This classic shot of a galaxy in the constellation of Ursa Major was taken by the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope. NGC 3259 is a bright barred spiral galaxy located approximately 110 million light-years from Earth.
Being a fully-formed active galaxy, its bright central bulge hosts a supermassive black hole, whose huge appetite for matter explains the high luminosity of the galaxy’s core: as it devours its surroundings, the black hole emits intense radiation across the whole electromagnetic spectrum, including in visible light.
The beautiful spiral arms of the galaxy are not left out either as they contain dark lanes of dust and gas, ideal spawning grounds for stars. These bright, young, hot stars appear in rich clusters in the galaxy’s arms and are what gives the galaxy its blueish hue.
Interestingly, the galaxy has a small companion (visible to the left of the image), a much smaller galaxy that may be orbiting NGC 3259. In the background, numerous distant galaxies can be seen, easily identifiable by their elliptical shapes. They are visible here mainly in infrared light, which is shown in red in this image.
This image shows the most detailed view ever of the core of Messier 82 (M 82), also known as the Cigar Galaxy. Rich with dust, young stars and glowing gas, M 82 is both unusually bright and relatively close to Earth. The starburst galaxy is located around 12 million light-years away in the constellation of Ursa Major (The Great Bear).
This is not the first time Hubble has imaged the Cigar Galaxy. Previous images (for example heic0604) show a galaxy ablaze with stars. Yet this image looks quite unlike them, and is dominated instead by glowing gas and dust, with the stars almost invisible. Why such a difference?
The new image is more detailed than previous Hubble observations – in fact, it is the most detailed image ever made of this galaxy. But the reason it looks so dramatically different is down to the choices astronomers make when designing their observations. Hubble’s cameras do not see in colour: they are sensitive to a broad range of wavelengths which they image only in greyscale. Colour pictures can be constructed by passing the light through different coloured filters and combining the resulting images, but the choice of filters makes a big difference to the end result.
Using filters which allow through relatively broad bands of colours, similar to those our eyes see, results in natural-looking colours and bright stars, as starlight shines brightly across the spectrum.
Using filters transparent only to the wavelengths emitted by specific chemical elements, as in this image, isolates the light from glowing gas clouds, while blocking out much of the starlight. This explains why the stars appear faint in this image, and why the dust lanes are sharply silhouetted against the brightly glowing gas clouds.
The image shows the light emitted by sulphur (shown in red), visible and ultraviolet light from oxygen (shown green and blue, respectively), and light from hydrogen (cyan).
The field of view is approximately 2.7 by 2.7 arcminutes.
The NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope has imaged a region of space containing the intriguing object IC 2574. Pink bubbles blown by supernova explosions abound in this faint galaxy. The colour of these shells comes from hydrogen gas irradiated by newborn stars. The formation of the stars was triggered by shock waves from earlier supernova detonations that compressed material together.
IC 2574 is commonly known as Coddington's Nebula after the American astronomer Edwin Coddington, who discovered it in 1898. Astronomers classify IC 2574 as a dwarf irregular galaxy due to its relatively small size and lack of organisation or structure. These galaxies are thought to resemble some of the earliest that formed in the Universe. Dwarf irregular galaxies thus serve as useful "living fossils" for studying the evolution of more complex galaxy types such as our home, the Milky Way, with its central bar and spiral arms. The expanding shells in IC 2574 are of particular interest to astronomers as they reveal how supernova-driven explosions ignite round after round of star formation.
The constellation containing IC 2574 is Ursa Major (The Great Bear). IC 2574 is located about 12 million light-years away, belonging to the Messier 81 group of galaxies. This group is named after the most prominent galaxy in its midst, the big, bright and accordingly well-studied spiral galaxy Messier 81.
This picture was produced with Hubble’s Advanced Camera for Surveys, and covers a field of view of around 3.3 by 3.3 arcminutes.
An interesting galaxy has been circled in this NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope image. The galaxy — one of a group of galaxies called Luminous Red Galaxies — has an unusually large mass, containing about ten times the mass of the Milky Way. However, it’s actually the blue horseshoe shape that circumscribes the red galaxy that is the real prize in this image.
This blue horseshoe is a distant galaxy that has been magnified and warped into a nearly complete ring by the strong gravitational pull of the massive foreground Luminous Red Galaxy. To see such a so-called Einstein Ring required the fortunate alignment of the foreground and background galaxies, making this object’s nickname “the Cosmic Horseshoe” particularly apt.
The Cosmic Horseshoe is one of the best examples of an Einstein Ring. It also gives us a tantalising view of the early Universe: the blue galaxy’s redshift — a measure of how the wavelength of its light has been stretched by the expansion of the cosmos — is approximately 2.4. This means we see it as it was about 3 billion years after the Big Bang. The Universe is now 13.7 billion years old.
Astronomers first discovered the Cosmic Horseshoe in 2007 using data from the Sloan Digital Sky Survey. But this Hubble image, taken with the Wide Field Camera 3, offers a much more detailed view of this fascinating object.
This picture was created from images taken in visible and infrared light on Hubble’s Wide Field Camera 3. The field of view is approximately 2.6 arcminutes wide.
The compact nature of globular clusters is a double-edged sword. On the one hand, having so many stars of a similar age in one bundle gives astronomers insights into the chemical makeup of our galaxy in its early history. But, at the same time, the high density of stars in the cores of globulars also makes it difficult for astronomers to resolve individual stars.
The core of NGC 6642, shown here in this Hubble Space Telescope image, is particularly dense, making this globular a difficult observational target for most telescopes. Furthermore, it occupies a very central position in our galaxy, which means that images inadvertently capture many stars that don’t belong to the cluster — these “field stars” just get in the way.
However, using Hubble’s powerful Advanced Camera for Surveys (ACS), astronomers can identify and remove such distracting field stars, and resolve the cluster’s dense core in unprecedented detail. Using Hubble’s ACS, astronomers have already made many interesting finds about NGC 6642. For example, many “blue stragglers” (stars which seemingly lag behind in their rate of aging) have been spotted in this globular, and it is known to be lacking in low-mass stars.
This picture was created from visible and infrared images taken with the Wide Field Channel of the Advanced Camera for Surveys. The field of view is approximately 1.6 by 1.6 arcminutes.
Three thousand light-years from Earth lies the strange protoplanetary nebula IRAS 09371+1212, nicknamed the Frosty Leo Nebula. Despite their name, protoplanetary nebulae have nothing to do with planets: they are formed from material shed from their aging central star. The Frosty Leo Nebula has acquired its curious name as it has been found to be rich in water in the form of ice grains, and because it lies in the constellation of Leo.
This nebula is particularly noteworthy because it has formed far from the galactic plane, away from interstellar clouds that may block our view. The intricate shape comprises a spherical halo, a disc around the central star, lobes and gigantic loops. This complex structure strongly suggests that the formation processes are complex and it has been suggested that there could be a second star, currently unseen, contributing to the shaping of the nebula.
Protoplanetary nebulae like the Frosty Leo Nebula have brief lifespans by astronomical standards and are precursors to the planetary nebula phase, in which radiation from the star will make the nebula’s gas light up brightly. Their rarity makes studying them a priority for astronomers who seek to understand better the evolution of stars.
This picture was created from images taken with the High Resolution Channel of Hubble’s Advanced Camera for Surveys, which images a small area of sky (only 26 by 29 arcseconds) in high detail.
The NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope has caught sight of a soft, diffuse-looking galaxy that is probably the aftermath of a long-ago galactic collision. Two spiral galaxies, each perhaps much like the Milky Way, swirled together for millions of years.
In such mergers, the original galaxies are often stretched and pulled apart as they wrap around a common centre of gravity. After a few back-and-forths, this starry tempest settles down into a new, round object. The now subdued celestial body, catalogued as SDSS J162702.56+432833.9, is technically known as an elliptical galaxy.
When galaxies collide — a common event in the Universe — a fresh burst of star formation typically takes place as gas clouds mash together. At this point, the galaxy has a blue hue, but the colour does not mean it is cold: it is a result of the intense heat of newly formed blue–white stars. Those stars do not last long, and after a few billion years the reddish hues of aging smaller stars dominate an elliptical galaxy's spectrum. Hubble has helped astronomers learn of this sequence by observing galaxy mergers at all stages of the process.
In SDSS J162702.56+432833.9, some ribbons of dust notably obscure parts of the conglomerated galaxy's central, bluish region. Those dust lanes could be remnants of the spiral arms of the recently departed galaxies.
This picture was snapped by the Wide Field Camera of Hubble’s Advanced Camera for Surveys. The image was made through a red (F625W) and a blue (F438W) filter. The field of view is approximately 2.4 by 2.4 arcminutes.
In one of the largest known star formation regions in the Large Magellanic Cloud (LMC), a small satellite galaxy of the Milky Way, lie young and bright stellar groupings known as OB associations. One of these associations, called LH 72, was captured in this dramatic NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope image. It consists of a few high-mass, young stars embedded in a beautiful and dense nebula of hydrogen gas.
