them are relics of earlier epochs in the Universe. Indeed, the stars in globular clusters rank among the oldest on record, dating back more than 10 billion years.
More than 150 of these objects surround our Milky Way galaxy. On a galactic scale, globular clusters are indeed not all that big. In Messier 68's case, its constituent stars span a volume of space with a diameter of little more than a hundred light-years. The disc of the Milky Way, on the other hand, extends over some 100 000 light-years or more.
Messier 68 is located about 33 000 light-years from Earth in the constellation Hydra (The Female Water Snake). French astronomer Charles Messier notched the object as the sixty-eighth entry in his famous catalogue in 1780.
Hubble added Messier 68 to its own impressive list of cosmic targets in this image using the Wide Field Camera of Hubble’s Advanced Camera for Surveys. The image, which combines visible and infrared light, has a field of view of approximately 3.4 by 3.4 arcminutes.
The galaxy NGC 4700 bears the signs of the vigorous birth of many new stars in this image captured by the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope.
The many bright, pinkish clouds in NGC 4700 are known as H II regions, where intense ultraviolet light from hot young stars is causing nearby hydrogen gas to glow. H II regions often come part-and-parcel with the vast molecular clouds that spawn fresh stars, thus giving rise to the locally ionised gas.
In 1610, French astronomer Nicolas-Claude Fabri de Peiresc peered through a telescope and found what turned out to be the first H II region on record: the Orion Nebula, located relatively close to our Solar System here in the Milky Way. Astronomers study these regions throughout the Milky Way and those easily seen in other galaxies to gauge the chemical makeup of cosmic environments and their influence on the formation of stars.
NGC 4700 was discovered back in March 1786 by the British astronomer William Herschel who noted it as a “very faint nebula”. NGC 4700, along with many other relatively close galaxies, is found in the constellation of Virgo (The Virgin) and is classified as a barred spiral galaxy, similar in structure to the Milky Way. It lies about 50 million light-years from us and is moving away from us at about 1400 km/second due to the expansion of the Universe.
The NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope has captured a crowd of stars that looks rather like a stadium darkened before a show, lit only by the flashbulbs of the audience’s cameras. Yet the many stars of this object, known as Messier 107, are not a fleeting phenomenon, at least by human reckoning of time — these ancient stars have gleamed for many billions of years.
Messier 107 is one of more than 150 globular star clusters found around the disc of the Milky Way galaxy. These spherical collections each contain hundreds of thousands of extremely old stars and are among the oldest objects in the Milky Way. The origin of globular clusters and their impact on galactic evolution remains somewhat unclear, so astronomers continue to study them through pictures such as this one obtained by Hubble.
As globular clusters go, Messier 107 is not particularly dense. Visually comparing its appearance to other globular clusters, such as Messier 53 or Messier 54 reveals that the stars within Messier 107 are not packed as tightly, thereby making its members more distinct like individual fans in a stadium's stands.
Messier 107 can be found in the constellation of Ophiuchus (The Serpent Bearer) and is located about 20 000 light-years from the Solar System.
French astronomer Pierre Méchain first noted the object in 1782, and British astronomer William Herschel documented it independently a year later. A Canadian astronomer, Helen Sawyer Hogg, added Messier 107 to Charles Messier's famous astronomical catalogue in 1947.
This picture was obtained with the Wide Field Camera of Hubble’s Advanced Camera for Surveys. The field of view is approximately 3.4 by 3.4 arcminutes.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
- Previous images of Eta Carinae from the Hubble Space Telescope:
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.
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.
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.
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.