Picture of The Week
Spiral, elliptical, irregular
Mon, 17 Jun 2019 06:00:00 +0200

This image shows an irregular galaxy named IC 10, a member of the Local Group — a collectiongrouping of over 50 galaxies inwithin our cosmic neighbourhood that includes the Milky Way.

IC 10 is a remarkable object. It is the closest-known starburst galaxy to us, meaning that it is undergoing a furious bout of star formation fueled by ample supplies of cool hydrogen gas. This gas condensescongeals into vast molecular clouds, which then formcondense into dense knots where pressures and temperatures reach a point sufficient to ignite nuclear fusion, thus giving rise to new generations of stars.  

As an irregular galaxy, IC 10 lacks the majestic shape of spiral galaxies such as the Milky Way, or the rounded, ethereal appearance of elliptical galaxies. It is a faint object, despite its relative proximity to us — justof 2.2 million light-years. In fact, IC 10 only became known to humankind in 1887, when American astronomer Lewis Swift spotted it during an observing campaign. The small galaxy remains difficult to study even today, because it is located along a line -of -sight which is chock-full of cosmic dust and stars.

A version of this image was entered into the Hubble's Hidden Treasures image processing competition by contestant Nikolaus Sulzenauer, and went on to win tenth prize.

An explosive galaxy
Mon, 10 Jun 2019 06:00:00 +0200

When massive stars die at the end of their short lives, they light up the cosmos with bright, explosive bursts of light and material known as supernovae. A supernova event is incredibly energetic and intensely luminous — so much so that it forms what looks like an especially bright new star that slowly fades away over time.

These exploding stars glow so incredibly brightly when they first form that they can be spotted from afar using telescopes such as the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope. The subject of this image, a spiral galaxy named NGC 4051 — about 45 million light-years from Earth — has hosted multiple supernovae in past years. The first was spotted in 1983 (SN 1983I), the second in 2003 (SN 2003ie), and the most recent in 2010 (SN 2010br). These explosive events were seen scattered throughout the centre and spiral arms of NGC 4051.

The SN 1983I and SN 2010br were both categorised as supernovae of type Ic. This type of supernova is produced by the core collapse of a massive star that has lost its outer layer of hydrogen and helium, either via winds or by mass transfer to a companion. Because of this, type Ic — and also type Ib — supernovae are sometimes referred to as stripped core-collapse supernovae.

NGC 4501 sits in the southern part of a cluster of galaxies known as the Ursa Major I Cluster; this cluster is especially rich in spirals such as NGC 4051, and is a subset of the larger Virgo Supercluster, which also houses the Milky Way.

Galactic maturity
Mon, 03 Jun 2019 06:00:00 +0200

This striking image was taken by the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope’s Wide Field Camera 3, a powerful instrument installed on the telescope in 2009. WFC3 is responsible for many of Hubble’s most breathtaking and iconic photographs, including Pictures of the Week.

Shown here, NGC 7773 is a beautiful example of a barred spiral galaxy. A luminous bar-shaped structure cuts prominently through the galaxy's bright core, extending to the inner boundary of NGC 7773's sweeping, pinwheel-like spiral arms. Astronomers think that these bar structures emerge later in the lifetime of a galaxy, as star-forming material makes its way towards the galactic centre — younger spirals do not feature barred structures as often as older spirals do, suggesting that bars are a sign of galactic maturity. They are also thought to act as stellar nurseries, as they gleam brightly with copious numbers of youthful stars.

Our galaxy, the Milky Way, is thought to be a barred spiral like NGC 7773. By studying galactic specimens such as NGC 7773 throughout the Universe, researchers hope to learn more about the processes that have shaped — and continue to shape — our cosmic home.

Bucking the trend
Mon, 27 May 2019 06:00:00 +0200

This luminous orb is the galaxy NGC 4621, better known as Messier 59. As this latter moniker indicates, the galaxy was listed in the famous catalogue of deep-sky objects compiled by French comet-hunter Charles Messier in 1779. However, German astronomer Johann Gottfried Koehler is credited with discovering the galaxy just days before Messier added it to his collection.   

