Picture of The Week
Of bent time and jellyfish
Mon, 12 Nov 2018 06:00:00 +0100

At first glance, a bright blue crescent immediately jumps out of this NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope image: is it a bird? A plane? Evidence of extraterrestrial life? No — it’s a galaxy.

The shape of this galaxy admittedly appears to be somewhat bizarre, so confusion would be forgiven. This is due to a cosmic phenomenon called gravitational lensing. In this image, the gravitational influence of a massive galaxy cluster (called SDSS J1110+6459) is causing its surroundings spacetime to bend and warp, affecting the passage of any nearby light. This cluster to the lower left of the blue streak; a few more signs of lensing (streaks, blobs, curved lines, distorted shapes) can be seen dotted around this area.

This image also features a rare and interesting type of galaxy called a jellyfish galaxy, visible just right next to the cluster and apparently dripping bright blue material. These are galaxies that lose gas via a process called galactic ram pressure stripping, where the drag caused by the galaxy moving through space causes gas to be stripped away.

Feeling blue
Mon, 05 Nov 2018 06:00:00 +0100

This captivating image from the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope’s Wide Field Camera 3 shows a lonely dwarf galaxy, a staggering 100 million light-years away from Earth. This image depicts the blue compact dwarf galaxy ESO 338-4, which can be found in the constellation of Corona Australis (the Southern Crown).

Blue compact dwarf galaxies take their name from the intensely blue star-forming regions that are often found within their cores. One such region can be seen embedded in ESO 338-4, which is populated with bright young stars voraciously consuming hydrogen. These massive stars are doomed to a short existence, as despite their vast supplies of hydrogen fuel. The nuclear reactions in the cores of these stars will burn through these supplies in only millions of years — a mere blink of an eye in astronomical terms.

The young blue stars nestled within a cloud of dust and gas in the centre of this image are the result of a recent galaxy merger between a wandering galaxy and ESO 388-4. This galactic interaction disrupted the clouds of gas and dust surrounding ESO 338-4 and led to the rapid formation of a new population of stars.

Helping Hubble
Mon, 29 Oct 2018 06:00:00 +0100

The NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope doesn’t usually get much assistance from its celestial subjects — but to take this image, the telescope opted for teamwork and made good use of a fascinating cosmic phenomenon known as gravitational lensing.

This effect works when the gravitational influence of a massive object, such as the galaxy cluster in the centre of this image, is so colossal that it warps the surrounding space, causing nearby light to travel along distorted paths. The massive object is effectively turned into a giant magnifying glass, bending and amplifying the light travelling from more distant galaxies lying behind it.

In this particular case, astronomers used the foreground galaxy cluster (named SDSS J0915+3826) to study star formation in galaxies lying so far away that their light has taken up to 11.5 billion years to reach our eyes. These galaxies formed at a very early stage in the lifetime of the Universe, giving astronomers a rare glimpse into the beginning of the cosmos. Despite their distance, the lensing effects of SDSS J0915+3826 allowed astronomers to work out the sizes, luminosities, star formation rates, and stellar populations of individual star-forming clumps within these galaxies — quite an achievement!

A galaxy with a bright heart
Mon, 22 Oct 2018 06:00:00 +0200

This Picture of the Week shows the unbarred spiral galaxy NGC 5033, located about 40 million light-years away in the constellation of Canes Venatici (The Hunting Dogs). The galaxy is similar in size to our own galaxy, the Milky Way, at just over 100 000 light-years across. Like in the Milky Way NGC 5033’s spiral arms are dotted with blue regions, indicating ongoing star formation. The blue patches house hot, young stars in the process of forming, while the older, cooler stars populating the galaxy’s centre cause it to appear redder in colour.

In contrast to the Milky Way NGC 5033 is missing a central bar. Instead it has a bright and energetic core called an active galactic nucleus, which is powered by a supermassive black hole. This active nucleus gives it the classification of a Seyfert galaxy. Due to the ongoing activity the core of NGC 5033 shines bright across the entire electromagnetic spectrum. This released energy shows that the central black hole is currently devouring stars, dust and gas getting to close to it. As this matters falls onto the supermassive black hole, it radiates in many different wavelengths.