Much of the star formation in the LMC occurs in super-giant shells. These regions of interstellar gas are thought to have formed due to strong stellar winds and supernova explosions that cleared away much of the material around the stars creating wind-blown shells. The swept-up gas eventually cools down and fragments into smaller clouds that dot the edges of these regions and eventually collapse to form new stars.
The biggest of these shells, home to LH 72, is designated LMC4. With a diameter of about 6000 light-years, it is the largest in the Local Group of galaxies that is home to both the Milky Way and LMC. Studying gas-embedded young associations of stars like LH 72 is a way of probing the super-giant shells to understand how they formed and evolved.
This image was taken with Hubble’s Wide Field Planetary Camera 2 using five different filters in ultraviolet, visible and infrared light. The field of view is approximately 1.8 by 1.8 arcminutes.
The NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope has peered deep into NGC 4631, better known as the Whale Galaxy. Here, a profusion of starbirth lights up the galactic centre, revealing bands of dark material between us and the starburst. The galaxy’s activity tapers off in its outer regions where there are fewer stars and less dust, but these are still punctuated by pockets of star formation.
The Whale Galaxy is about 30 million light-years away from us in the constellation of Canes Venatici (The Hunting Dogs) and is a spiral galaxy much like the Milky Way. From our vantage point, however, we see the Whale Galaxy edge-on, seeing its glowing centre through dusty spiral arms. The galaxy's central bulge and asymmetric tapering disc have suggested the shape of a whale or a herring to past observers.
Many supernovae — the explosions of hot, blue, short-lived stars at least eight times the mass of the Sun — have gone off in the core of the Whale Galaxy. The stellar pyrotechnics have bathed the galaxy in hot gas, visible to X-ray telescopes like ESA’s XMM–Newton. Comparing the optical and near-infrared observations from Hubble with other telescopes sensitive to different wavelengths of light helps astronomers gather the full story behind celestial phenomena.
From such work, the triggers of the starburst in the Whale Galaxy and others can be elucidated. The gravitational "feeding" on intergalactic material, as well as clumping caused by the gravitational interactions with its galactic neighbours, creates the areas of greater density where stars start to coalesce. Just as blue whales, the biggest creatures on Earth, can gorge themselves on comparatively tiny bits of plankton, so the Whale Galaxy has become filled with the gas and dust that powers a high rate of star formation.
The object shown in this beautiful Hubble image, dubbed Messier 54, could be just another globular cluster, but this dense and faint group of stars was in fact the first globular cluster found that is outside our galaxy. Discovered by the famous astronomer Charles Messier in 1778, Messier 54 belongs to a satellite of the Milky Way called the Sagittarius Dwarf Elliptical Galaxy.
Messier had no idea of the significance of his discovery at the time, and it wasn’t until over two centuries later, in 1994, that astronomers found Messier 54 to be part of the miniature galaxy and not our own. Current estimates indicate that the Sagittarius dwarf, and hence the cluster, is situated almost 90 000 light-years away — more than three times as far from the centre of our galaxy than the Solar System.
Ironically, even though this globular cluster is now understood to lie outside the Milky Way, it will actually become part of it in the future. The strong gravitational pull of our galaxy is slowly engulfing the Sagittarius dwarf, which will eventually merge with the Milky Way creating one much larger galaxy.
This picture is a composite created by combining images taken with the Wide Field Channel of Hubble’s Advanced Camera for Surveys. Light that passed through a yellow-orange (F606W) was coloured blue and light passing through a near-infrared filter (F814W) was coloured red. The total exposure times were 3460 s and 3560 s, respectively and the field of view is approximately 3.4 by 3.4 arcminutes.
The pearly wisps surrounding the central star IRAS 10082-5647 in this Hubble image certainly draw the eye towards the heavens. The divine-looking cloud is a reflection nebula, made up of gas and dust glowing softly by the reflected light of nearby stars, in this case a young Herbig Ae/Be star.
The star, like others of this type, is still a relative youngster, only a few million years old. It has not yet reached the so-called main sequence phase, where it will spend around 80% of its life creating energy by burning hydrogen in its core. Until then the star heats itself by gravitational collapse, as the material in the star falls in on itself, becoming ever denser and creating immense pressure which in turn gives off copious amounts of heat.
Stars only spend around 1% of their lives in this pre-main sequence phase. Eventually, gravitational collapse will heat the star’s core enough for hydrogen fusion to begin, propelling the star into the main sequence phase, and adulthood.
The Advanced Camera for Surveys aboard the Hubble Space Telescope captured the whorls and arcs of this nebula, lit up with the light from IRAS 10082-5647. Visible (555 nm) and near-infrared (814 nm) filters were used, coloured blue and red respectively. The field of view is around 1.3 by 1.3 arcminutes.
The NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope has taken this image of the Phoenix Dwarf Galaxy, which is located 1.4 million light-years away from Earth. It is located in the constellation of Phoenix in the southern sky. The object, a dwarf irregular galaxy, features younger stars in its inner regions and older ones at its outskirts.
Dwarf galaxies are small galaxies composed of a few billion stars, compared to fully-fledged galaxies which can contain hundreds of billions of stars. In the Local Group, there are a number of such dwarf galaxies orbiting the larger galaxies such as the Milky Way or the Andromeda Galaxy. They are thought to have been created by tidal forces in the early stages of the creation of these galaxies, or as a result of collisions between galaxies, forming from ejected streams of material and dark matter from the parent galaxies. The Milky Way galaxy features at least 14 satellite dwarf galaxies orbiting it.
Because of their shape, dwarf irregulars have often been mistaken for globular clusters: they do not feature a bulge or spiral arms like larger galaxies. However, their importance in terms of cosmology is in stark contrast to their unspectacular shapes, as their chemical makeup and high levels of gas are believed to be similar to those of the earliest galaxies that populated the Universe. They are thought to be contemporary versions of some of the remote galaxies observed in deep field galaxy surveys, and can thus help to understand the early stages of galaxy and star formation in the young Universe.
The galaxy was discovered in 1976 by Hans-Emil Schuster and Richard Martin West. Hans-Emil Schuster was acting director of ESO’s La Silla Observatory in Chile and was involved in the selection and testing of the sites for the observatories of both La Silla and Paranal. His great contribution to astronomy and to ESO was recognised by the Chilean government last week when he was awarded the medal of the Order of Bernardo O’Higgins.
Supernova SN 1987A, one of the brightest stellar explosions since the invention of the telescope more than 400 years ago, is no stranger to the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope. The observatory has been on the frontline of studies into this brilliant dying star since its launch in 1990, three years after the supernova exploded on 23 February 1987. This image of Hubble’s old friend, retreived from the telescope’s data archive, may be the best ever of this object, and reminds us of the many mysteries still surrounding it.
Dominating this picture are two glowing loops of stellar material and a very bright ring surrounding the dying star at the centre of the frame. Although Hubble has provided important clues on the nature of these structures, their origin is still largely unknown.
Another mystery is that of the missing neutron star. The violent death of a high-mass star, such as SN 1987A, leaves behind a stellar remnant — a neutron star or a black hole. Astronomers expect to find a neutron star in the remnants of this supernova, but they have not yet been able to peer through the dense dust to confirm it is there.
The supernova belongs to the Large Magellanic Cloud, a nearby galaxy about 168 000 light-years away. Even though the stellar explosion took place around 166 000 BC, its light arrived here less than 25 years ago.
This picture is based on observations done with the High Resolution Channel of Hubble’s Advanced Camera for Surveys. The field of view is approximately 25 by 25 arcseconds.
Galaxies come in a variety of shapes and sizes, and these features change as they evolve. Some, like the galaxy in the centre of this NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope image, are beautiful spirals with graceful curved arms, while others are fuzzy oval-shaped blobs like the large object showing up near the bottom right of the frame. Others still are rather irregular in shape, such as the orange galaxy at the top of the image, which resembles a tiny wobbling string.
This picture is one of the few hundred exposures taken with Hubble’s Advanced Camera for Surveys to assemble the “Extended Groth Strip”. This strip, named after the Princeton University astronomer Edward Groth, is a composite picture of a rectangular region of the sky in the constellation of Ursa Major. It covers a relatively small area in the sky — equivalent to roughly the width of a finger stretched at arms’ length — but includes at least 50 000 galaxies.
The images that make up the Extended Groth Strip allow astronomers to peer into the last eight billion years of the Universe’s history and to see galaxies at various stages of their evolution. The large elliptical and spiral objects we see in the foreground of this image are fully-formed adult galaxies. But many of the ones in the background, fuzzier and more peculiar in shape, are representative of a time when galaxies were undergoing active formation.
Images like these help astronomers to understand how galaxies change in size and shape as they evolve, from their early formative years — punctuated by violent events such as the growth of the vast black holes at their centres and collisions with other galaxies — into their quieter adult lives.