Modern observations show that Messier 59 is an elliptical galaxy, one of the three main kinds of galaxies along with spirals and irregulars. Ellipticals tend to be the most evolved of the trio, full of old, red stars and exhibiting little or no new star formation. Messier 59, however, bucks this trend somewhat; the galaxy does show signs of star formation, with some newborn stars residing within a disc near the core.

Located in the 2000-strong Virgo Cluster of galaxies within the constellation of Virgo (The Virgin), Messier 59 lies approximately 50 million light-years away from us. This image was taken by the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope’s Advanced Camera for Surveys.

Come a little closer
Mon, 20 May 2019 06:00:00 +0200

This Picture of the Week stars Messier 90, a beautiful spiral galaxy located roughly 60 million light-years from the Milky Way in the constellation of Virgo (The Virgin). The galaxy is part of the Virgo Cluster, a gathering of galaxies that is over 1200 strong.

This image combines infrared, ultraviolet, and visible light gathered by the Wide Field and Planetary Camera 2 on the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope. This camera was operational between 1994 and 2010, producing images with an unusual staircase-like shape as seen here. This is because the camera was made up of four light detectors with overlapping fields of view, one of which gave a higher magnification than the other three. When the four images are combined together in one picture, the high magnification image needs to be reduced in size in order for the image to align properly. This produces an image with a layout that looks like three steps.

Messier 90 is remarkable; it is one of the few galaxies seen to be travelling toward the Milky Way, not away from it. The galaxy’s light reveals this incoming motion in that it is blueshifted. In simple terms, the galaxy is compressing the wavelength of its light as it moves towards us, like a slinky being squashed when you push on one end. This increases the frequency of the light and shifts it towards the blue end of the spectrum. As our Universe is expanding, almost all of the galaxies we see in the Universe are moving away from us, and we therefore see their light as redshifted, but Messier 90 appears to be a rare exception.

Astronomers think that this blueshift is likely caused by the cluster’s colossal mass accelerating its members to high velocities on bizarre and peculiar orbits, sending them whirling around on odd paths that take them both towards and away from us over time. While the cluster itself is moving away from us, some of its constituent galaxies, such as Messier 90, are moving faster than the cluster as a whole, making it so that from Earth we see the galaxy heading towards us. However, some are also moving in the opposite direction within the cluster, and thus seem to be streaking away from us at very high velocity.

Settling into old age
Mon, 13 May 2019 06:00:00 +0200

NGC 3384, visible in this image, has many of the features characteristic of so-called elliptical galaxies. Such galaxies glow diffusely, are rounded in shape, display few visible features, and rarely show signs of recent star formation. Instead, they are dominated by old, ageing, and red-hued stars. This stands in contrast to the sprightliness of spiral galaxies such as our home galaxy, the Milky Way, which possess significant populations of young, blue stars in spiral arms swirling around a bright core.

However, NGC 3384 also displays a hint of disc-like structure towards its centre, in the form of a central ‘bar’ of stars cutting through its centre. Many spirals also boast such a bar, the Milky Way included; galactic bars are thought to funnel material through and around a galaxy’s core, helping to maintain and fuel the activities and processes occurring there.

NGC 3384 is located approximately 35 million light-years away in the constellation of Leo (The Lion). This image was taken using the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope’s Advanced Camera for Surveys.

Distant and ancient
Mon, 06 May 2019 06:00:00 +0200

Dotted across the sky in the constellation of Pictor (The Painter’s Easel) is the galaxy cluster highlighted here by the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope: SPT-CL J0615-5746, or SPT0615 for short. First discovered by the South Pole Telescope less than a decade ago, SPT0615 is exceptional among the myriad clusters so far catalogued in our map of the Universe — it is the highest-redshift cluster for which a full, strong lens model is published.

SPT0615 is a massive cluster of galaxies, one of the farthest observed to cause gravitational lensing. Gravitational lensing occurs when light from a background object is deflected around mass between the object and the observer. Among the identified background objects, there is SPT0615-JD, a galaxy that is thought to have emerged just 500 million years after the Big Bang. This puts it among the very earliest structures to form in the Universe. It is also the farthest galaxy ever imaged by means of gravitational lensing.

Just as ancient paintings can tell us about the period of history in which they were painted, so too can ancient galaxies tell us about the era of the Universe in which they existed. To learn about cosmological history, astronomers explore the most distant reaches of the Universe, probing ever further out into the cosmos. The light from distant objects travels to us from so far away that it takes an immensely long time to reach us, meaning that it carries information from the past — information about the time at which it was emitted.