While its relative proximity to Earth makes it an ideal target for professional astronomer to study its active nucleus in more detail, its big apparent size on the night sky and its brightness also makes it a beautiful target for amateur astronomers.

On the hunt for newborn stars
Mon, 15 Oct 2018 06:00:00 +0200

This image, taken with the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope's Wide Field Camera 3 (WFC3), shows a patch of space filled with galaxies of all shapes, colours, and sizes. WFC3 is able to view many such galaxies at an unprecedented resolution — high enough to locate and study regions of star formation in a bid to understand how new stars spring to life throughout the cosmos.

Stars are born within giant clouds of gas. These massive clouds, or stellar nurseries, grow unstable and begin to collapse under gravity, becoming the seeds that will grow into new stars. By analysing the luminosity, size, and formation rate of different stellar nurseries, scientists hope to learn more about the processes that can lead to the formation of a newborn star. Studying nurseries within different galaxies will provide information about star formation at different points in time and space throughout the Universe.

Just below centre in this image is a formation of galaxies akin to a smiling face! Two yellow-hued blobs hang atop a sweeping arc of light, forming a celestial object known as SDSSJ0952+3434. The lower, arc-shaped galaxy has the characteristic shape of a galaxy that has been gravitationally lensed — its light has passed near to a massive object en route to us, causing it to become distorted and stretched out of shape.

Rings upon rings
Mon, 08 Oct 2018 06:00:00 +0200

This image from the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope reveals a spiral galaxy named Messier 95 (also known as M95 or NGC 3351). Located about 35 million light-years away in the constellation of Leo (The Lion), this swirling spiral was discovered by astronomer Pierre Méchain in 1781, and catalogued by French astronomer Charles Messier just four days later. Messier was primarily a comet hunter, and was often left frustrated by objects in the sky that resembled comets but turned out not to be. To help other astronomers avoid confusing these objects in the future, he created his famous catalogue of Messier objects.

Most definitely not a comet, Messier 95 is actually a barred spiral galaxy. The galaxy has a bar cutting through its centre, surrounded by an inner ring currently forming new stars. Also our own Milky Way is a barred spiral.

As well as hosting this stellar nursery, Messier 95 is a known host of the dramatic and explosive final stages in the lives of massive stars: supernovae. In March 2016 a spectacular supernova named SN 2012aw was observed in the outer regions of one of Messier 95’s spiral arms. Once the light from the supernova had faded, astronomers were able to compare observations of the region before and after the explosion to find out which star had “disappeared” — the progenitor star. In this case, the star was an especially huge red supergiant up to 26 times more massive than the Sun.

Celestial fairy lights
Mon, 01 Oct 2018 06:00:00 +0200


This glittering ball of stars is the globular cluster NGC 1898, which lies towards the centre of the Large Magellanic Cloud — one of our closest cosmic neighbours. The Large Magellanic Cloud is a dwarf galaxy that hosts an extremely rich population of star clusters, making it an ideal laboratory for investigating star formation.

Discovered in November 1834 by British astronomer John Herschel, NGC 1898 has been scrutinised numerous times by the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope. Today we know that globular clusters belong to the oldest known objects in the Universe and that they are relics of the first epochs of galaxy formation. While we already have a pretty good picture on the globular clusters of the Milky Way — still with many unanswered questions — our studies on globular clusters in nearby dwarf galaxies just started. The observations of NGC 1898 will help to determine if their properties are similar to the ones found in the Milky Way, or if they have different features, due to being in a different cosmic environment.

This image was taken by Hubble’s Advanced Camera for Surveys (ACS) and Wide Field Camera 3 (WFC3). The WFC3 observes light ranging from near-infrared to near-ultraviolet wavelengths, while the ACS explores the near-infrared to the ultraviolet.

Warped and distorted
Mon, 24 Sep 2018 06:00:00 +0200

This NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope image contains a veritable mix of different galaxies, some of which belong to the same larger structure: At the middle of the frame sits the galaxy cluster SDSS J1050+0017.