This picture was created from visible and infrared exposures taken with the Wide Field Channel of Hubble’s Advanced Camera for Surveys
Thousands and thousands of brilliant stars make up this globular cluster, Messier 53, captured with crystal clarity in this image from the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope. Bound tightly by gravity, the cluster is roughly spherical and becomes denser towards its heart.
These enormous sparkling spheres are by no means rare, and over 150 exist in the Milky Way alone, including Messier 53. It lies on the outer edges of the galaxy, where many other globular clusters are found, almost equally distant from both the centre of our galaxy and the Sun. Although they are relatively common, the famous astronomer William Herschel, not at all known for his poetic nature, once described a globular cluster as “one of the most beautiful objects I remember to have seen in the heavens”, and it is clear to see why.
Globular clusters are much older and larger than open clusters, meaning they are generally expected to contain more old red stars and fewer massive blue stars. But Messier 53 has surprised astronomers with its unusual number of a type of star called blue stragglers.
These youngsters are rebelling against the theory of stellar evolution. All the stars in a globular cluster are expected to form around the same time, so they are expected follow a specific trend set by the age of the cluster and based on their mass. But blue stragglers don’t follow that rule; they appear to be brighter and more youthful than they have any right to be. Although their precise nature remains mysterious these unusual objects are probably formed by close encounters, possibly collisions, between stars in the crowded centres of globular clusters.
This picture was put together from visible and infrared exposures taken with the Wide Field Channel of Hubble's Advanced Camera for Surveys.The field of view is approximately 3.4 arcminutes across.
This NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope image shows remarkable structures in a galaxy cluster around an object called LRG-4-606. LRG stands for Luminous Red Galaxy, and is the acronym given to a large collection of bright red galaxies found in the Sloan Digital Sky Survey (SDSS). These objects are mostly massive elliptical galaxies composed of huge numbers of old stars.
It is sobering to contemplate the sheer number of stars that this image must contain — hundreds of billions — but it also features one of the strangest phenomena known to astronomers. This particular red galaxy and its surrounding galaxies happen to be positioned so that their strong gravitational field has a dramatic effect.
Left of centre in the picture, blue galaxies in the background have been stretched and warped out of shape into narrow, pale blue arcs. This is because of an effect called gravitational lensing. The galaxy cluster has such a strong gravitational field that it is curving the fabric of space and amplifying the starlight from much more distant galaxies. Gravitational lensing normally creates elongated arcs and here, unusually, the alignment of the galaxies has made the separate arcs combine to form a half-circle.
This picture was assembled from a collection of exposures in visible and near infrared light taken with Hubble’s Wide Field Camera 3. The field of view is approximately 3 by 3 arcminutes.
In this NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope image, NGC 4874 is the brightest object, located to the right of the frame and seen as a bright star-like core surrounded by a hazy halo. A few of the other galaxies of the cluster are also visible, looking like flying saucers dancing around NGC 4874. But the really remarkable feature of this image is the point-like objects around NGC 4874, revealed on a closer look: almost all of them are clusters of stars that belong to the galaxy. Each of these globular star clusters contains many hundreds of thousands of stars.
Recently, astronomers discovered that a few of these point-like objects are not star clusters but ultra-compact dwarf galaxies, also under the gravitational influence of NGC 4874. Being only about 200 light-years across and mostly made up of old stars, these galaxies resemble brighter and larger versions of globular clusters. They are thought to be the cores of small elliptical galaxies that, due to the violent interactions with other galaxies in the cluster, lost their gas and surrounding stars.
This Hubble image also shows many more distant galaxies that do not belong to the cluster, seen as small smudges in the background. While the galaxies in the Coma Cluster are located about 350 million light-years away, these other objects are much further out. Their light took several hundred million to billions of years to reach us.
Most unusually, the image also shows a very faint blue satellite trail, extending across the whole image, from the upper left corner of the frame to the lower right. Because Hubble’s cameras can only see a tiny part of the sky at one time, such trails are very rare.
This picture was created from optical and near-infrared exposures taken with the Wide Field Channel of Hubble’s Advanced Camera for Surveys. The field of view is 3.3 arcminutes across.
This NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope image shows a compact and distant globular star cluster that lies in one of the smallest constellations in the night sky, Delphinus (The Dolphin). Due to its modest size, great distance and relatively low brightness, NGC 7006 is often ignored by amateur astronomers. But even remote globular clusters such as this one appear bright and clear when imaged by Hubble’s Advanced Camera for Surveys.
NGC 7006 resides in the outskirts of the Milky Way. It is about 135 000 light-years away, five times the distance between the Sun and the centre of the galaxy, and it is part of the galactic halo. This roughly spherical region of the Milky Way is made up of dark matter, gas and sparsely distributed stellar clusters.
Like other remote globular clusters, NGC 7006 provides important clues that help astronomers to understand how stars formed and assembled in the halo. The cluster now pictured by Hubble has a very eccentric orbit indicating that it may have formed independently, in a small galaxy outside our own that was then captured by the Milky Way.
Although NGC 7006 is very distant for a Milky Way globular cluster, it is much closer than the many faint galaxies that can be seen in the background of this image. Each of these faint smudges is probably accompanied by many globular clusters similar to NGC 7006 that are too faint to be seen even by Hubble.
This image was taken using the Wide Field Channel of the Advanced Camera for Surveys, in a combination of visible and near-infrared light. The field of view is a little over 3 by 3 arcminutes.
Protoplanetary nebulae offer glimpses of how stars similar to the Sun end their lives and how they make the transition to white dwarfs surrounded by planetary nebulae. As it ages, a Sun-like star eventually sheds its outer layers into space, creating a beautiful and often intricately shaped cloud of gas and dust around it. At first, still relatively cool, the star is unable to ionise this gas, which shines only by reflected and scattered stellar light. Only when the temperature of the star increases enough to ionise this protoplanetary nebula does the pattern of gas and dust become a fully fledged planetary nebula.
Protoplanetary nebulae are relatively rare and short-lived objects that provide astronomers with clues into how the often strangely asymmetric planetary nebulae are formed. Clearly visible in this image are five blue lobes that extend away from the central star and give the nebula its asymmetric starfish shape. While astronomers have come up with theories for the origin of these structures, such as direction-changing jets or explosive ejections of matter from the star, their formation is not entirely understood.
IRAS 19024+0044 is blue in colour as the blue component of the light coming from the star is more easily scattered by the gas and dust in the nebula, while the red and orange rays are relatively unaffected. This is similar to what happens to sunlight in the Earth’s atmosphere, giving the sky its distinctive shade of blue.
This picture was created from images taken with the High Resolution Channel of Hubble’s Advanced Camera for Surveys. It is a composite image created by the combination of exposures taken through a yellow–orange filter (F606W, coloured blue) and a near-infrared filter (F814W, coloured red). The total exposure times were 880 s and 140 s, respectively and the field of view is approximately 13 by 13 arcseconds.
- Paper on IRAS 19024+0044: Sahai, R., Sánchez Contreras, C. & Morris, M. 2005, The Astrophysical Journal, 620, 948
Peering into the depths of space, the sharp-eyed NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope has imaged the nearby but faint dwarf galaxy ESO 540-030. This object itself appears as a huge swarm of dim stars, but ESO 540-030 is actually just one point of interest in the picture.
ESO 540-030 is just over 11 million light-years distant, and is part of the Sculptor group of galaxies. This collection is the closest neighbour to our own Local Group of galaxies that includes the Milky Way. Due to its proximity the Sculptor group contains some of the brightest galaxies in the southern skies, although ESO 540-030 is not one of these; dwarf galaxies generally have low surface brightness, which make observations difficult.
Hubble has captured a snapshot of galaxy types in the background, with spirals, barred spirals, ellipticals and irregulars on display. Careful examination of this picture should allow examples of each galaxy type to be found. Some galaxies lie directly behind ESO 540-030, increasing the challenge. As well as the galaxies there are also five bright stars, which are much closer to us than the galaxies. The telltale diffraction spikes — four sharp lines of light emanating at 90 degree angles, caused by light diffracting in the telescope — are unmistakable signs of the stars in the picture.
Cataloguing galaxy types is an important task for scientists attempting to understand more about how our Universe evolved. Our own eyes are excellent tools for this, as participants of the Galaxy Zoo Hubble project will confirm .
This picture was created from images taken with the Wide Field Channel of Hubble’s Advanced Camera for Surveys. Images through a yellow-orange filter (F606W, coloured blue) were combined with images taken in the near-infrared (F814W, coloured red). The total exposure times were 4480 s and 3360 s, respectively and the field of view is about 3.1 arcminutes across.
NGC 2146 is classified as a barred spiral due to its shape, but the most distinctive feature is the dusty spiral arm that has looped in front of the galaxy's core as seen from our perspective. The forces required to pull this structure out of its natural shape and twist it up to 45 degrees are colossal. The most likely explanation is that a neighbouring galaxy is gravitationally perturbing it and distorting the orbits of many of NGC 2146’s stars. It is probable that we are currently witnessing the end stages of a process which has been occurring for tens of millions of years.