By studying such distant objects, astronomers are continuing to fill the gaps in our picture of what the very early Universe looked like, and uncover more about how it evolved into its current state.

Mon, 29 Apr 2019 06:00:00 +0200

Few of the Universe’s residents are as iconic as the spiral galaxy. These limelight-hogging celestial objects combine whirling, pinwheeling arms with scatterings of sparkling stars, glowing bursts of gas, and dark, weaving lanes of cosmic dust, creating truly awesome scenes — especially when viewed through a telescope such as the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope. In fact, this image from Hubble frames a perfect spiral specimen: the stunning NGC 2903.

NGC 2903 is located about 30 million light-years away in the constellation of Leo (The Lion), and was studied as part of a Hubble survey of the central regions of roughly 145 nearby disc galaxies. This study aimed to help astronomers better understand the relationship between the black holes that lurk at the cores of galaxies like these, and the rugby-ball-shaped bulge of stars, gas, and dust at the galaxy’s centre — such as that seen in this image.

Crowded cluster
Mon, 22 Apr 2019 06:00:00 +0200

This sparkling burst of stars is Messier 75. It is a globular cluster: a spherical collection of stars bound together by gravity. Clusters like this orbit around galaxies and typically reside in their outer and less-crowded areas, gathering to form dense communities in the galactic suburbs.

Messier 75 lies in the constellation of Sagittarius (The Archer), around 67 000 light-years away from Earth. The majority of the cluster’s stars, about 400 000 intotal, are found in its core; it is one of the most densely populated clusters ever found, with a phenomenal luminosity of some 180 000 times that of the Sun. No wonder it photographs so well!

Discovered in 1780 by Pierre Méchain, Messier 75 was also observed by Charles Messier and added to his catalogue later that year. This image of Messier 75 was captured by the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope’s Advanced Camera for Surveys.

Comet or cluster?
Mon, 15 Apr 2019 06:00:00 +0200

Most globular clusters are almost perfectly spherical collections of stars — but Messier 62 breaks the mould. The 12-billion-year-old cluster is distorted, and stretches out on one side to form a comet-like shape with a bright head and extended tail. As one of the closest globular clusters to the centre of our galaxy, Messier 62 is likely affected by strong tidal forces that displace many of its stars, resulting in this unusual shape.

When globular clusters form, they tend to be somewhat denser towards the centre. The more massive the cluster, the denser the centre is likely to be. With a mass with almost a million times that of the Sun, Messier 62 is one of the densest of them all. With so many stars at the centre, interactions and mergers occur regularly. Huge stars form and run out of fuel quickly, exploding violently and their remains collapse to form white dwarfs, neutron stars and even black holes!

For many years, it was believed that any black holes that form in a globular cluster would quickly be kicked out due to the violent interactions taking place there. However, in 2013, a black hole was discovered in Messier 62 — the first ever to be found in a Milky Way globular cluster, giving astronomers a whole new hunting ground for these mysterious objects.

This view comprises ultraviolet and visible light gathered by the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope’s Advanced Camera for Surveys.

Blue rejuvenation
Mon, 08 Apr 2019 06:00:00 +0200

Globular clusters are inherently beautiful objects, but the subject of this NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope image, Messier 3, is commonly acknowledged to be one of the most beautiful of them all.

Containing an incredible half a million stars, this eight-billion-year-old cosmic bauble is one of the largest and brightest globular clusters ever discovered. However, what makes Messier 3 extra special is its unusually large population of variable stars — stars that fluctuate in brightness over time. New variable stars continue to be discovered in this sparkling stellar nest to this day, but so far we know of 274, the highest number found in any globular cluster by far. At least 170 of these are of a special variety called RR Lyrae variables, which pulse with a period directly related to their intrinsic brightness. If astronomers know how bright a star truly is based on its mass and classification, and they know how bright it appears to be from our viewpoint here on Earth, they can thus work out its distance from us. For this reason, RR Lyrae stars are known as standard candles — objects of known luminosity whose distance and position can be used to help us understand more about vast celestial distances and the scale of the cosmos.

