Picture of The Week
A red, metal-rich relic
Mon, 19 Mar 2018 06:00:00 +0100


This idyllic scene, packed with glowing galaxies, has something truly remarkable at its core: an untouched relic of the ancient Universe. This relic can be seen in the large galaxy at the centre of the frame, a lenticular galaxy named NGC 1277. This galaxy is a member of the famous Perseus Cluster — one of the most massive objects in the known Universe, located some 220 million light-years from Earth.

NGC 1277 has been dubbed a “relic of the early Universe” because all of its stars appear to have formed about 12 billion years ago. To put this in perspective, the Big Bang is thought to have happened 13.8 billion years ago. Teeming with billions of old, metal-rich stars, this galaxy is also home to many ancient globular clusters: spherical bundles of stars that orbit a galaxy like satellites. Uniquely, the globuar clusters of NGC 1277 are mostly red and metal-rich — very different to the blue, metal-poor clusters usually seen around similarly-sized galaxies. In astronomy, a metal is any element heavier than hydrogen and helium; these heavier elements are fused together in the hot cores of massive stars and scattered throughout the Universe when these stars explode as they die. In this way, a star’s metal content is related to its age: stars that form later contain greater amounts of metal-rich material, since previous generations of stars have enriched the cosmos from which they are born.

Massive galaxies — and their globular clusters — are thought to form in two phases: first comes an early collapse accompanied by a giant burst of star formation, which forms red, metal-rich clusters, followed by a later accumulation of material, which brings in bluer, metal-poor material. The discovery of NGC 1277’s red clusters confirms that the galaxy is a genuine antique that bypassed this second phase, raising important questions for scientists on how galaxies form and evolve: a hotly debated topic in modern astronomy.


Spirals and supernovae
Mon, 12 Mar 2018 06:00:00 +0100

This stunning image from Hubble shows the majestic galaxy NGC 1015, found nestled within the constellation of Cetus (The Whale) 118 million light-years from Earth. In this image, we see NGC 1015 face-on, with its beautifully symmetrical swirling arms and bright central bulge creating a scene akin to a sparkling Catherine wheel firework.

NGC 1015 has a bright, fairly large centre and smooth, tightly wound spiral arms and a central “bar” of gas and stars. This shape leads NGC 1015 to be classified as a barred spiral galaxy — just like our home, the Milky Way. Bars are found in around two-thirds of all spiral galaxies, and the arms of this galaxy swirl outwards from a pale yellow ring encircling the bar itself. Scientists believe that any hungry black holes lurking at the centre of barred spirals funnel gas and energy from the outer arms into the core via these glowing bars, feeding the black hole, fueling star birth at the centre and building up the galaxy’s central bulge.

In 2009, a Type Ia supernova named SN 2009ig was spotted in NGC 1015 — one of the bright dots to the upper right of the galaxy’s centre. These types of supernovae are extremely important: they are all caused by exploding white dwarfs which have companion stars, and always peak at the same brightness — 5 billion times brighter than the Sun. Knowing the true brightness of these events, and comparing this with their apparent brightness, gives astronomers a unique chance to measure distances in the Universe.

Galaxy full of cosmic lighthouses
Mon, 05 Mar 2018 06:00:00 +0100

This enchanting spiral galaxy can be found in the constellation of Ursa Major (the Great Bear). Star-studded NGC 3972 lies about 65 million light-years away from the Earth, meaning that the light that we see now left it 65 million years ago, just when the dinosaurs became extinct.

NGC 3972 has had its fair share of dramatic events. In 2011 astronomers observed the explosion of a type Ia supernova in the galaxy (not visible in this image). These dazzling objects all peak at the same brightness, and are brilliant enough to be seen over large distances. NGC 3972 also contains many pulsating stars called Cepheid variables. These stars change their brightness at a rate matched closely to their intrinsic luminosity, making them ideal cosmic lighthouses for measuring accurate distances to relatively nearby galaxies.