NCG 2146 is undergoing intense bouts of star formation, to such an extent that it is referred to as a starburst galaxy. This is a common state for barred spirals, but the extra gravitational disruption that NGC 2146 is enduring no doubt exacerbates the situation, compressing hydrogen-rich nebulae and triggering stellar birth.
Measuring about 80 000 light-years from end to end, NGC 2146 is slightly smaller than the Milky Way. It lies approximately 70 million light-years distant in the faint northern constellation of Camelopardalis (The Giraffe). Although it is fairly easy to see with a moderate-sized telescope as a faint elongated blur of light it was not spotted until 1876 when the German astronomer Friedrich Winnecke found it visually using just a 16 cm telescope.
This picture was created from images taken with the Wide Field Channel of Hubble’s Advanced Camera for Surveys. Images through a near-infrared filter (F814W, coloured blue and orange/brown) were combined with images taken in a filter that isolates the glow from hydrogen gas (F658N, coloured red). An additional green colour channel was also created by combining the two to help to create a realistic colour rendition for the final picture from this unusual filter combination. The total exposure times were 120 s and 700 s respectively and the field of view is covers 2.6 x 1.6 arcminutes.
A giant cosmic necklace glows brightly in this NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope image.
The object, aptly named the Necklace Nebula, is a recently discovered planetary nebula, the glowing remains of an ordinary, Sun-like star. The nebula consists of a bright ring, measuring about two light-years across, dotted with dense, bright knots of gas that resemble diamonds in a necklace. The knots glow brightly due to absorption of ultraviolet light from the central stars.
A pair of tightly orbiting stars produced the nebula, also called PN G054.2-03.4. About 10 000 years ago one of the aging stars ballooned to the point where it engulfed its companion star. The smaller star continued orbiting inside its larger companion, increasing the giant’s rotation rate, so that the bloated star span so fast that a large part of its gaseous envelope expanded into space. Most of the gas escaped along the star’s equator, producing a ring. The bright knots are dense gas clumps in the ring.
The pair is so close, only a few million kilometres apart, that they appear as one bright dot in the centre of this image. The stars are furiously whirling around each other, completing an orbit in a little more than a day. For comparison, Mercury, the innermost planet of our Solar System, orbits the Sun in 88 days.
The Necklace Nebula is located 15 000 light-years away in the constellation of Sagitta (The Arrow). In this composite image, taken on 2 July, Hubble’s Wide Field Camera 3 captured the glow of hydrogen (blue), oxygen (green), and nitrogen (red).
The NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope has imaged part of the Hickson Compact Group 7, or HCG 7 for short. This grouping is composed of one lenticular (lens-shaped) and three spiral galaxies in close proximity. In this image, one of the spirals dominates the foreground, with many more distant galaxies peppering the background. Observing tightly-knit galaxy groups like HCG 7 is important because they evolve in a different way from their more spaced-out counterparts in less crowded regions of the Universe.
A recent study using Hubble data analysed the star clusters in HCG 7. Three hundred young clusters and 150 globular clusters were charted, and their ages and distributions measured. The results suggest that the rate of star formation has been fairly steady through time, although quite high in the central regions. Additional studies, including searches for material between the galaxies, hint that the stars in the HCG 7 galaxies formed by converting their gas without any gravitational influences caused by merging with other galaxies. This is puzzling, as the galaxies are depleting their supplies of gas at a rate that suggests that they have merged in the past.
This raises the question of whether the group really has evolved serenely, or if there are mysterious processes at work that are yet to be understood. The currently known information is contradictory and an encouragement for further studies to discover the real story behind HCG 7.
This picture was created from images taken with the Wide Field Channel of the Advanced Camera for Surveys. Images through a blue filter (F435W, coloured blue), yellow-orange (F606W, coloured green) and near-infrared (F814W, coloured red) filters were combined. The total exposure times were 1710 s, 1230 s and 1065 s per filter, respectively, and the field of view is 3.3 x 3.0 arcminutes.
A paper from the Astrophysical Journal discussing these recent discoveries about HCG 7 can be read here.
The NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope has used its powerful optics to separate the globular cluster NGC 6401 into its constituent stars. What was once only visible as a ghostly mist in the eyepieces of astronomical instruments has been transformed into a stunning stellar landscape.
NGC 6401 can be found within the constellation of Ophiuchus (The Serpent Bearer). The globular cluster itself is relatively faint, so a telescope and some observational experience are required to see it. Globular clusters are very rich, and generally spherical, collections of stars, hence the name. They orbit the cores of galaxies, with the force of gravity also keeping the stars bound as a group. There are around 160 globular clusters associated with our Milky Way, of which NGC 6401 is one. These objects are very old, containing some of the most ancient stars known. However, there are many mysteries surrounding them, with the origin of globular clusters and their role within galaxy evolution not being completely understood.
The famous astronomer William Herschel discovered this cluster in 1784 with his 47 cm telescope, but mistakenly believed it to be a bright nebula. Later his son, John Herschel, was to make the same error — evidently the technology of the day was insufficient to allow the individual stars to be resolved visually.
NGC 6401 has confused more modern astronomers as well. In 1977 it was thought that a low-mass star in the cluster had been discovered venting its outer layers (known as a planetary nebula). However, a further study in 1990 concluded that the object is in fact a symbiotic star: a binary composed of a red giant and a small hot star such as a white dwarf, with surrounding nebulosity. It could be that the study in 1977 was simply a few thousand years ahead of its time, as symbiotic stars are thought to become a type of planetary nebula.
This picture was created from images taken with the Wide Field Channel of Hubble’s Advanced Camera for Surveys. Images through a yellow-orange filter (F606W, coloured blue) were combined with images taken in the near-infrared (F814W, coloured red). The total exposure times were 680 s and 580 s, respectively and the field of view is 3.3 x 1.5 arcminutes.
NGC 2023 surrounds a massive young B-type star. These stars are large, bright and blue-white in colour, and have a high surface temperature, being several times hotter than the Sun. The energy emitted from NGC2023’s B-type star illuminates the nebula, resulting in its high surface brightness: good news for astronomers who wish to study it. The star itself lies outside the field of view, at the upper left, and its brilliant light is scattered by Hubble’s optical system, creating the bright flare across the left side of the picture, which is not a real feature of the nebula.
Stars are forming from the material comprising NGC 2023. This Hubble image captures the billowing waves of gas, 5000 times denser than the interstellar medium. The unusual greenish clumps are thought to be Herbig–Haro objects. These peculiar features of star-forming regions are created when gas ejected at hundreds of kilometres per second from newly formed stars impacts the surrounding material. These shockwaves cause the gas to glow and result in the strange shapes seen here. Herbig–Haro objects typically only last for a few thousand years, which is the blink of eye in astronomical terms.
This picture was created from multiple images taken with the Wide Field Camera of Hubble’s Advanced Camera for Surveys. Exposures through a blue filter (F475W) are coloured blue, exposures through a yellow filter (F625W) are coloured green and images through a near-infrared filter (F850LP) are shown as red. The total exposure times per filter are 800 s, 800 s and 1200 s, respectively, and the field of view spans 3.2 arcminutes.
The NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope has imaged an elongated stream of stars, gas and dust called IC 755, which is actually a spiral galaxy that we are seeing edge-on.
In 1999 a star within IC 755 was seen to explode as a supernova and named SN 1999an. The supernova was discovered by the Beijing Astronomical Observatory Supernova Survey and three years later Hubble was used to study the environment in which the explosion took place. The inclination of the galaxy made the supernova a challenging target as many other intervening objects obscured the view. Valuable data were obtained and suggest that before detonation the star may have been around 20 times more massive than our Sun, and that it was likely to have been in the region of 14 million years old.
Supernovae like SN 1999an are classified as Type IIs and they are dramatic events that mark the end of the lives of massive stars. They have an important role to play in galaxy evolution as many elements are formed during the explosion and are ejected with such force that they are distributed far and wide. Shockwaves also help to mix material within the host galaxy and may spark new rounds of star formation. Billions of stars make up galaxies like IC 755 and many will become supernovae, using their final moments to breathe new life into the rest of the Universe.
This picture was created from multiple images taken with the Wide Field Camera of Hubble’s Advanced Camera for Surveys. Exposures through a blue filter (F435W) are coloured blue, exposures through a yellow-green filter (F555W) are coloured green and images through a near-infrared filter (F814W) are shown as red. The total exposure times per filter are 430 s and the field of view is 3.3 x 1.5 arcminutes.
The NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope has been used to capture a striking image of a rare astronomical phenomenon called a protoplanetary nebula. This particular example, called Minkowski’s Footprint, also known as Minkowski 92, features two vast onion-shaped structures either side of an ageing star, giving it a very distinctive shape.
Protoplanetary nebulae like Minkowski’s Footprint have short lives, being a preliminary stage to the more common planetary nebula phase. In the middle of the image is a star, soon to be a white dwarf, puffing out material due to intense surface pulsations. Charged particle streams, called stellar winds, are shaping this gas into the interesting shapes that Hubble allows us to see.