Messier 3 also contains a relatively high number of so-called blue stragglers, which are shown quite clearly in this Hubble image. These are blue main sequence stars that appear to be young because they are bluer and more luminous than other stars in the cluster. As all stars in globular clusters are believed to have formed together and thus be roughly the same age. Only a difference in mass can give these stars a different colour: a red, old star can appear bluer when it acquires more mass, for instance stripping it from a nearby star. The extra mass changes it into a bluer star, which makes us think it is younger than it really is.

The largest of its kind
Mon, 01 Apr 2019 06:00:00 +0200

Star clusters are commonly featured in cosmic photoshoots, and are also well-loved by the keen eye of the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope. These large gatherings of celestial gems are striking sights — and the subject of this Picture of the Week, Messier 2, is certainly no exception.

Messier 2 is located in the constellation of Aquarius (The Water-Bearer), about 55 000 light-years away. It is a globular cluster, a spherical group of stars all tightly bound together by gravity. With a diameter of roughly 175 light-years, a population of 150 000 stars, and an age of 13 billion years, Messier 2 is one of the largest clusters of its kind and one of the oldest associated with the Milky Way.

Most of the cluster’s mass is concentrated at its centre, with shimmering streams of stars extending outwards into space. It is bright enough that it can even be seen with the naked eye when observing conditions are extremely good.

Wild cosmic ducks
Mon, 25 Mar 2019 06:00:00 +0100

This star-studded image shows us a portion of Messier 11, an open star cluster in the southern constellation of Scutum (The Shield). Messier 11 is also known as the Wild Duck Cluster, as its brightest stars form a “V” shape that somewhat resembles a flock of ducks in flight.

Messier 11 is one of the richest and most compact open clusters currently known. By investigating the brightest, hottest main sequence stars in the cluster astronomers estimate that it formed roughly 220 million years ago. Open clusters tend to contain fewer and younger stars than their more compact globular cousins, and Messier 11 is no exception: at its centre lie many blue stars, the hottest and youngest of the cluster’s few thousand stellar residents.

The lifespans of open clusters are also relatively short compared to those of globular ones; stars in open clusters are spread further apart and are thus not as strongly bound to each other by gravity, causing them to be more easily and quickly drawn away by stronger gravitational forces. As a result Messier 11 is likely to disperse in a few million years as its members are ejected one by one, pulled away by other celestial objects in the vicinity.

Invisible X-rays
Mon, 18 Mar 2019 06:00:00 +0100

This fuzzy orb of light is a giant elliptical galaxy filled with an incredible 200 billion stars. Unlike spiral galaxies, which have a well-defined structure and boast picturesque spiral arms, elliptical galaxies appear fairly smooth and featureless. This is likely why this galaxy, named Messier 49, was discovered by French astronomer Charles Messier in 1771. At a distance of 56 million light-years, and measuring 157 000 light-years across, M49 was the first member of the Virgo Cluster of galaxies to be discovered, and it is more luminous than any other galaxy at its distance or nearer.

Elliptical galaxies tend to contain a larger portion of older stars than spiral galaxies and also lack young blue stars. Messier 49 itself is very yellow, which indicates that the stars within it are mostly older and redder than the Sun. In fact, the last major episode of star formation was about six billion years ago — before the Sun was even born!

Messier 49 is also rich in globular clusters; it hosts about 6000, a number that dwarfs the 150 found in and around the Milky Way. On average, these clusters are 10 billion years old. Messier 49 is also known to host a supermassive black hole at its centre with the mass of more than 500 million Suns, identifiable by the X-rays pouring out from the heart of the galaxy (as this Hubble image comprises infrared observations, these X-rays are not visible here).

Nebulous, but no nebula
Mon, 11 Mar 2019 06:00:00 +0100

This Hubble Picture of the Week shows Messier 28, a globular cluster in the constellation of Sagittarius (The Archer), in jewel-bright detail. It is about 18 000 light-years away from Earth.