Astronomers search for Cepheid variables in nearby galaxies which also contain a type Ia supernova so they can compare the true brightness of both types of stars. That brightness information is used to calibrate the luminosity of Type Ia supernovae in far-flung galaxies so that astronomers can calculate the galaxies' distances from Earth. Once astronomers know accurate distances to galaxies near and far, they can determine and refine the expansion rate of the Universe.

This image was taken in 2015 with Hubble’s Wide Field Camera 3, as part of a project to improve the precision of the Hubble constant — a figure that describes the expansion rate of the Universe.

A frenzy of stars
Mon, 26 Feb 2018 06:00:00 +0100

Discovered in 1900 by astronomer DeLisle Stewart and here imaged by the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope, IC 4710 is an undeniably spectacular sight. The galaxy is a busy cloud of bright stars, with bright pockets — marking bursts of new star formation — scattered around its edges.

IC 4710 is a dwarf irregular galaxy. As the name suggests, such galaxies are irregular and chaotic in appearance, lacking central bulges and spiral arms — they are distinctly different from spirals or ellipticals. It is thought that irregular galaxies may once have been spirals or ellipticals, but became distorted over time through external gravitational forces during interactions or mergers with other galaxies. Dwarf irregulars in particular are important to our overall understanding of galactic evolution, as they are thought to be similar to the first galaxies that formed in the Universe.

IC 4710 lies roughly 25 million light-years away in the southern constellation of Pavo (The Peacock). This constellation is located in the southern skies and also contains the third-brightest globular cluster in the sky, NGC 6752, the spiral galaxy NGC 6744, and six known planetary systems (including HD 181433 which is host to a super-Earth).

The data used to create this image were gathered by Hubble’s Advanced Camera for Surveys (ACS).

Neptune’s shrinking vortex
Mon, 19 Feb 2018 06:00:00 +0100

Neptune, the eighth and farthest planet from the Sun, was visited for the first and last time by NASA’s Voyager 2 mission in 1989. Since then, the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope has been attempting to unearth the myriad mysteries surrounding this cool, majestic behemoth — including deciphering why it has the fastest wind speeds of any planet in the Solar System, and what lies at its centre.

These new Hubble images reveal one of the standout features of Neptune’s strange atmosphere: a rare dark spot, or dark vortex — a whirling high-pressure atmospheric system usually accompanied by bright “companion clouds”. This particular dark spot is named SDS-2015 (Southern Dark Spot discovered in 2015), and is only the fifth observed so far on Neptune. Although it appears to be slightly smaller than previous dark spots, observations of SDS-2015 from 2015 to 2017 revealed that the spot was once big enough to almost swallow China before rapidly diminishing in size.

Each of the five dark spots found on Neptune have been curiously diverse, but all have appeared and disappeared within just a few years — as opposed to similar vortices on Jupiter which evolve over decades. Bright clouds form alongside dark spots when the flow of ambient air is disturbed and diverted upwards over the spot, likely causing gases to freeze into methane ice crystals.

Only Hubble is currently powerful enough to image Neptune’s dark spots, and produce striking images such as these; these views were taken over the course of two years using Hubble’s Wide Field Camera 3 (WFC3).


A window into the cosmic past
Mon, 12 Feb 2018 06:00:00 +0100

This image from the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope shows the galaxy cluster PLCK G004.5-19.5. It was discovered by the ESA Planck satellite through the Sunyaev-Zel’dovich effect — the distortion of the cosmic microwave background radiation in the direction of the galaxy cluster, by high energy electrons in the intracluster gas. The large galaxy at the centre is the brightest galaxy in the cluster and the dominant object in this image, and above it a thin, curved gravitational lens arc is visible. This is caused by the gravitational forces of the cluster bending the light from stars and galaxies behind it, in a similar way to how a glass lens bends light.