Technically speaking Minkowski’s Footprint is currently a reflection nebula as it is only visible due to the light reflected from the central star. In a few thousand years the star will get hotter and its ultraviolet radiation will light up the surrounding gas from within, causing it to glow. At this point it will have become a fully fledged planetary nebula.
The processes behind protoplanetary nebulae are not completely understood, making observations such as this even more important. Hubble has already conducted sterling work in this field, and is set to continue.
The image was obtained with the Hubble's Wide Field Planetary Camera 2. The picture has been made from many exposures through four different colour filters. Light from ionised oxygen has been coloured blue (F502N), light passing through a green/yellow filter (F547M) is coloured cyan, light from atomic oxygen is coloured yellow (F631N) and light from ionised sulphur is coloured red (F673N). The total exposure times per filter were 2080 s, 960 s, 2080 s and 1980 s respectively and the field of view is only about 36 arcseconds across.
Looking like an elegant abstract art piece painted by talented hands, this picture is actually a NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope image of a small section of the Carina Nebula. Part of this huge nebula was documented in the well-known Mystic Mountain picture (heic1007a) and this picture takes an even closer look at another piece of this bizarre astronomical landscape (heic0707a).
The Carina Nebula itself is a star-forming region about 7500 light-years from Earth in the southern constellation of Carina (The Keel: part of Jason’s ship the Argo). Infant stars blaze with a ferocity so severe that the radiation emitted carves away at the surrounding gas, sculpting it into strange structures. The dust clumps towards the upper right of the image, looking like ink dropped into milk, were formed in this way. It has been suggested that they are cocoons for newly forming stars.
The Carina Nebula is mostly made from hydrogen, but there are other elements present, such as oxygen and sulphur. This provides evidence that the nebula is at least partly formed from the remnants of earlier generations of stars where most elements heavier than helium were synthesised.
The brightest stars in the image are not actually part of the Carina Nebula. They are much closer to us, essentially being the foreground to the Carina Nebula’s background.
This picture was created from images taken with Hubble’s Wide Field Planetary Camera 2. Images through a blue filter (F450W) were coloured blue and images through a yellow/orange filter (F606W) were coloured red. The field of view is 2.4 by 1.3 arcminutes.
The NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope has imaged an area so jam-packed with stars that they almost overwhelm the inky blackness of space. This includes the globular star cluster Djorgovski 1, which was only discovered in 1987
Djorgovski 1 is located close to the centre of our Milky Way Galaxy, within the bulge. If the galaxy is thought of as being like a city, then this bulge is the very busiest district at its centre. Djorgovski 1's proximity to this hub — within just a few degrees — explains why the picture is teeming with stars.
Globular clusters like Djorgovski 1 formed early in the Milky Way's history, and as such may hold clues about the inner galaxy’s early evolution. However, with so much material in the way, obtaining accurate data is problematic. To make matters worse, these stars are faint. Even the most luminous stars in Djorgovski 1 are fainter than the brightest giant stars in the bulge.
Another quandary is apparent: how do you know which stars belong to Djorgovski 1, and which are from the bulge? To determine this, astronomers have studied the chemical composition of numerous stars in the area. Stars with a similar composition likely belong in the same group, like siblings in a family. This technique has successfully provided the information to distinguish between stars in Djorgovski 1 and the surrounding bulge.
These studies also reveal that Djorgovski 1’s stars contain hydrogen and helium, but not much else. In astronomical terms, they are described as “metal-poor”. In fact, it appears that Djorgovski 1 is one of the most metal-poor clusters in the inner galaxy. It is not clear why this is the case, but additional research may shed light on the issue.
This picture was created from multiple images taken with the Wide Field Camera of Hubble’s Advanced Camera for Surveys. Exposures through a yellow/orange filter (F606W) are coloured blue and images through a near-infrared filter (F814W) are shown as red. The total exposure times per filter are 340 s and 360 s, respectively, and the field of view is 2.7 by 1.5 arcminutes in extent.
In this NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope image of NGC 7479 — created from observations at visible and near-infrared wavelengths — the tightly wound arms of the spiral galaxy create an inverted ‘S’, as they spin in an anticlockwise direction. However, at radio wavelengths, this galaxy, sometimes nicknamed the Propeller Galaxy, spins the other way, with a jet of radiation that bends in the opposite direction to the stars and dust in the arms of the galaxy.
Astronomers think that the radio jet in NGC 7479 was put into its bizarre backwards spin following a merger with another galaxy.
Star formation is reignited by galactic collisions, and indeed NGC 7479 is undergoing starburst activity, with many bright, young stars visible in the spiral arms and disc. The three brightest stars in this image, however, are foreground stars — caught on camera because they lie between the galaxy and Hubble.
This striking galaxy is easily visible in moderate telescopes as an elongated fuzzy patch of light. The spiral arms can be seen with more difficulty in larger telescopes under dark conditions.
This picture was created from images taken with the Wide Field Channel of Hubble’s Advanced Camera for Surveys. Images through a yellow filter (F555W, coloured blue) were combined with images taken in the near-infrared (F814W, coloured red). The total exposure times were 520 s per filter and the field of view is 2.7 arcminutes across.
The NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope has made a rare celestial catch. Close to a bright, nearby star in this image, the bizarre, whorl-shaped object known as IRAS 22036+5306 has been captured during a brief tumultuous period late in a star's life.
Inside IRAS 22036+5306 lies an aged star that has coughed off almost all of its outer material, forming a cloud in space. Hidden under this veil, the dense, still-burning, exposed core of the star grows hotter. Encircling the star is a torus consisting partly of castoff material, as well as possibly the grainy remnants of comets and other small, rocky bodies. Twin jets spout from the star’s poles and pierce this dusty waist. The jets contain gobbets of material — typically about ten thousand times the mass of the Earth — hurling outwards at a speed of nearly 800 000 kilometres per hour.
IRAS 22036+5306 is making the transition through the protoplanetary, or preplanetary, nebula phase. Only a few hundred such nebulae have been spotted in our galaxy. For now, light from the central star is merely being reflected off its expelled gaseous shell. Soon, however, the star will become a very hot, white dwarf, and its intense ultraviolet radiation will ionise the blown-off gas, making it glow in rich colours. IRAS 22036+5306 will have then blossomed into a fully-fledged planetary nebula, and this event will serve as a last hurrah before the star starts its very slow final cool-down.
Planetary nebulae are much longer-lived than their precursors, protoplanetary nebulae, and are therefore more commonly spotted. The term planetary nebula is a leftover from observations through small telescopes made by early astronomers to whom some of these objects looked circular and similar in appearance to the outer planets Uranus and Neptune.
IRAS 22036+5306 is found about 6500 light-years away in the constellation of Cepheus (The King). Studying rarities such as IRAS 22036+5306 provides astronomers with a window into the short and poorly understood phase of stellar evolution when bloated red giant stars pare down to small white dwarfs. For example, mysteries remain about how exactly the dusty torus and jets form. The planetary nebula phase is thought to be the fate that awaits most medium-sized stars, including our Sun. But it is not clear that our star will make such a fuss on its way out — the star that generated all the gaseous splendour of IRAS 22036+5306 is reckoned to have been at least four times the mass of the Sun.
The image was obtained with the High Resolution Channel of Hubble’s Advanced Camera for Surveys. The picture has been made from images through a yellow/orange filter (F606W, coloured blue), a near-infrared filter (F814W, coloured orange) and a filter that lets through the red glow of hydrogen (F658N, coloured red). The total exposure times per filter were 1600 s, 3200 s and 5104 s, respectively and the field of view is about 22 arcseconds across.
The two billowing structures in this NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope image of IRAS 13208-6020 are formed from material that is shed by a central star. This is a relatively short-lived phenomenon that gives astronomers an opportunity to watch the early stages of planetary nebula formation, hence the name protoplanetary, or preplanetary nebula. Planetary nebulae are unrelated to planets and the name arose because of the visual similarity between some planetary nebulae and the small discs of the outer planets in the Solar System when viewed through early telescopes.
This object has a very clear bipolar form, with two very similar outflows of material in opposite directions and a dusty ring around the star.
Protoplanetary nebulae do not shine, but are illuminated by light from the central star that is reflected back to us. But as the star continues to evolve, it becomes hot enough to emit strong ultraviolet radiation that can ionise the surrounding gas, making it glow as a spectacular planetary nebula. But before the nebula begins to shine, fierce winds of material ejected from the star will continue to shape the surrounding gas into intricate patterns that can only be truly appreciated later once the nebula begins to glow.
This picture was created from images taken using the High Resolution Channel of Hubble’s Advanced Camera for Surveys. Images taken through an orange filter (F606W, coloured blue) and a near-infrared filter (F814W, coloured red) have been combined to create this picture. The exposure times were 1130 s and 150 s respectively and the field of view is just 22 x 17 arcseconds.
The NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope is renowned for its breathtaking images and this snapshot of NGC 634 is definitely that — the fine detail and exceptionally perfect spiral structure of the galaxy make it hard to believe that this is a real observation and not an artist’s impression or a screenshot taken straight from Star Wars.