The gigantic mass of this cluster creates the fascinating phenomenon of strong ravitational lensing. The gravity of the cluster bends light coming from behind it in a similar way to how the base of a wine glass bends light. The effects of this lensing can be clearly seen as curved streaks forming a circular shape around the centre of the frame. Astronomers can use these distorted galaxies to calculate the mass of the cluster — including the mass of the dark matter within it — and to peer deeper into the Universe as otherwise possible. Gravitational lensing does not only distorts the views of galaxies, it also enlarge their appearance on the sky and magnifies their light.

Hubble has viewed gravitational lensing many times, and produced truly stunning images. Astronomers even set up a dedicated programme to study different galaxy clusters which show a great number of lensed galaxies: The Frontier Fields programme. This way some of the most distant galaxies in the Universe were found. With each additional cluster being observed some more distant galaxies are added to this list, slowly completing our picture of how galaxies looked and evolved in the early Universe.

Knots and bursts
Mon, 17 Sep 2018 06:00:00 +0200

In the northern constellation of Coma Berenices (Berenice's Hair) lies the impressive Coma Cluster — a structure of over a thousand galaxies bound together by gravity. Many of these galaxies are elliptical types, as is the brighter of the two galaxies dominating this image: NGC 4860 (centre). However, the outskirts of the cluster also host younger spiral galaxies that proudly display their swirling arms. Again, this image shows a wonderful example of such a galaxy in the shape of the beautiful NGC 4858, which can be seen to the left of its bright neighbour and which stands out on account of its unusual, tangled, fiery appearance.

NGC 4858 is special. Rather than being a simple spiral, it is something called a “galaxy aggregate”, which is, just as the name suggests, a central galaxy surrounded by a handful of luminous knots of material that seem to stem from it, extending and tearing away and adding to or altering its overall structure. It is also experiencing an extremely high rate of star formation, possibly triggered by an earlier interaction with another galaxy. As we see it, NGC 4858 is forming stars so frantically that it will use up all of its gas long before it reaches the end of its life. The colour of its bright knots indicates that they are formed of hydrogen, which glows in various shades of bright red as it is energised by the many young, hot stars lurking within.

This scene was captured by the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope’s Wide Field Camera 3 (WFC3), a powerful camera designed to explore the evolution of stars and galaxies in the early Universe.

Awesome gravity
Mon, 10 Sep 2018 06:00:00 +0200

Gravity is so much a part of our daily lives that it is all too easy to forget its awesome power — but on a galactic scale, its power becomes both strikingly clear and visually stunning.

This image was taken with the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope’s Wide Field Camera 3 (WFC3) and shows an object named SDSS J1138+2754. It acts as a gravitational lens illustrates the true strength of gravity: A large mass — a galaxy cluster in this case — is creating such a strong gravitational field that it is bending the very fabric of its surroundings. This causes the billion-year-old light from galaxies sitting behind it to travel along distorted, curved paths, transforming the familiar shapes of spirals and ellipticals (visible in other parts of the image) into long, smudged arcs and scattered dashes.

Some distant galaxies even appear multiple times in this image. Since galaxies are wide objects, light from one side of the galaxy passes through the gravitational lens differently than light from the other side. When the galaxies’ light reaches Earth it can appear reflected, as seen with the galaxy on the lower left part of the lens, or distorted, as seen with the galaxy to the upper right.

This data were taken as part of a research project on star formation in the distant Universe, building on Hubble’s extensive legacy of deep-field images. Hubble observed 73 gravitationally-lensed galaxies for this project.

Hazy dust in Ursa Major
Mon, 03 Sep 2018 06:00:00 +0200

This week’s NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope image showcases the galaxy NGC 4036: a lenticular galaxy some 70 million light-years away in the constellation of Ursa Major (the Great Bear).

This galaxy is known for its irregular lanes of dust, which form a swirling spiral pattern around the centre of the galaxy. This core is surrounded by an extended, hazy aura of gas and dust that stretches further out into space and causes the warm, fuzzy glow that can be seen here. The centre itself is also intriguing; it is something known as a LINER-type (Low-Ionisation Nuclear Emission-line Region) galactic nucleus, meaning that it displays particular emission lines within its spectrum. The particularly bright star visible slightly to the right of the galactic centre is not within the galaxy itself; it sits between us and NGC 4036, adding a burst of brightness to the scene.