Several stars are visible in front of the cluster — recognisable by their diffraction spikes — but aside from these, all other visible objects are distant galaxies. Their light has become redshifted by the expansion of space, making them appear redder than they actually are. By measuring the amount of redshift, we know that it took more than 5 billion years for the light from this galaxy cluster to reach us. The light of the galaxies in the background had to travel for even longer than that, making this image an extremely old window into the far reaches of the Universe.

This image was taken by Hubble’s Advanced Camera for Surveys (ACS) and Wide-Field Camera 3 (WFC3) as part of an observing programme called RELICS (Reionization Lensing Cluster Survey). RELICS imaged 41 massive galaxy clusters with the aim of finding the brightest distant galaxies for the forthcoming NASA/ESA/CSA James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) to study.

Acknowledgement: D. Coe et al.

The loneliest firework display
Mon, 05 Feb 2018 06:00:00 +0100

Roughly 50 million light-years away lies a somewhat overlooked little galaxy named NGC 1559. Pictured here by Hubble’s Wide Field Camera 3, this barred spiral lies in the little-observed southern constellation of Reticulum (The Reticule).

NGC 1559 has massive spiral arms chock-full of star formation, and is receding from us at a speed of about 1300 km/s. The galaxy contains the mass of around ten billion Suns — while this may sound like a lot, that is almost 100 times less massive than the Milky Way. Although NGC 1559 appears to sit near one of our nearest neighbours in the sky — the Large Magellanic Cloud (LMC), this is just a trick of perspective. In reality, NGC 1559 is physically nowhere near the LMC in space — in fact, it truly is a loner, lacking the company of any nearby galaxies or membership of any galaxy cluster.

Despite its lack of cosmic companions, when this lonely galaxy has a telescope pointed in its direction, it puts on quite a show! NGC 1559 has hosted a variety of spectacular exploding stars called supernovae, four of which we have observed — in 1984, 1986, 2005, and 2009 (SN 1984J, 1986L, 2005df [a Type Ia], and 2009ib [a Type II-P, with an unusually long plateau]).

NGC 1559 may be alone in space, but we are watching and admiring from far away.

Twins with differences
Mon, 29 Jan 2018 06:00:00 +0100

This NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope image shows a spiral galaxy known as NGC 7331. First spotted by the prolific galaxy hunter William Herschel in 1784, NGC 7331 is located about 45 million light-years away in the constellation of Pegasus (The Winged Horse). Facing us partially edge-on, the galaxy showcases it’s beautiful arms which swirl like a whirlpool around its bright central region.

Astronomers took this image using Hubble’s Wide Field Camera 3 (WFC3), as they were observing an extraordinary exploding star — a supernova — which can still be faintly seen as a tiny red dot near the galaxy’s central yellow core. Named SN2014C, it rapidly evolved from a supernova containing very little Hydrogen to one that is Hydrogen-rich — in just one year. This rarely observed metamorphosis was luminous at high energies and provides unique insight into the poorly understood final phases of massive stars.

NGC 7331 is similar in size, shape, and mass to the Milky Way. It also has a comparable star formation rate, hosts a similar number of stars, has a central supermassive black hole and comparable spiral arms. The primary difference between our galaxies is that NGC 7331 is an unbarred spiral galaxy — it lacks a “bar” of stars, gas and dust cutting through its nucleus, as we see in the Milky Way. Its central bulge also displays a quirky and unusual rotation pattern, spinning in the opposite direction to the galactic disc itself.

By studying similar galaxies we hold a scientific mirror up to our own, allowing us to build a better understanding of our galactic environment which we cannot always observe, and of galactic behaviour and evolution as a whole.

Standout stars
Mon, 22 Jan 2018 06:00:00 +0100

This image from the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope reveals a glistening and ancient globular cluster named NGC 3201 — a gathering of hundreds of thousands of stars bound together by gravity. NGC 3201 was discovered in 1826 by the Scottish astronomer James Dunlop, who described it as a “pretty large, pretty bright” object that becomes “rather irregular” towards its centre.

