Picture of The Week
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.

Mapping the nearby Universe
Mon, 25 Sep 2017 06:00:00 +0200

The distances to objects in the Universe can differ enormously. The nearest star to us — Proxima Centauri — lies some 4.2 light-years from us, while some incredibly distant galaxies are so far away — 13 billion light-years or more — that they are only visible to us as a result of cosmic tricks of magnification.

The subject of this image, a galaxy called ESO 376-16, sits nearly 23 million light-years from Earth — not that great a distance on a cosmic scale. However, given the galaxy’s relative proximity to us, we know surprisingly little about it. Astronomers are still debating about many of the properties of ESO 376-16, including its morphology. Galaxies are divided into types based on their visual appearance and characteristics; spiral galaxies, like the Milky Way, are flattened discs with curved arms sweeping out from a central nucleus, while irregular galaxies lack a distinct structure and look far more chaotic. On the basis of its rather ill-defined morphology, ESO 376-16 is thought to be either a late-type spiral or a dwarf irregular galaxy.

Despite its mystique, observations of ESO 376-16 have been useful in several studies, including one made with the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope that aimed to create a 3D map of galaxies lying in the vicinity of Earth. Researchers used Hubble to gauge the distance to galaxies including ESO 376-16 by measuring the luminosities of especially bright red-giant-branch stars sitting within the galaxies. They then used their data to generate and calibrate 3D maps of the distribution of galaxies throughout the nearby cosmos.


More than meets the eye
Mon, 18 Sep 2017 06:00:00 +0200

Despite the advances made in past decades, the process of galaxy formation remains an open question in astronomy. Various theories have been suggested, but since galaxies come in all shapes and sizes — including elliptical, spiral, and irregular — no single theory has so far been able to satisfactorily explain the origins of all the galaxies we see throughout the Universe.

To determine which formation model is correct (if any), astronomers hunt for the telltale signs of various physical processes. One example of this is galactic coronas, which are huge, invisible regions of hot gas that surround a galaxy’s visible bulk, forming a spheroidal shape. They are so hot that they can be detected by their X-ray emission, far beyond  the optical radius of the galaxy. Because they are so wispy, these coronas are extremely difficult to detect. In 2013, astronomers highlighted NGC 6753, imaged here by the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope, as one of only two known spiral galaxies that were both massive enough and close enough to permit detailed observations of their coronas. Of course, NGC 6753 is only close in astronomical terms — the galaxy is nearly 150 million light-years from Earth.

NGC 6753 is a whirl of colour in this image — the bursts of blue throughout the spiral arms are regions filled with young stars glowing brightly in ultraviolet light, while redder areas are filled with older stars emitting in the cooler near-infrared.


Starbursts in NGC 5398
Mon, 11 Sep 2017 06:00:00 +0200

This NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope picture shows NGC 5398, a barred spiral galaxy located about 55 million light-years away.

The galaxy is famous for containing an especially extensive HII region, a large cloud composed of ionised hydrogen (or HII, pronounced “H-two”, with H being the chemical symbol for hydrogen and the “II” indicating that the atoms have lost an electron to become ionised). NGC 5398’s cloud is named Tol 89 and sits at the lower left end of the galaxy’s central “bar” of stars, a structure that cuts through the galactic core and funnels material inwards to maintain the star formation occurring there.

Tol 89 is conspicuous in being the only large massive star forming complex in the entire galaxy, with an extension of roughly 5000 times 4000 light-years; it contains at least seven young and massive star clusters. The two brightest clumps within Tol 89, which astronomers have named simply “A” and “B”, appear to have undergone two bursts of star-forming activity — “starbursts” — roughly 4 million and less than 3 million years ago respectively. Tol 89-A is thought to contain a number of particularly bright and massive stars known as Wolf-Rayet stars, which are known for their high temperatures and extreme stellar winds.


Mysterious supernovae
Mon, 04 Sep 2017 06:00:00 +0200

Like firecrackers lighting up the sky on New Year’s Eve, the majestic spiral arms of NGC 5559 are alight with new stars being born. NGC 5559 is a spiral galaxy, with spiral arms filled with gas and dust sweeping out around the bright galactic bulge. These arms are a rich environment for star formation, dotted with a festive array of colours including the newborn stars glowing blue as a result of their immensely high temperatures.