Due to its relative brightness, this galaxy can be seen using an amateur telescope, making it a favourite amongst backyard astronomers and astrophotography aficionados.

GOODS-South Hubble Deep UV Legacy Field
Mon, 27 Aug 2018 06:00:00 +0200

Following on from last week’s Picture of the Week, this week we showcase the second part of the Hubble Deep UV (HDUV) Legacy Field, the GOODS-South view. With the addition of new ultraviolet light imagery, astronomers using the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope have captured the largest panoramic view of the fire and fury of star birth in the distant Universe, encompassing 12 000 star-forming galaxies.

Hubble’s ultraviolet vision opens up a new window on the evolving Universe, tracking the birth of stars over the last 11 billion years up to the cosmos’s busiest star-forming period, which happened about three billion years after the Big Bang.

So far, ultraviolet light has been the missing piece of the cosmic puzzle. Now, combined with data in infrared, and visible light from Hubble and other space- and ground-based telescopes, astronomers have assembled the most comprehensive portrait yet of the Universe’s evolutionary history. The image straddles the gap between the very distant galaxies, which can only be viewed in infrared light, and closer galaxies, which can be seen across different wavelengths. The light from distant star-forming regions in remote galaxies started out as ultraviolet, but the expansion of the Universe has shifted the light into infrared wavelengths. By comparing images of star formation in the distant and nearby Universe, astronomers can get a better understanding of how nearby galaxies grew from small clumps of hot, young stars long ago.

The observation programme harnessed the ultraviolet vision of Hubble’s Wide Field Camera 3. This study extends and builds on the previous Hubble multi-wavelength data in the CANDELS-Deep (Cosmic Assembly Near-infrared Deep Extragalactic Legacy Survey) fields within the central part of the GOODS (The Great Observatories Origins Deep Survey) fields. This mosaic is 14 times the area of the Hubble Ultraviolet Ultra Deep Field released in 2014.


Hubble contributes to painting a picture of the evolving Universe
Mon, 20 Aug 2018 06:00:00 +0200

The Hubble Deep Field from 1995 allowed astronomers a first glimpse into the early Universe. This first picture was followed later by an even deeper observation, the Hubble Ultra Deep Field in 2004. Both images were observed in visible light, the same form of light human eyes can see. But astronomers are also interested in the many forms of invisible light out in the Universe. Therefore, the Ultra Deep Field was later observed in the infrared and the ultraviolet as well, allowing scientists to learn even more about the Universe and to look back even further into its history.

It is less known that the famous deep field observations were not the only images the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope took of the distant Universe. Hubble is also an essential part of the GOODS (The Great Observatories Origins Deep Survey) programme, which unites extremely deep observations from several space telescopes: NASA’s Spitzer and Chandra; ESA's Herschel and XMM-Newton; and Hubble.

Together these observatories observe two patches of the sky, the GOODS North and the GOODS South fields, with the aim of studying it in as many different wavelengths as possible. The new image here shows part of the GOODS North Field; it includes new Hubble data at ultraviolet wavelengths in addition to the existing data. Because Earth’s atmosphere filters out most ultraviolet light, these observations can only be accomplished from space.

The observation programme, called the Hubble Deep UV (HDUV) Legacy Survey, harnessed the ultraviolet vision of Hubble’s Wide Field Camera 3. This study extends and builds on the previous Hubble multi-wavelength data in the CANDELS-Deep (Cosmic Assembly Near-infrared Deep Extragalactic Legacy Survey) fields within the central part of the GOODS (The Great Observatories Origins Deep Survey) fields. This mosaic is 14 times the area of the Hubble Ultraviolet Ultra Deep Field released in 2014.

Galactic treasure chest
Mon, 13 Aug 2018 06:00:00 +0200

Galaxies abound in this spectacular Hubble image; spiral arms swirl in all colours and orientations, and fuzzy ellipticals can be seen speckled across the frame as softly glowing smudges on the sky. Each visible speck of a galaxy is home to countless stars. A few stars closer to home shine brightly in the foreground, while a massive galaxy cluster nestles at the very centre of the image; an immense collection of maybe thousands of galaxies, all held together by the relentless force of gravity.