As its name suggests, this cluster belongs to the Messier catalogue of objects — however, when astronomer Charles Messier first added Messier 28 to his list in 1764, he catalogued it incorrectly, referring to it as a “[round] nebula containing no star”. While today we know nebulae to be vast, often glowing clouds of interstellar dust and ionised gases, until the early twentieth century a nebula represented any astronomical object that was not clearly localised and isolated. Any unidentified hazy light source could be called a nebula. In fact, all 110 of the astronomical objects identified by Messier were combined under the title of the Catalogue of Nebulae and Star Clusters. He classified many objects as diverse as star clusters and supernova remnants as nebulae. This includes Messier 28, pictured here — which, ironically, is actually a star cluster.

Messier’s mistake is understandable. Whilst Messier 28 is easily recognisable as a globular stellar cluster in this image, it is far less recognisable from Earth. Even with binoculars it is only visible very faintly, as the distorting effects of the Earth’s atmosphere reduce this luminous ancient cluster to a barely visible smudge in the sky. One would need larger telescopes to resolve single stars in Messier 28. Fortunately, from space Hubble allows Messier 28 to be seen in all its beauty — far more than a faint, shapeless, nebulous cloud.

Colliding galaxies
Mon, 04 Mar 2019 06:00:00 +0100

Located in the constellation of Hercules, about 230 million light-years away, NGC 6052 is a pair of colliding galaxies. They were first discovered in 1784 by William Herschel and were originally classified as a single irregular galaxy because of their odd shape. However, we now know that NGC 6052 actually consists of two galaxies that are in the process of colliding. This particular image of NGC 6052 was taken using the Wide Field Camera 3 on the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope.

A long time ago gravity drew the two galaxies together into the chaotic state we now observe. Stars from within both of the original galaxies now follow new trajectories caused by the new gravitational effects. However, actual collisions between stars themselves are very rare as stars are very small relative to the distances between them (most of a galaxy is empty space). Eventually things will settle down and one day the two galaxies will have fully merged to form a single, stable galaxy.

Our own galaxy, the Milky Way, will undergo a similar collision in the future with our nearest galactic neighbour, the Andromeda Galaxy. Although this is not expected to happen for around 4 billion years so there is nothing to worry about just yet.

This object was previously observed by Hubble with its old WFPC2 camera. That image was released in 2015.

The two mysterious populations of NGC 2419
Mon, 25 Feb 2019 06:00:00 +0100

Globular clusters like NGC 2419, visible in this image taken with the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope, are not only beautiful, but also fascinating. They are spherical groups of stars which orbit the centre of a galaxy; in the case of NGC 2419, that galaxy is the Milky Way. NGC 2419 can be found around 300 000 light-years from the Solar System, in the constellation Lynx (the Lynx).

The stars populating globular clusters are very similar to one another, with similar properties such as metallicity. The similarity of these stellar doppelgängers is due to their formation early in the history of the galaxy. As the stars in a globular cluster all formed at around the same time, they tend to display reasonably homogeneous properties. It was believed that this similarity also extended to the stellar helium content; that is, it was thought that all stars in a globular cluster would contain comparable amounts of helium.

However, Hubble’s observations of NGC 2419 have shown that this is not always the case. This surprising globular cluster turns out to be made up of two separate populations of red giant stars, one of which is unusually helium-rich. Other elements within the different stars in NGC 2419 vary too — nitrogen in particular. On top of this, these helium-rich stars were found to be predominantly in the centre of the globular cluster, and to be rotating. These observations have raised questions about the formation of globular clusters; did these two drastically different groups of stars form together? Or did this globular cluster come into being by a different route entirely?

A storm is coming
Mon, 18 Feb 2019 06:00:00 +0100

Since Pluto’s status-change from fully-fledged planet to dwarf planet, Neptune holds the title of outermost planet in the Solar System. This new image of the planet was made during Hubble’s Outer Planet Atmosphere Legacy (OPAL) programme, under which it has observed the four outermost planets, including Neptune, on a yearly basis since 2014.

The observations of Neptune carried out in September and November 2018 show the first evidence of a huge storm brewing, with the discovery of a new northern Great Dark Spot (visible here to the upper left of the planet’s disc, partially overlapping a large patch of white). This new dark storm is of a similar size and shape to the storm discovered in 1989 by the Voyager 2 space probe.

While the future evolution of the storm will be tracked through the continued yearly Hubble observations and also by ground-based telescopes, older OPAL observations from Hubble show that its appearance was preceded by increased cloud activity throughout the region. There are hints of the storm forming in images from as early as 2015. This slow origin process indicates that the storm developed deep within Neptune's atmosphere, pulling up dark material from its depths, and only became visible once the top of it reached higher altitudes.