This spiral galaxy was discovered back in the nineteenth century by French astronomer Édouard Jean-Marie Stephan, but in 2008 it became a prime target for observations thanks to the violent demise of a white dwarf star. The type Ia supernova known as SN2008a was spotted in the galaxy and briefly rivalled the brilliance of its entire host galaxy but, despite the energy of the explosion, it can no longer be seen this Hubble image, which was taken around a year and a half later.
White dwarfs are thought to be the endpoint of evolution for stars between 0.07 to 8 solar masses, which equates to 97% of the stars in the Milky Way. However, there are exceptions to the rule; in a binary system it is possible for a white dwarf to accrete material from the companion star and gradually put on weight. Like a person gorging on junk food, the star can eventually grow too full — when it exceeds 1.38 solar masses nuclear reactions ignite that produce enormous amounts of energy and the star explodes as a type Ia supernova.
This picture was created from images taken with the Wide Field Channel of Hubble’s Advanced Camera for Surveys. Images through a yellow filter (F555W, coloured blue) have been combined with images through red (F625W, coloured green) and near-infrared (F775W, coloured red) filters. The total exposure times per filter were 3750 s, 3530 s and 2484 s, respectively and the field of view is 2.5 x 1.5 arcminutes.
Deep within the Milky Way lies the ancient globular cluster Terzan 5. This NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope image shows the cluster in wonderful detail, but it is the chaotic motions of its stars that make it particularly interesting to astronomers.
Terzan 5 has an exceptionally dense core. As a result, it is thought to have one of the highest stellar collision rates for a globular cluster. And packed in at such close quarters, many stars are pushed so close together that they form tight binary systems.
Interestingly, studies of individual stars within the cluster reveal that they can be split into two age groups: 6 and 12 billion years old. Some astronomers have hypothesised that the younger crowd may have been stripped away from a dwarf galaxy.
This picture was created from images taken with the Wide Field Channel of Hubble’s Advanced Camera for Surveys. Images through a yellow/red filter (F606W, coloured blue) have been combined with those through a near-infrared filter (F814W, coloured red) to create this composite picture. The total exposure times per filter were 340 s and 360 s, respectively and the field of view is 3.1 x 1.4 arcminutes.
Like a Dali masterpiece, this image of Messier 8 from the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope is both intensely colourful and distinctly surreal. Located in the constellation of Sagittarius (The Archer), this giant cloud of glowing interstellar gas is a stellar nursery that is also known as the Lagoon Nebula.
Although the name definitely suits the beauty of this object, “lagoon” does suggest tranquillity and there is nothing placid about the high-energy radiation causing these intricate clouds to glow. The massive stars hiding within the heart of the nebula give off enormous amounts of ultraviolet radiation, ionising the gas and causing it to shine colourfully, as well as sculpting the surrounding nebula into strange shapes. The result is an object around four to five thousand light-years away which, on a clear night, is faintly visible to the naked eye.
Since it was first recorded back in the 1747 this object has been photographed and analysed at many different wavelengths. By using infrared detectors it is possible to delve into the centre of these dusty regions to study the objects within. However, while this optical image, taken with the Advanced Camera for Surveys (ACS) on the Hubble Space Telescope, cannot pierce the obscuring matter it is undoubtedly one of the most visually impressive.
Messier 8 is an enormous structure — around 140 by 60 light-years in extent — to put this in perspective the orbit of Neptune stretches only about four light-hours from our own Sun. This image depicts a small region in the centre of the nebula, while the region adjacent to the Lagoon Nebula, from the same Hubble observations, can be seen here.
This picture was created from exposures taken with the Wide Field Channel of the Advanced Camera for Surveys on Hubble. Light from glowing hydrogen (through the F658N filter) is coloured red. Light from ionised nitrogen (through the F660N filter) is coloured green and light through a yellow filter (F550M) is coloured blue. The exposure times through each filter are 1560 s, 1600 s and 400 s respectively. The blue-white flare at the lower left of the image is scattered light from a bright star just outside the field of view. The field of view is about 3.3 by 1.7 arcminutes.
This NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope image shows the edge-on profile of the slender spiral galaxy NGC 5775. Although the spiral is tilted away from us, with only a thin slither on view, such a perspective can be advantageous for astronomers because the regions above and below the galaxy’s disc can be seen much more clearly.
For instance, astronomers have previously used the high inclination of this spiral to study the properties of the halo of hot gas that is visible when the galaxy is observed at X-ray wavelengths. The mechanism behind such haloes is unclear, but they are found around spirals that have a high star formation rate, like NGC 5775. Some astronomers think that hot gas from the disc is driven into the halo by supernova explosions, which is then returned to the disc as it cools — like a massive galactic fountain.
Meanwhile, there is further disruption taking place in the disc of NGC 5775, as it is in the early stages of a galactic merger. Astronomers have observed bridges of hydrogen gas connecting this edge-on galaxy with a neighbouring face-on spiral (NGC 5774). But neither galaxy yet features a tidal tail — a disrupted stream of gas and stars that extends into space — which are commonplace in strongly interacting pairs, such as the Antennae Galaxies.
NGC 5775 and 5774 are members of the Virgo Cluster and lie at a distance of about 85 million light-years. This colour picture was created from images taken using the Wide Field Channel of Hubble’s Advanced Camera for Surveys. Images through a red filter (F625W) were coloured blue and images through a filter that isolates the glow from hydrogen gas (F658N) have been coloured red. The exposure times were 2292 s and 6848 s, respectively, and the field of view is 3.2 arcminutes across.
The globular cluster Messier 5, shown here in this NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope image, is one of the oldest belonging to the Milky Way. The majority of its stars formed more than 12 billion years ago, but there are some unexpected newcomers on the scene, adding some vitality to this aging population.
Stars in globular clusters form in the same stellar nursery and grow old together. The most massive stars age quickly, exhausting their fuel supply in less than a million years, and end their lives in spectacular supernovae explosions. This process should have left the ancient cluster Messier 5 with only old, low-mass stars, which, as they have aged and cooled, have become red giants, while the oldest stars have evolved even further into blue horizontal branch stars.
Yet astronomers have spotted many young, blue stars in this cluster, hiding amongst the much more luminous ancient stars. Astronomers think that these laggard youngsters, called blue stragglers, were created either by stellar collisions or by the transfer of mass between binary stars. Such events are easy to imagine in densely populated globular clusters, in which up to a few million stars are tightly packed together.
Messier 5 lies at a distance of about 25 000 light-years in the constellation of Serpens (The Snake). This image was taken with Wide Field Channel of Hubble’s Advanced Camera for Surveys. The picture was created from images taken through a blue filter (F435W, coloured blue), a red filter (F625W, coloured green) and a near-infrared filter (F814W, coloured red). The total exposure times per filter were 750 s, 400 s and 567 s, respectively. The field of view is about 2.6 arcminutes across.
Galaxies come in all sorts of shapes and sizes, with most being classed as either elliptical or spiral. However, some fall into the miscellaneous category known as irregulars, such as UGC 9128 shown here in this NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope image.
UGC 9128 is a dwarf irregular galaxy, which means that in addition to not having a well-defined shape, it probably contains only around one hundred million stars — far fewer than are found in a large spiral such as the Milky Way. Dwarf galaxies are important in understanding how the Universe has evolved and they are often referred to as galactic building blocks, as galaxies are thought to grow as smaller ones merge.
In recent years, astronomers have been trying to find out if dwarf galaxies contain a similar halo and disc structure to their much larger counterparts, whereby older stars are found in the extended spheroidal halo, with the flat disc being home to younger stars. Observations of UGC 9128 indicate that it does indeed contain a similar halo and disc structure.
UGC 9128 lies about 8 million light-years away, which means that it is part of the Local Group of more than 30 nearby galaxies, and it is found in the constellation of Boötes (The Herdsman). Despite its relative closeness it is very faint and was only discovered in the twentieth century. The Hubble image clearly resolves the galaxy’s starry population and also shows many much more distant galaxies in the background.
This picture was created from images taken with the Wide Field Channel of Hubble’s Advanced Camera for Surveys. Images through a yellow-orange filter (F606W, coloured blue) were combined with images taken in the near-infrared (F814W, coloured red). The total exposure times were 985 s and 1174 s respectively and the field of view is 3.2 arcminutes across.
The NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope usually works as a solo artist to capture awe-inspiring images of the distant Universe. For this picture, though, Hubble had a helping hand from the subject of the image, a galaxy cluster called LCDCS-0829, as the huge mass of the galaxies in the cluster acted like a giant magnifying glass. This strange effect is called gravitational lensing.
The object was discovered during the Las Campanas Distant Clusters Survey, which explains the cluster's unusual name. This survey was carried out in March 1995 using a 1-metre telescope at the Las Campanas Observatory in Chile. More than one thousand clusters of galaxies, most of them previously unknown, were found in a dedicated survey of a long, but narrow, section of the southern sky.