Galaxy clusters are some of the most interesting objects in the cosmos. They are the nodes of the cosmic web that permeates the entire Universe — to study them is to study the organisation of matter on the grandest of scales. Not only are galaxy clusters ideal subjects for the study of dark matter and dark energy, but they also allow the study of farther-flung galaxies. Their immense gravitational influence means they distort the spacetime around them, causing them to act like giant zoom lenses. The light of background galaxies is warped and magnified as it passes through the galaxy cluster, allowing astronomers insight into the distant — and therefore early — Universe.

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.

A globular cluster’s striking red eye
Mon, 06 Aug 2018 06:00:00 +0200

This Picture of the Week shows the colourful globular cluster NGC 2108. The cluster is nestled within the Large Magellanic Cloud, in the constellation of the Swordfish (Dorado). It was discovered in 1835 by the astronomer, mathematician, chemist and inventor John Herschel, son of the famous William Herschel.

The most striking feature of this globular cluster is the gleaming ruby-red spot at the centre left of the cluster. What looks like the cluster’s watchful eye is actually a carbon star. Carbon stars are almost always cool red giants, with atmospheres containing more carbon than oxygen — the opposite to our Sun. Carbon monoxide forms in the outer layer of the star through a combination of these elements, until there is no more oxygen available. Carbon atoms are then free to form a variety of other carbon compounds, such as C2, CH, CN, C3 and SiC2, which scatter blue light within the star, allowing red light to pass through undisturbed.

This image was captured by the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope’s Advanced Camera for Surveys (ACS), using three different filters.

Probing the distant past
Mon, 30 Jul 2018 06:00:00 +0200

Obtained for a research programme on star formation in old and distant galaxies, this NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope image obtained with its Wide Field Camera 3 (WFC3) demonstrates the immense effects of gravity; more specifically, it shows the effects of gravitational lensing caused by an object called SDSS J1152+3313.

Gravitational lenses — such as this galaxy cluster SDSS J1152+3313 — possess immense masses that warp their surroundings and bend the light from faraway objects into rings, arcs, streaks, blurs, and other odd shapes. This lens, however, is not only warpping the appearance of a distant galaxy — it is also amplifying its light, making it appear much brighter than it would be without the lens. Combined with the high image quality obtainable with Hubble, this gives valuable clues into how stars formed in the early Universe.

Star formation is a key process in astronomy. Everything that emits light is somehow connected to stars, so understanding how stars form is key to understanding countless objects lying across the cosmos. Astronomers can probe these early star-forming regions to learn about the sizes, luminosities, formation rates, and generations of different types of stars.

The Milky Way’s big sister
Mon, 23 Jul 2018 06:00:00 +0200

This image taken by the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope’s Wide Field Camera 3 (WFC3) shows a beautiful spiral galaxy called NGC 6744. At first glance, it resembles our Milky Way albeit larger, measuring more than 200 000 light-years across compared to 100 000 light-year diameter for our home galaxy.

NGC 6744 is similar to our home galaxy in more ways than one. Like the Milky Way, NGC 6744 has a prominent central region packed with old yellow stars. Moving away from the galactic core, one can see parts of the dusty spiral arms painted in shades of pink and blue; while the blue sites are full of young star clusters, the pink ones are regions of active star formation, indicating that the galaxy is still very lively.

In 2005, a supernova, named 2005at, was discovered within NGC 6744, adding to the argument of this galaxy’s liveliness (not visible in this image). SN 2005at is a type Ic supernova, formed when a massive star collapses in itself and loses its hydrogen envelope.

Major mergers
Mon, 16 Jul 2018 06:00:00 +0200

At first glance, it may seem as though this image was taken through a faulty lens, but the mind-bending distortions visible in this Hubble Wide Field Camera 3 impressive image are actually caused by a cosmic phenomenon.

The bright object at the centre of the frame is the galaxy cluster SDSS J1336-0331. The enormous gravitational influence of the cluster warps the very shape and fabric of its environment (the spacetime around it) creating an effect known as strong gravitational lensing. Through this the light from background galaxies in the line of sight to the observer are bent into fantastic arcs. This effect is very useful for studying distant background galaxies.