Globular clusters are found around all large galaxies, but their origin and role in galaxy formation remain tantalisingly unclear. Astronomers recently discovered a black hole lurking at the heart of NGC 3201 — its position was revealed by the strange movements of a star being quickly flung around a massive, invisible counterpart. This sparkling group of stars also has some strange properties which make it unique amongst the over 150 globular clusters belonging to the Milky Way. NGC 3201 has an extremely fast velocity with respect to the Sun and its orbit is retrograde, meaning that it moves speedily in the opposite direction to the galactic centre, which it orbits.

The unusual behaviour of this cluster suggests that it may have extragalactic origins, but at some point was captured by the Milky Way’s gravity. However, the chemical makeup of this intriguing cluster tells a different story — the stars within NGC 3201 are chemically very similar to those of other galactic globular clusters, implying that they formed at a similar location and time to their neighbours.

Whether this mysterious cluster was adopted by our galaxy or has for some reason evolved very differently to the family of clusters it grew up with, it is certainly an unusual astronomical beauty.

Acknowledgement: Sarajedini et al.

Hubble views a supermassive black hole burping — twice
Mon, 15 Jan 2018 06:00:00 +0100

Researchers using a suite of telescopes including the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope have spotted a supermassive black hole blowing huge bubbles of hot, bright gas — one bubble is currently expanding outwards from the black hole, while another older bubble slowly fades away. This cosmic behemoth sits within the galaxy at the bottom of this image, which lies 900 million light-years from Earth and is known as SDSS J1354+1327. The upper, larger, galaxy is known as SDSS J1354+1328.

Supermassive which can have a mass equivalent to billions of suns, are found in the centre of most galaxies (including the Milky Way). These black holes are able to “feed” on their surroundings, causing them to shine brilliantly as Active Galactic Nuclei (AGN). However, this feeding process is not continuous as it depends on how much matter is available for the black hole to consume; if the surrounding material is clumpy and irregular, an AGN can be seen turning “off” and “on”, and flickering over long cosmic timescales.

This clumpy accretion is what scientists believe has happened with the black hole in SDSS J1354+1327. Scientists believe these two outflows of material are the result of the black hole burping out material after two different feeding events. The first outburst created the fading southern relic: a cone of gas measuring 33 000 light-years across. Around 100 000 years later, a second burst spawned the more compact and radiant outflow emanating from the top of the galaxy: a cone of shocked gas some 3300 light-years across.


A gargantuan collision
Mon, 08 Jan 2018 06:00:00 +0100

In 2014, astronomers using the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope found that this enormous galaxy cluster contains the mass of a staggering three million billion Suns — so it’s little wonder that it has earned the nickname of “El Gordo” (“the Fat One” in Spanish)! Known officially as ACT-CLJ0102-4915, it is the largest, hottest, and X-ray brightest galaxy cluster ever discovered in the distant Universe.

Galaxy clusters are the largest objects in the Universe that are bound together by gravity. They form over billions of years as smaller groups of galaxies slowly come together. In 2012, observations from ESO’s Very Large Telescope, NASA’s Chandra X-ray Observatory and the Atacama Cosmology Telescope showed that El Gordo is actually composed of two galaxy clusters colliding at millions of kilometres per hour.

The formation of galaxy clusters depends heavily on dark matter and dark energy; studying such clusters can therefore help shed light on these elusive phenomena. In 2014, Hubble found that most of El Gordo’s mass is concealed in the form of dark matter. Evidence suggests that El Gordo’s “normal” matter — largely composed of hot gas that is bright in the X-ray wavelength domain — is being torn from the dark matter in the collision. The hot gas is slowing down, while the dark matter is not.

This image was taken by Hubble’s Advanced Camera for Surveys and Wide-Field Camera 3 as part of an observing programme called RELICS (Reionization Lensing Cluster Survey). RELICS imaged 41 massive galaxy clusters with the aim of finding the brightest distant galaxies for the forthcoming NASA/ESA/CSA James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) to study.