Adding to Uranus’s legacy
Mon, 11 Feb 2019 06:00:00 +0100

One of the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope’s many scientific objectives is to study the planets within the Solar System — and in past years, our system’s outer planets have been observed several times as part of Hubble’s Outer Planet Atmosphere Legacy (OPAL) programme.

This programme has given us this new image of the planet Uranus, the seventh planet in the Solar System in order of increasing distance from the Sun. Past observations of Uranus using Hubble have led to many interesting insights about the cold ice giant; in 2006 the telescope managed to capture a shot in which the moon Ariel and its accompanying shadow were traversing the face of Uranus, and in 2011 Hubble was able to spot faint auroras in its atmosphere.

Observations made over the course of several years also allowed astronomers to study the planet’s faint ring system as its inclination changed with respect to Earth’s orbit. This new image, taken with Hubble’s Wide Field Camera 3, adds to the legacy of images already taken and will provide scientists with even more new insights into our distant neighbour.

The darkness within?
Mon, 04 Feb 2019 06:00:00 +0100

This atmospheric image shows a galaxy named Messier 85, captured in all its delicate, hazy glory by the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope. Messier 85 slants through the constellation of Coma Berenices (Berenice’s Hair), and lies around 50 million light-years from Earth. It was first discovered by Charles Messier’s colleague Pierre Méchain in 1781, and is included in the Messier catalogue of celestial objects.

Messier 85 is intriguing — its properties lie somewhere between those of a lenticular and an elliptical galaxy, and it appears to be interacting with two of its neighbours: the beautiful spiral NGC 4394, located out of frame to the upper left, and the small elliptical MCG 3-32-38, located out of frame to the centre bottom.

The galaxy contains some 400 billion stars, most of which are very old. However, the central region hosts a population of relatively young stars of just a few billion years in age; these stars are thought to have formed in a late burst of star formation, likely triggered as Messier 85 merged with another galaxy over four billion years ago. Messier 85 has a further potentially strange quality. Almost every galaxy is thought to have a supermassive black hole at its centre, but from measurements of the velocities of stars in this galaxy, it is unclear whether Messier 85 contains such a black hole.

This image combines infrared, visible and ultraviolet observations from Hubble’s Wide Field Camera 3.

Wading through water
Mon, 28 Jan 2019 06:00:00 +0100

This striking image combines data gathered with the Advanced Camera for Surveys, installed on the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope and data from the Subaru Telescope in Hawaii. It shows just a part of the spectacular tail emerging from a spiral galaxy nicknamed D100.

Tails such as these are created by a process known as ram-pressure stripping. Despite appearances, the space between galaxies in a cluster is far from empty; it is actually filled with superheated gas and plasma, which drags and pulls at galaxies as they move through it, a little like the resistance one experiences when wading through deep water. This can be strong enough to tear galaxies apart, and often results in objects with peculiar, bizarre shapes and features — as seen here.

D100’s eye-catching tail of gas, which stretches far beyond this image to the left, is a particularly striking example of this phenomenon. The galaxy is a member of the huge Coma cluster. The pressure from the cluster’s hot constituent plasma (known as the intracluster medium) has stripped gas from D100 and torn it away from the galaxy’s main body, and drawing it out into the plume pictured here.

Densely populated clusters such as Coma are home to thousands of galaxies. They are thus the perfect laboratories in which to study the intriguing phenomenon of ram-pressure stripping, which, as well as producing beautiful images such as this, can have a profound effect on how galaxies evolve and form new generations of stars.


Peering into the past
Mon, 21 Jan 2019 06:00:00 +0100

This picture showcases a gravitational lensing system called SDSS J0928+2031. Quite a few images of this type of lensing have been featured as Pictures of the Week in past months, as NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope data is currently being used to research how stars form and evolve in distant galaxies.

Gravitational lensing can help astronomers study objects that would otherwise be too faint or appear too small for us to view. When a massive object — such as a massive cluster of galaxies, as seen here — distorts space with its immense gravitational field, it causes light from more distant galaxies to travel along altered and warped paths. It also amplifies the light, making it possible for us to observe and study its source.