The bizarre phenomenon of gravitational lensing is a consequence of Albert Einstein’s general theory of relativity, which says that the huge mass of the galaxy cluster bends the fabric of the Universe, and the light from one of the distant galaxies will then travel along this bend in the fabric. In addition to making some objects appear bigger and brighter, gravitational lensing can produce multiple images of distant galaxies and stretch them into strange arcs. Many such arcs can be seen in this image.
This deep image of the cluster was created from a total of 36 exposures taken using the Wide Field Channel of Hubble’s Advanced Camera for Surveys. Images through a blue filter (F475W) were coloured blue, images through a near-infrared filter (F814W) were coloured green and images through a filter that passes infrared light of even longer wavelengths (F850LP) were coloured red. The total exposure times were 5280 s per filter and the field of view is about 2.8 arcminutes across.
Astronomers have used the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope to study the young open star cluster IC 1590, which is found within the star formation region NGC 281 — nicknamed the Pacman Nebula due to its resemblance to the famous arcade game character. This image only shows the central part of the nebula, where the brightest stars at the core of the cluster are found, with part of the Pacman’s hungry mouth visible as the dark region below.
But Pacman isn’t gobbling up these stars. Instead, the nebula’s gas and dust are being used as raw ingredients to make new stars. However, the stars in IC 1590 are still plotting their escape from the Pacman Nebula, as open clusters are only loosely bound together and the grouping will eventually disperse within a few tens of millions of years.
IC 1590 lies about ten thousand light-years from Earth in the constellation of Cassiopeia (The Queen). Through small telescopes the core of the cluster that appears at the top of this picture shows up as a triple star, but the nebula that surrounds it is much fainter and very hard to see. The eagle-eyed American astronomer E. E. Barnard, using a 15 cm telescope, first recorded it in the late nineteenth century.
This picture was created from images taken using the Wide Field Channel of Hubble’s Advanced Camera for Surveys. Images though yellow (F550M, coloured blue), orange (F660N, coloured green) and red (F658N) filters were combined. The F658N filter isolates light from glowing hydrogen gas. The total exposure times per filter were 450 s, 1017 s and 678 s, respectively and the field of view is about 3.3 arcminutes across.
The NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope has captured a planetary nebula with unconventional good looks.
Planetary nebulae signal the demise of mid-sized stars (up to about eight times the mass of the Sun); when the star’s hydrogen fuel supply is exhausted, its outer layers expand and cool, creating a cocoon of gas and dust. This gas then glows as it is bathed in the strong ultraviolet radiation from the central star. NGC 5882 is a quite bright, but small, example of a planetary nebula that lies deep in the southern Milky Way in the constellation of Lupus (The Wolf).
Planetary nebulae sometimes have a perfectly symmetrical appearance, with gas being bellowed out from the dying star evenly in every direction. However, this isn’t the case for NGC 5882, as this Hubble image shows. It appears to have two distinct, but non-uniform regions: an elongated inner shell of gas and a fainter aspherical shell that surrounds it.
Hubble’s sharp view reveals the intricate knots, filaments and bubbles within these shells. But it’s the dying star at the heart of the planetary nebula that dominates the image, shining brightly with an incredible surface temperature of about 70 000 degrees Celsius. (For comparison, the surface temperature of the Sun is only about 5500 degrees Celsius.) The high surface temperature of this white dwarf is a result of the star’s struggle for survival, finding new ways to prevent itself from collapsing under its own gravity.
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This picture comes from images taken with Hubble’s Wide Field Planetary Camera 2. Light that comes from glowing ionised oxygen is coloured blue (through the F502N filter), yellow/green light (through the broad F555W filter) is shown as green, the light from glowing hydrogen (through the F656N filter) is shown as dark red and light from glowing nitrogen is shown as bright red (through the F658N filter). The exposure times were 320 s, 104 s, 140 s and 1200 s, respectively and the field of view is just 29 arcseconds across.
The high concentration of stars within globular clusters, like Messier 12, shown here in an image from the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope, makes them beautiful photographic targets. But the cramped living quarters in these clusters also makes them home to exotic binary star systems where two stars are locked in tight orbits around each other and matter from one is gobbled up by its companion, releasing X-rays. It is thought that such X-ray binaries form from very close encounters between stars in crowded regions, such as globular clusters, and even though Messier 12 is fairly diffuse by globular cluster standards, such X-ray sources have been spotted there.
Astronomers have also discovered that Messier 12 is home to far fewer low-mass stars than was previously expected (eso0604). In a recent study, astronomers used the European Southern Observatory’s Very Large Telescope at Cerro Paranal, Chile, to measure the brightness and colours of more than 16 000 of the globular’s 200 000 stars. They speculate that nearly one million low-mass stars have been ripped away from Messier 12 as the globular has passed through the densest regions of the Milky Way during its orbit around the galactic centre.
It seems that the serenity of this view of Messier 12 is misleading and the object has had a violent and disturbed past.
Messier 12 lies about 23 000 light-years away in the constellation of Ophiuchus (The Serpent Bearer). This image was taken using the Wide Field Channel of Hubble’s Advanced Camera for Surveys. The colour image was created from exposures through a blue filter (F435W, coloured blue), a red filter (F625W, coloured green) and a filter that passes near-infrared light (F814W coloured red). The total exposure times were 1360 s, 200 s and 364 s, respectively. The field of view is about 3.2 x 3.1 arcminutes .
This view from the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope shows the beautiful spiral galaxy NGC 5584. This galaxy has played a key role in a new study that measures the expansion rate of the Universe to greater accuracy than ever before.
NGC 5584 was first spotted as a faint glow in the constellation of Virgo by the great visual observer E. E. Barnard, back in 1881, using just a 12.5-cm telescope. But, by bringing the power of Hubble to bear, the galaxy can be resolved into thousands of separate stars. Some of these stars vary in brightness and are classified as Cepheids. These are brilliant pulsating stars with a remarkable property — once the time it takes a Cepheid to brighten and fade is known, then it is possible to find how bright it actually is. When this information is combined with a measurement of how bright the star appears it is easy to work out how far away the star actually lies. This method is the most accurate and effective way to measure the distances to most nearby galaxies.
This trick has now been used as part of a major new study of the expansion rate of the Universe, led by Adam Riess at the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore. By studying many Cepheids in several galaxies the team has been able to refine our knowledge of this expansion rate, expressed as a number known as Hubble’s constant, to an accuracy of 3.3 percent.
In addition to many Cepheids NGC 5584 was also recently the site of a type Ia supernova. These dramatic explosions of white dwarf stars are used as reference beacons for mapping the expansion, and acceleration, of the more remote Universe so this galaxy is a very valuable link between the two distance scales.
More details of this major study, and its significance for the understanding of dark energy, can be found in a press release from NASA: http://hubblesite.org/news/2011/08.
This picture was created from many exposures taken with Hubble’s Wide Field Channel 3. Images through three filters have been combined to create this composite picture. Light detected through a filter that transmits most visible light (F350LP) is coloured white, light coming through a yellow/green filter (F555W) is coloured blue and near infrared light (the F814W filter) is coloured red. The field of view 2.4 arcminutes across and the total exposure time was 20.8 hours.
Most of the rich globular star clusters that orbit the Milky Way have cores that are tightly packed with stars, but NGC 288 is one of a minority of low-concentration globulars, with its stars more loosely bound together. This new image from the Advanced Camera for Surveys on the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope completely resolves the old stars at the core of the cluster.
The colours and brightnesses of the stars in the picture tell the story of how the stars have evolved in the cluster. The many fainter points of light are normal low-mass stars that are still fusing hydrogen in the same way as the Sun. The brighter stars fall into two classes: the yellow ones are red giant stars that are at a later phase in their careers and are now bigger, cooler and brighter. The bright blue stars are even more massive stars that have left the red giant phase and are being powered by helium fusion in their cores.
The stars within globular clusters form at about the same time from the same cloud of gas, making these close families of stars. However, astronomers think that the stellar siblings in low-concentration globular clusters such as NGC 288, which are not so tightly bound together by gravity as richer and denser clusters, may eventually disperse and go their separate ways.
NGC 288 is found within the rather obscure southern constellation of Sculptor, at a distance of about 30 000 light-years. This constellation also contains NGC 253, more commonly called the Sculptor Galaxy due to its location, and these two deep sky objects are close enough together on the sky to be observed in the same binocular field of view. William Herschel first spotted NGC 288 in 1785 and also recognised that it was a globular cluster that could be resolved into stars in his telescope.
This picture was created from Hubble images taken using the Wide Field Channel of the Advanced Camera for Surveys through four different filters. Light recorded through a blue filter (F435W) is coloured blue, light through an orange filter (F606W) appears as green, light coming through a near-infrared filter (F814W) is red and finally the light from glowing hydrogen (F658N) is orange. The exposure times were 740 s, 530 s, 610 s and 1760 s respectively and the field of view is 3.2 arcminutes across.