Lasers and supermassive black holes
Mon, 01 Jan 2018 06:00:00 +0100

This image, captured by the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope’s Wide Field Camera 3 (WFC3), shows a galaxy named UGC 6093. As can be easily seen, UGC 6093 is something known as a barred spiral galaxy — it has beautiful arms that swirl outwards from a bar slicing through the galaxy’s centre. It is classified as an active galaxy, which means that it hosts an active galactic nucleus, or AGN: a compact region at a galaxy’s centre within which material is dragged towards a supermassive black hole. As this black hole devours the surrounding matter it emits intense radiation, causing it to shine brightly.

But UGC 6093 is more exotic still. The galaxy essentially acts as a giant astronomical laser that spews out light at microwave, not visible, wavelengths — this type of object is dubbed a megamaser (maser being the term for a microwave laser). Megamasers such as UGC 6093 can be some 100 million times brighter than masers found in galaxies like the Milky Way.

Hubble’s WFC3 observes light spanning a range wavelengths — from the near-infrared, through the visible range, to the near-ultraviolet. It has two channels that detect and process different light, allowing astronomers to study a remarkable range of astrophysical phenomena; for example, the UV-visible channel can study galaxies undergoing massive star formation, while the near-infrared channel can study redshifted light from galaxies in the distant Universe. Such multi-band imaging makes Hubble invaluable in studying megamaser galaxies, as it is able to untangle their intriguing complexity.

Comparison image: Hubble and HAWK-I explore a cluster with the mass of two quadrillion Suns
Mon, 25 Dec 2017 06:00:00 +0100
A snowstorm of stars
Mon, 18 Dec 2017 06:00:00 +0100

It’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas in this NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope image of a blizzard of stars, which resembles a swirling storm in a snow globe.

These stars make up the globular cluster Messier 79, located about 40 000 light-years from Earth in the constellation of Lepus (The Hare). Globular clusters are gravitationally bound groupings of up to one million stars. These giant “star globes” contain some of the oldest stars in our galaxy. Messier 79 is no exception; it contains about 150 000 stars, packed into an area measuring just roughly 120 light-years across.

This 11.7-billion-year-old star cluster was first discovered by French astronomer Pierre Méchain in 1780. Méchain reported the finding to his colleague Charles Messier, who included it in his catalogue of non-cometary objects: The Messier catalogue. About four years later, using a larger telescope than Messier’s, William Herschel was able to resolve the stars in Messier 79 and described it as a “globular star cluster.”

In this sparkling Hubble image, Sun-like stars appear yellow-white and the reddish stars are bright giants that are in the final stages of their lives. Most of the blue stars sprinkled throughout the cluster are aging “helium-burning” stars, which have exhausted their hydrogen fuel and are now fusing helium in their cores.

Cosmic fireflies
Mon, 11 Dec 2017 06:00:00 +0100

Galaxies glow like fireflies in this spectacular NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope image! This flickering swarm of cosmic fireflies is a rich cluster of galaxies called Abell 2163. Abell 2163 is a member of the Abell catalogue, an all-sky catalogue of over 4000 galaxy clusters. It is particularly well-studied because the material sitting at its core (its intracluster medium) exhibits exceptional properties, including a large and bright radio halo and extraordinarily high temperatures and X-ray luminosities. It is the hottest cluster in the catalogue! Observing massive clusters like Abell 2163 can contribute to the study of dark matter, and provide a new perspective on the distant Universe via phenomena such as gravitational lensing.

This image was taken by Hubble’s Advanced Camera for Surveys and Wide-Field Camera 3, partially for an extensive observing programme called RELICS. The programme is imaging 41 massive galaxy clusters to find the brightest distant galaxies, which will be studied in more detail using both current telescopes and the future NASA/ESA/CSA James Webb Space Telescope (JWST).


Explosive tendencies
Mon, 04 Dec 2017 06:00:00 +0100

Don’t be fooled! The subject of this Picture of the Week, ESO 580-49, may seem tranquil and unassuming, but this spiral galaxy actually displays some explosive tendencies.