Moreover SDSS J1336-0331 is interesting in itself: the cluster was part of a study of star formation within 42 of the Brightest Cluster Galaxies (BCGs — the brightest galaxies within their host clusters, as the name would suggest). Typically located in the centres of their clusters, BCGs are among the most massive and luminous galaxies in the Universe. They are generally huge elliptical galaxies and are likely to host active galactic nuclei (AGN) in their cores. The study found evidence to suggest that BCGs are fueled by cold gas from the galaxy. It also showed that star formation in older BCGs no longer significantly contributes to the galaxy’s growth; instead, the stellar growth occurs through mergers, the collision of two galaxies. Violent, gas-rich major mergers can trigger intense bursts of star formation in their aftermath.

A failed supernova?
Mon, 09 Jul 2018 06:00:00 +0200

Glowing warmly against the dark backdrop of the Universe, this image from the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope shows an irregular galaxy called UGC 12682. Located approximately 70 million light-years away in the constellation of Pegasus (The Winged Horse), UGC 12682 is distorted and oddly-structured, with bright pockets of star formation.

In November 2008, 14-year-old Caroline Moore from New York discovered a supernova in UGC 12682. This made her the youngest person at the time to have discovered a supernova. Follow-up observations by professional astronomers of the so-called SN 2008ha showed that it was peculiarly interesting in many  different ways: its host galaxy UGC 12682 rarely produces supernovae. It is one of the faintest supernovae ever observed and after the explosion it expanded very slowly, suggesting that the explosion did not release copious amounts of energy as usually expected.

Astronomers have now classified SN 2008ha as a subclass of a Type Ia supernova, which is the explosion of a white dwarf that hungrily accretes matter from a companion star. SN 2008ha may have been the result of a partially failed supernova, explaining why the explosion failed to decimate the whole star.

Zooming in on the early Universe
Mon, 02 Jul 2018 06:00:00 +0200

This busy image is a treasure trove of wonders. Bright stars from the Milky Way sparkle in the foreground, the magnificent swirls of several spiral galaxies are visible across the frame, and a glowing assortment of objects at the centre make up a massive galaxy cluster. Such clusters are the biggest objects in the Universe that are held together by gravity, and can contain thousands of galaxies of all shapes and sizes. Typically, they have a mass of about  one million billion times the mass of the Sun — unimaginably huge!

Their incredible mass makes clusters very useful natural tools to test theories in astronomy, such as Einstein’s theory of general relativity. This tells us that objects with mass warp the fabric of spacetime around them; the more massive the object, the greater the distortion. An enormous galaxy cluster like this one therefore has a huge influence on the spacetime around it, even distorting the light from more distant galaxies to change a galaxy’s apparent shape, creating multiple images, and amplifying the galaxy’s light — a phenomenon called gravitational lensing.

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.

An aging beauty
Mon, 25 Jun 2018 06:00:00 +0200

This rich and dense smattering of stars is a massive globular cluster, a gravitationally-bound collection of stars that orbits the Milky Way. Globular clusters are denser and more spherical than open star clusters like the famous Pleiades. They typically contain hundreds of thousands of stars that are thought to have formed at roughly the same time.

Studies have shown that this globular cluster, named NGC 6139, is home to an aging population of stars. Most globular clusters orbiting the Milky Way are estimated to be over 10 billion years old; as a result they contain some of the oldest stars in our galaxy, formed very early in the galaxy’s history. However, their role in galactic evolution is still a matter of study.

This cluster is seen roughly in the direction of the centre of the Milky Way, in the constellation of Scorpius (The Scorpion). This constellation is a goldmine of fascinating astronomical objects. Hubble has set its sights on Scorpius many times to observe objects such as the butterfly-like Bug Nebulasurprising binary star systems, and other dazzling globular clusters.

One galaxy, three supernovae
Mon, 18 Jun 2018 06:00:00 +0200

In astronomy, the devil is in the details — as this image, taken by the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope’s Advanced Camera for Surveys and Wide-Field Camera 3, demonstrates.

The numerous fuzzy blobs and glowing shapes scattered across this image make up a galaxy cluster named RXC J0949.8+1707. Located to the upper right of the frame sits an especially beautiful and interesting barred spiral galaxy, seen face-on. In the past decade, astronomers peering at this galaxy have possibly discovered not one but three examples of a cosmic phenomenon known as a supernova, the magnificently bright explosion of a star nearing the end of its life.