The strange and irregular bundle of jets and clouds in this curious image from the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope is the result of a burst of activity late in the life of a star. As its core runs out of nuclear fuel, the star’s unstable outer layers are puffing out a toxic concoction of gases including carbon monoxide and hydrogen cyanide.
The Westbrook Nebula — also known as PK166-06, CRL 618 and AFGL 618 — is a protoplanetary nebula, an opaque, dark and relatively short-lived cloud of gas that is ejected by a star as it runs out of nuclear fuel. As the star hidden deep in the centre of the nebula evolves further it will turn into a hot white dwarf and the gas around it will become a glowing planetary nebula, before eventually dispersing. Because this is a relatively brief stage in the evolution process of stars, only a few hundred protoplanetary nebulae are known in the Milky Way.
Protoplanetary nebulae are cool, and so emit little visible light. This makes them very faint, posing challenges to scientists who wish to study them. What this picture shows, therefore, is a composite image representing the different tricks that the astronomers used to unravel what is going on within this strange nebula. The picture includes exposures in visible light which shows light reflected from the cloud of gas, combined with other exposures in the near-infrared part of the spectrum, showing us the dim glow, invisible to human eyes, that is coming from different elements deep in the cloud itself.
One of the nebula’s names, AFGL 618, comes from its discovery by a precursor to the Hubble Space Telescope: the letters stand for Air Force Geophysics Laboratory. This US research organisation launched a series of suborbital rockets with infrared telescopes on board in the 1970s, cataloguing hundreds of objects that were impossible or difficult to observe from the ground. In some respects, these were a proof of concept for later orbital infrared astronomical facilities including Hubble and ESA’s Herschel Space Observatory.
This image was prepared from many separate exposures taken using Hubble’s newest camera, the Wide Field Camera 3. Exposures through a green filter (F547M) were coloured blue, those through a yellow/orange filter (F606W) were coloured green and exposures through a filter that isolates the glow from ionised nitrogen (F658N) have been coloured red. Images through filters that capture the glows from singly and doubly ionised sulphur (F673N and F953N) are also shown in red. The total exposure times were about nine minutes through each filter and the field of view is approximately 20 arcseconds across.
- A previous ESA/Hubble release of a WFPC2 shot of the Westbrook Nebula: http://www.spacetelescope.org/news/heic0004/
The NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope has taken a close-up view of an outer part of the Orion Nebula’s little brother, Messier 43. This nebula, which is sometimes referred to as De Mairan’s Nebula after its discoverer, is separated from the famous Orion Nebula (Messier 42) by only a dark lane of dust. Both nebulae are part of the massive stellar nursery called the Orion molecular cloud complex, which includes several other nebulae, such as the Horsehead Nebula (Barnard 33) and the Flame Nebula (NGC 2024).
The Orion molecular cloud complex is about 1400 light-years away, making it one of the closest massive star formation regions to Earth. Hubble has therefore studied this extraordinary region extensively over the past two decades, monitoring how stellar winds sculpt the clouds of gas, studying young stars and their surroundings and discovering many elusive objects, such as brown dwarf stars.
This view shows several of the brilliant hot young stars in this less-studied region and it also reveals many of the curious features around even younger stars that are still cocooned by dust.
This picture was created from images taken using the Wide Field Channel of Hubble’s Advanced Camera for Surveys. Images through yellow (F555W, coloured blue) and near-infrared (F814W, coloured red) filters were combined. The exposure times were 1000 s per filter and the field of view is about 3.3 arcminutes across.
The NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope has produced this finely detailed image of the beautiful spiral galaxy NGC 6384. This galaxy lies in the constellation of Ophiuchus (The Serpent Bearer), not far from the centre of the Milky Way on the sky. The positioning of NGC 6384 means that we have to peer at it past many dazzling foreground Milky Way stars that are scattered across this image.
In 1971, one member of NGC 6384 stood out against these bright foreground stars when one of its stars exploded as a supernova. This was a Type Ia supernova, which occurs when a compact star that has ceased fusion in its core, called a white dwarf, increases its mass beyond a critical limit by gobbling up matter from a companion star. A runaway nuclear explosion then makes the star suddenly as bright as a whole galaxy.
While many stars have already come to the ends of their lives in NGC 6384, in the centre, star formation is being fuelled by the galaxy’s bar structure; astronomers think such galactic bars funnel gas inwards, where it accumulates to form new stars.
This picture was created from images take with the Wide Field Channel of Hubble’s Advanced Camera for Surveys. An image taken through a blue filter (F435W, coloured blue) was combined with an image taken through a near-infrared filter (F814W, coloured red). The total exposure times were 1050 s through each filter and the field of view is about 3 x 1.5 arcminutes.
The dazzling stars in Messier 15 look fresh and new in this image from the NASA/Hubble Space Telescope, but they are actually all roughly 13 billion years old, making them some of the most ancient objects in the Universe. Unlike another recent Hubble Picture of the Week, which featured the unusually sparse cluster Palomar 1, Messier 15 is rich and bright despite its age.
Messier 15 is a globular cluster — a spherical conglomeration of old stars that formed together from the same cloud of gas, found in the outer reaches of the Milky Way in a region known as the halo and orbiting the Galactic Centre. This globular lies about 35 000 light-years from the Earth, in the constellation of Pegasus (The Flying Horse).
Messier 15 is one of the densest globulars known, with the vast majority of the cluster’s mass concentrated in the core. Astronomers think that particularly dense globulars, like this one, underwent a process called core collapse, in which gravitational interactions between stars led to many members of the cluster migrating towards the centre.
Messier 15 is also the first globular cluster known to harbour a planetary nebula, and it is still one of only four globulars known to do so. The planetary nebula, called Pease 1, can be seen in this image as a small blue blob to the lower left of the globular’s core.
This picture was put together from images taken with the Wide Field Channel of Hubble's Advanced Camera for Surveys. Images through yellow/orange (F606W, coloured blue) and near-infrared (F814W, coloured red) filters were combined. The total exposure times were 535 s and 615 s respectively and the field of view is 3.4 arcminutes across.
The NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope has imaged a violent stellar nursery called NGC 2174, in which stars are born in a first-come-first-served feeding frenzy for survival.
The problem is that star formation is a very inefficient process; most of the ingredients to make stars are wasted as the cloud of gas and dust, or nebula, gradually disperses. In NGC 2174, the rate at which the nebula disperses is further speeded up by the presence of hot young stars, which create high velocity winds that blow the gas outwards.
These fiery youngsters also bombard the surrounding gas with intense radiation, making it glow brightly, creating the brilliant scene captured here. The nebula is mostly composed of hydrogen gas, which is ionised by the ultraviolet radiation emitted by the hot stars, leading to the nebula’s alternative title as an HII region. This picture shows only part of the nebula, where dark dust clouds are strikingly silhouetted against the glowing gas.
NGC 2174 lies about 6400 light-years away in the constellation of Orion (The Hunter). It is not part of the much more familiar Orion Nebula, which lies much closer to us. Despite its prime position in a very familiar constellation this nebula is faint and had to wait until 1877 for its discovery by the French astronomer Jean Marie Edouard Stephan using an 80 cm reflecting telescope at the Observatoire de Marseille.
This picture was created from images from the Wide Field Planetary Camera 2 on Hubble. Images through four different filters were combined to make the view shown here. Images through a filter isolating the glow from ionised oxygen (F502N) were coloured blue and images through a filter showing glowing hydrogen (F656N) are green. Glowing ionised sulphur (F673N) and the view through a near-infrared filter (F814W) are both coloured red. The total exposure times per filter were 2600 s, 2600 s, 2600 s and 1000 s respectively and the field of view is about 1.8 arcminutes across.
Hubble's Advanced Camera for Surveys has captured this moment in the ever-changing life of a spiral galaxy called IC 391. Although these massive star cities appear static and unchanging, their stellar inhabitants are constantly moving and evolving, with new stars being born and old stars reaching the ends of their lives —often in spectacular fashion, with an immense supernova explosion that can be viewed from Earth.
On 3 January 2001, members of the Beijing Astronomical Observatory discovered such an explosion within IC 391 and it was named SN 2001B. This was a Type Ib supernova, which occurs when a massive star runs out of fuel for nuclear fusion and collapses, emitting vast amounts of radiation and creating a powerful shock wave. Hubble has contributed much to our understanding of supernovae in recent years, and it has made an extensive study of supernova 1987A (heic0704), the brightest such stellar explosion to be seen from Earth in over 400 years.
IC 391 lies about 80 million light-years away in the constellation of Camelopardalis (the Giraffe) in the far northern part of the sky. The British amateur observer William Denning discovered it in the late nineteenth century, and described it as faint, small and round.
This picture was assembled from images taken with Hubble’s Wide Field Channel on the Advanced Camera for Surveys. Images through a blue filter (F435W) were coloured blue, those through a green filter (F555W) are shown as green and those through a near-infrared filter (F814W) are shown in red. The exposure times were 800 s, 700 s and 700 s respectively and the field of view is 2.1 by 1.4 arcminutes.