In October of 2011, a cataclysmic burst of high-energy gamma-ray radiation — known as a gamma-ray burst, or GRB — was detected coming from the region of sky containing ESO 580-49. Astronomers believe that the galaxy was the host of the GRB, given that the chance of a coincidental alignment between the two is roughly 1 in 10 million. At a distance of around 185 million light-years from Earth, it was the second-closest gamma-ray burst (GRB) ever detected.

Gamma-ray bursts are among the brightest events in the cosmos, occasionally outshining the combined gamma-ray output of the entire observable Universe for a few seconds. The exact cause of the GRB that probably occurred within this galaxy, catalogued as GRB 111005A, remains a mystery. Several events are known to lead to GRBs, but none of these explanations appear to fit the bill in this case. Astronomers have therefore suggested that ESO 580-49 hosted a new type of GRB explosion — one that has not yet been characterised.

Streaks and stripes
Mon, 27 Nov 2017 06:00:00 +0100

This picturesque view from the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope peers into the distant Universe to reveal a galaxy cluster called Abell 2537.

Galaxy clusters such as this one contain thousands of galaxies of all ages, shapes and sizes, together totalling a mass thousands of times greater than that of the Milky Way. These groupings of galaxies are colossal — they are the largest structures in the Universe to be held together by their own gravity.

Clusters are useful in probing mysterious cosmic phenomena like dark matter and dark energy, the latter of which is thought to define the geometry of the entire Universe. There is so much matter stuffed into a cluster like Abell 2537 that its gravity has visible effects on its surroundings. Abell 2537’s gravity warps the very structure of its environment (spacetime), causing light to travel along distorted paths through space. This phenomenon can produce a magnifying effect, allowing us to see objects that lie behind the cluster and are thus otherwise unobservable from Earth. Abell 2537 is a particularly efficient lens, as demonstrated by the stretched stripes and streaking arcs visible in the frame. These smeared shapes are in fact galaxies, their light heavily distorted by the gravitational field of Abell 2537.

This spectacular scene was captured by Hubble’s Advanced Camera for Surveys and Wide-Field Camera 3 as part of an observing programme called RELICS.


Cosmic snake pregnant with stars
Mon, 20 Nov 2017 06:00:00 +0100

This NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope image reveals the Cosmic Snake, a distant galaxy peppered with clumpy regions of intense star formation that appear warped by the effect of gravitational lensing. This giant arc-like galaxy is actually behind the huge galaxy cluster MACSJ1206.2-0847, but thanks to the cluster’s gravity, we can see it from Earth.

Light from the distant, high-redshift galaxy arrives at Earth, having been distorted by the gigantic gravitational influence of the intervening cluster. Fascinatingly, instead of making it more difficult to perceive cosmological objects, such strong lensing effects improve the resolution and depth of an image by magnifying the background object. Sometimes gravitational lensing can even produce multiple images of the object as light is bent in different directions around the foreground cluster.

Using Hubble, astronomers recently looked at several such images of the Cosmic Snake, each with a different level of magnification. Using this technique, the galaxy and its features could be studied on different scales. The highest-resolution images revealed that giant clumps in high-redshift galaxies are made up of a complex substructure of smaller clumps, which contributes to our understanding of star formation in distant galaxies.


Cosmic search for a missing limb
Mon, 13 Nov 2017 06:00:00 +0100

This new Picture of the Week, taken by the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope, shows the dwarf galaxy NGC 4625, located about 30 million light-years away in the constellation of Canes Venatici (The Hunting Dogs). The image, acquired with the Advanced Camera for Surveys (ACS), reveals the single spiral arm of the galaxy, which gives it an asymmetric appearance. But why is there only one spiral arm, when spiral galaxies normally have at least two?