The newest supernova candidate is nicknamed SN Antikythera, and can be seen to the lower right  of the host galaxy. This shone brightly in visible and infrared light over a number of years before fading slightly. The two other supernovae, nicknamed SN Eleanor and SN Alexander, were present in data collected in 2011 but are not visible in this image, which was taken a few years later — their temporary nature unambiguously confirmed their status as supernovae. If future observations of RXC J0949.8+1707 show SN Antikythera to have disappeared then we can most likely label it a supernova, as with its two older (and now absent from the images) siblings.

This image was taken 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.

Strings of homeless stars
Mon, 11 Jun 2018 06:00:00 +0200

This sparkling Picture of the Week features a massive galaxy cluster named RXC J0232.2-4420. 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.

The enormous gravitational influence of such clusters distorts the space around them in such a way that they can be used as giant cosmic lenses that magnify distant background galaxies. Studying some of the earliest galaxies in the Universe will tell us more about our cosmic origins.

RXC J0232.2-4420 also featured in a study that focused on galaxy clusters that are especially luminous sources of X-rays . The study searched for diffuse light around the brightest galaxies in the clusters, among the most massive galaxies in the Universe. This diffuse light comes from intergalactic stars strung out between the constituent galaxies of the cluster and the aim of the study was to explore various theories for the origins of these stars. One theory is that they may have been stripped from their host galaxies during mergers and interactions.

Threads of blue
Mon, 04 Jun 2018 06:00:00 +0200

A ripple of bright blue threads through this galaxy like a misshapen lake system. The foreground of this image is littered with nearby stars with their gleaming diffraction spikes. A keen eye can also spot a few other galaxies that, while masquerading as stars at first glance, reveal their true nature on closer inspection.

The central galaxy streaked with colour, IC 4870, was discovered by DeLisle Stewart in 1900 and is located approximately 28 million light-years away. It contains an active galactic nucleus, or AGN: an extremely luminous central region so alight with radiation that it can outshine the rest of the galaxy put together. AGNs emit radiation across the complete electromagnetic spectrum, from radio waves to gamma-rays, produced by the action of a central supermassive black hole that is devouring material getting too close to it. IC 4870 is also a Seyfert galaxy, a particular kind of AGN with characteristic emission lines.

IC 4870 has been imaged by Hubble for several studies of nearby active galaxies. By using Hubble to explore the small-scale structures of AGN in nearby galaxies, astronomers can observe the traces of collisions and mergers, central galactic bars, nuclear starbursts, jets or outflows, and other interactions between a galactic nucleus and its surrounding environment. Images such as this can help astronomers understand more about the true nature of the galaxies we see throughout the cosmos.

A green cosmic arc
Mon, 28 May 2018 06:00:00 +0200

This NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope image shows a cluster of hundreds of galaxies located about 7.5 billion light-years from Earth. The brightest galaxy within this cluster named SDSS J1156+1911 and known as the Brightest Cluster Galaxy (BCG), is visible in the lower middle of the frame. It was discovered by the Sloan Giant Arcs Survey which studied data maps covering huge parts of the sky from the Sloan Digital Sky Survey: it found more than 70 galaxies that look to be significantly affected by a cosmic phenomenon known as gravitational lensing.

Gravitational lensing is one of the predictions of Albert Einstein's General Theory of Relativity. The mass contained within a galaxy is so immense that it can actually warp and bend the very fabric of its surroundings (known as spacetime), forcing the light to travel along curved paths. As a result, the image of a more distant galaxy appears distorted and amplified to an observer, as the light from it has been bent around the intervening galaxy. This effect can be very useful in astronomy, allowing astronomers to see galaxies that are either obscured or too distant for us to be otherwise detected by our current instruments.

Galaxy clusters are giant structures containing hundreds to thousands of galaxies with masses of about over one million billion times the mass of the Sun! SDSS J1156+1911 is only roughly 600 billion times the mass of the Sun, making it less massive than the average galaxy. However, it is massive enough to produce the fuzzy greenish streak seen just below the brightest galaxy — the lensed image of a more distant galaxy.