In this image, we see two dominant elliptical galaxies near the centre of the image. The gravity from the galaxy cluster that is the home of these galaxies is acting as the aforementioned gravitational lens, allowing us to view the more distant  galaxies sitting behind them. We see the effects of this lensing as narrow, curved streaks of light surrounding both of the large galaxies.

This image was observed by Hubble as part of the Sloan Giant Arcs Survey programme.

Messier Monday
Mon, 14 Jan 2019 06:00:00 +0100

This huge ball of stars — around 100 billion in total — is an elliptical galaxy located some 55 million light-years away from us. Known as Messier 89, this galaxy appears to be perfectly spherical; this is unusual for elliptical galaxies, which tend to be elongated ellipsoids. The apparently spherical nature of Messier 89 could, however, be a trick of perspective, and be caused by its orientation relative to the Earth.

Messier 89 is slightly smaller than the Milky Way, but has a few interesting features that stretch far out into the surrounding space. One structure of gas and dust extends up to 150 000 light-years out from the galaxy’s centre, which is known to house a supermassive black hole. Jets of heated particles reach out to 100 000 light-years from the galaxy, suggesting that Messier 89 may have once been far more active — perhaps an active quasar or radio galaxy — than it is now. It is also surrounded by an extensive system of shells and plumes, which may have been caused by past mergers with smaller galaxies — and implies that Messier 89 as we know it may have formed in the relatively recent past.

Messier 89 was discovered by astronomer Charles Messier in 1781, when Messier had been cataloguing astronomical objects for 23 years — ever since he mistook a faint object in the sky for Halley’s Comet. Upon closer inspection, he realised the object was actually the Crab Nebula. To prevent other astronomers from making the same error, he decided to catalogue all the bright, deep-sky objects that could potentially be mistaken for comets. His methodical observations of the night sky led to the first comprehensive catalogue of astronomical objects: the Messier catalogue! Messier 89 holds the record for being the last ever giant elliptical to be found by Messier, and the most perfectly spherical galaxy in the entire catalogue of 110 objects.

The heart of the Lion
Mon, 07 Jan 2019 06:00:00 +0100

It might appear featureless and unexciting at first glance, but NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope observations of this elliptical galaxy — known as Messier 105 — show that the stars near the galaxy’s centre are moving very rapidly. Astronomers have concluded that these stars are zooming around a supermassive black hole with an estimated mass of 200 million Suns! This black hole releases huge amounts of energy as it consumes matter falling into it and causing the centre to shine far brighter than its surroundings. This system is known as an active galactic nucleus.

Hubble also surprised astronomers by revealing a few young stars and clusters in Messer 105, which was thought to be a “dead” galaxy incapable of star formation. Messier 105 is now thought to form roughly one Sun-like star every 10 000 years. Star-forming activity has also been spotted in a vast ring of hydrogen gas encircling both Messier 105 and its closest neighbour, the lenticular galaxy NGC 3384.

Messier 105 was discovered in 1781, lies about 30 million light-years away in the constellation of Leo (The Lion), and is the brightest elliptical galaxy within the Leo I galaxy group.

The smoking gun of a newborn star
Mon, 31 Dec 2018 06:00:00 +0100

In this image the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope has captured the smoking gun of a newborn star, the Herbig–Haro objects numbered 7 to 11 (HH 7–11). These five objects, visible in blue in the top centre of the image, lie within NGC 1333, a reflection nebula full of gas and dust found about a thousand light-years away from Earth.

Herbig-Haro objects like HH 7–11 are transient phenomena. Travelling away from the star that created them, at a speed of up to 250 000 kilometres per hour they disappear into nothingness within a few tens of thousands of years. The young star that is the source of HH 7-11 is called SVS 13 and all five objects are moving away from SVS 13 toward the upper left. The current distance between HH 7 and SVS 13 is about 20 000 times the distance between Earth and the Sun.

Herbig–Haro objects are formed when jets of ionised gas ejected by a young star collide with nearby clouds of gas and dust at high speeds. The Herbig-Haro objects visible in this image are no exception to this and were formed when the jets from the newborn star SVS 13 collided with the surrounding clouds. These collisions created the five brilliant clumps of light within the reflection nebula.