Astronomers looked at NGC 4625 in different wavelengths in the hope of solving this cosmic mystery. Observations in the ultraviolet provided the first hint: in ultraviolet light the disc of the galaxy appears four times larger than on the image depicted here. An indication that there are a large number of very young and hot — hence mainly visible in the ultraviolet — stars forming in the outer regions of the galaxy. These young stars are only around one billion years old, about 10 times younger than the stars seen in the optical centre. At first astronomers assumed that this high star formation rate was being triggered by the interaction with another, nearby dwarf galaxy called NGC 4618.

They speculated that NGC 4618 may be the culprit “harassing” NGC 4625, causing it to lose all but one spiral arm. In 2004 astronomers found proof for this claim: The gas in the outermost regions of the dwarf galaxy NGC 4618 has been strongly affected by NGC 4625.

Mon, 06 Nov 2017 06:00:00 +0100

This NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope image seems to sink into the screen, plunging the viewer into the dark depths of the early Universe. Massive galaxy clusters — such as the subject of this image, Abell 1300 — help us to better understand the cosmos. They are essentially giant natural telescopes, magnifying the light from any galaxies sitting behind them and helping us peer further back in time.

This bizarre kind of time travel is possible due to a phenomenon called gravitational lensing, whereby the gravitational influence of a massive object such as Abell 1300 acts like a lens, bending the very fabric of space around it and thus causing more distant light to move in a curved path. To the observer, the source of the light — a background object such as a primordial galaxy, for example — appears both distorted and magnified. The lensing power of massive clusters has helped us to discover some of the most distant known galaxies in the Universe. Hubble has observed this phenomenon many times; see a selection of images here.

This image was taken by Hubble’s Advanced Camera for Surveys and Wide-Field Camera 3 as part of an observing program called RELICS. The program imaged 41 massive galaxy clusters over the course of 390 Hubble orbits and 100 Spitzer Space Telescope observing hours, aiming to find the brightest distant galaxies. Studying these galaxies in more detail with both current telescopes and the future NASA/ESA/CSA James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) will hopefully tell us more about our cosmic origins.

Abell’s richest cluster
Mon, 30 Oct 2017 06:00:00 +0100

The Universe contains some truly massive objects. Although we are still unsure how such gigantic things come to be, the current leading theory is known as hierarchical clustering, whereby small clumps of matter collide and merge to grow ever larger. The 14-billion-year history of the Universe has seen the formation of some enormous cosmic structures, including galaxy groups, clusters, and superclusters — the largest known structures in the cosmos!

This particular cluster is called Abell 665. It was named after its discoverer, George O. Abell, who included it in his seminal 1958 cluster catalogue. Abell 665 is located in the well-known northern constellation of Ursa Major (The Great Bear). This incredible image combines visible and infrared light gathered by the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope using two of its cameras: the Advanced Camera for Surveys and the Wide Field Camera 3.

Abell 665 is the only galaxy cluster in Abell’s entire catalogue to be given a richness class of 5, indicating that the cluster contains at least 300 individual galaxies. Because of this richness, the cluster has been studied extensively at all wavelengths, resulting in a number of fascinating discoveries — among other research, Abell 665 has been found to host a giant radio halo, powerful shockwaves, and has been used to calculate an updated value for the Hubble constant (a measure of how fast the Universe is expanding).


Cosmic archaeology
Mon, 23 Oct 2017 06:00:00 +0200

This NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope image is chock-full of galaxies — each glowing speck is a different galaxy, bar the bright flash in the middle of the image which is actually a star lying within our own galaxy that just happened to be in the way. At the centre of the image lies something especially interesting, the centre of the massive galaxy cluster called WHL J24.3324-8.477, including the brightest galaxy of the cluster.

The Universe contains structures on various scales — planets collect around stars, stars collect into galaxies, galaxies collect into groups, and galaxy groups collect into clusters. Galaxy clusters contain hundreds to thousands of galaxies bound together by gravity. Dark matter and dark energy play key roles in the formation and evolution of these clusters, so studying massive galaxy clusters can help scientists to unravel the mysteries of these elusive phenomena.

This infrared image was taken by Hubble’s Advanced Camera for Surveys and Wide-Field Camera 3 as part of an observing programme called RELICS (Reionization Lensing Cluster Survey). RELICS imaged 41 massive galaxy clusters with the aim of finding the brightest distant galaxies for the forthcoming NASA/ESA/CSA James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) to study. Such research will tell us more about our cosmic origins.


A glimpse of the future
Mon, 16 Oct 2017 06:00:00 +0200

This image, captured by the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope, shows what happens when two galaxies become one. The twisted cosmic knot seen here is NGC 2623 — or Arp 243 — and is located about 250 million light-years away in the constellation of Cancer (The Crab).

NGC 2623 gained its unusual and distinctive shape as the result of a major collision and subsequent merger between two separate galaxies. This violent encounter caused clouds of gas within the two galaxies to become compressed and stirred up, in turn triggering a sharp spike of star formation. This active star formation is marked by speckled patches of bright blue; these can be seen clustered both in the centre and along the trails of dust and gas forming NGC 2623’s sweeping curves (known as tidal tails). These tails extend for roughly 50 000 light-years from end to end. Many young, hot, newborn stars form in bright stellar clusters — at least 170 such clusters are known to exist within NGC 2623.

NGC 2623 is in a late stage of merging. It is thought that the Milky Way will eventually resemble NGC 2623 when it collides with our neighbouring galaxy, the Andromeda Galaxy, in four billion years time.

In contrast to the image of NGC 2623 released in 2009 (heic0912), this new version contains data from recent narrow-band and infrared observations that make more features of the galaxy visible.


Size can be deceptive
Mon, 09 Oct 2017 06:00:00 +0200

As far as galaxies are concerned, size can be deceptive. Some of the largest galaxies in the Universe are dormant, while some dwarf galaxies, such as ESO 553-46 imaged here by the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope, can produce stars at a hair-raising rate. In fact, ESO 553-46 has one of the highest rates of star formation of the 1000 or so galaxies nearest to the Milky Way. No mean feat for such a diminutive galaxy!

Clusters of young, hot stars are speckling the galaxy, burning with a fierce blue glow. The intense radiation they produce also causes surrounding gas to light up, which is bright red in this image. The small mass and distinctive colouring of galaxies of this type prompted astronomers to classify them, appropriately, as blue compact dwarfs (BCD).

Lacking the clear core and structure that many larger galaxies — such as the Milky Way — have, BCDs such as ESO 553-46 are composed of many large clusters of stars bound together by gravity. Their chemical makeup is interesting to astronomers, since they contain relatively little dust and few elements heavier than helium, which are produced in stars and distributed via supernova explosions. Such conditions are strikingly similar to those that existed in the early Universe, when the first galaxies were beginning to form.

Bubbles in space
Mon, 02 Oct 2017 06:00:00 +0200

At a distance of just 160 000 light-years, the Large Magellanic Cloud (LMC) is one of the Milky Way’s closest companions. It is also home to one of the largest and most intense regions of active star formation known to exist anywhere in our galactic neighbourhood — the Tarantula Nebula. This NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope image shows both the spindly, spidery filaments of gas that inspired the region’s name, and the intriguing structure of stacked “bubbles” that forms the so-called Honeycomb Nebula (to the lower left).

The Honeycomb Nebula was found serendipitously by astronomers using ESO’s New Technology Telescope to image the nearby SN1987A, the closest observed supernova to Earth for over 400 years. The nebula’s strange bubble-like shape has baffled astronomers since its discovery in the early 1990s. Various theories have been proposed to explain its unique structure, some more exotic than others.

In 2010, a group of astronomers studied the nebula and, using advanced data analysis and computer modelling, came to the conclusion that its unique appearance is likely due to the combined effect of two supernovae — a more recent explosion has pierced the expanding shell of material created by an older explosion. The nebula’s especially striking appearance is suspected to be due to a fortuitous viewing angle; the honeycomb effect of the circular shells may not be visible from another viewpoint.