NGC 5559 was discovered by astronomer William Herschel in 1785 and lies approximately 240 million light-years away in the northern constellation of Boötes (the herdsman)

In 2001, a calcium-rich supernova called 2001co was observed in NGC 5559. Calcium-rich supernovae (Ca-rich SNe) are described as “fast-and-faint”, as they're less luminous than other types of supernovae and also evolve more rapidly, to reveal spectra dominated by strong calcium lines. 2001co occurred within the disc of NGC 5559 near star-forming regions, but Ca-rich SNe are often observed at large distances from the nearest galaxy, raising curious questions about their progenitors.

From microwaves to megamasers
Mon, 28 Aug 2017 06:00:00 +0200

Phenomena across the Universe emit radiation spanning the entire electromagnetic spectrum — from high-energy gamma rays, which stream out from the most energetic events in the cosmos, to lower-energy microwaves and radio waves.

Microwaves, the very same radiation that can heat up your dinner, are produced by a multitude of astrophysical sources, including strong emitters known as masers (microwave lasers), even stronger emitters with the somewhat villainous name of megamasers, and the centres of some galaxies. Especially intense and luminous galactic centres are known as active galactic nuclei. They are in turn thought to be driven by the presence of supermassive black holes, which drag surrounding material inwards and spit out bright jets and radiation as they do so.

The two galaxies shown here, imaged by the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope, are named MCG+01-38-004 (the upper, red-tinted one) and MCG+01-38-005 (the lower, blue-tinted one). MCG+01-38-005 is a special kind of megamaser; the galaxy’s active galactic nucleus pumps out huge amounts of energy, which stimulates clouds of surrounding water. Water’s constituent atoms of hydrogen and oxygen are able to absorb some of this energy and re-emit it at specific wavelengths, one of which falls within the microwave regime. MCG+01-38-005 is thus known as a water megamaser!

Astronomers can use such objects to probe the fundamental properties of the Universe. The microwave emissions from MCG+01-38-005 were used to calculate a refined value for the Hubble constant, a measure of how fast the Universe is expanding. This constant is named after the astronomer whose observations were responsible for the discovery of the expanding Universe and after whom the Hubble Space Telescope was named, Edwin Hubble.


A double discovery
Mon, 21 Aug 2017 06:00:00 +0200

NGC 178 may be small, but it packs quite a punch. Measuring around 40 000 light-years across, its diameter is less than half that of the Milky Way, and it is accordingly classified as a dwarf galaxy. Despite its diminutive size, NGC 178 is busy forming new stars. On average, the galaxy forms stars totalling around half the mass of the Sun per year — enough to label it a starburst galaxy.

The galaxy’s discovery is an interesting, and somewhat confusing, story. It was originally discovered by American astronomer Ormond Stone in 1885 and dubbed NGC 178, but its position in the sky was recorded incorrectly — by accident the value for the galaxy’s right ascension (which can be thought of as the celestial equivalent of terrestrial longitude) was off by a considerable amount.

In the years that followed NGC 178 was spotted again, this time by French astronomer Stéphane Javelle. As no catalogued object occupied that position in the sky, Javelle believed he had discovered a new galaxy and entered it into the expanded Index Catalogue under the name IC 39. Later, American astronomer Herbert Howe also observed the object and corrected Stone’s initial mistake. Many years later, astronomers finally noticed that NGC 178 and IC 39 were actually the same object!

This image of NGC 178 comprises data gathered by the Wide Field Planetary Camera 2 aboard the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope.

A distorted duo
Mon, 14 Aug 2017 06:00:00 +0200

Gravity governs the movements of the cosmos. It draws flocks of galaxies together to form small groups and more massive galaxy clusters, and brings duos so close that they begin to tug at one another. This latter scenario can have extreme consequences, with members of interacting pairs of galaxies often being dramatically distorted, torn apart, or driven to smash into one another, abandoning their former identities and merging to form a single accumulation of gas, dust, and stars.

The subject of this NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope image, IC 1727, is currently interacting with its near neighbour, NGC 672 (which is just out of frame). The pair’s interactions have triggered peculiar and intriguing phenomena within both objects — most noticeably in IC 1727. The galaxy’s structure is visibly twisted and asymmetric, and its bright nucleus has been dragged off-centre.

In interacting galaxies such as these, astronomers often see signs of intense star formation (in episodic flurries known as starbursts) and spot newly-formed star clusters. They are thought to be caused by gravity churning, redistributing, and compacting the gas and dust. In fact, astronomers have analysed the star formation within IC 1727 and NGC 672 and discovered something interesting — observations show that simultaneous bursts of star formation occurred in both galaxies some 20 to 30 and 450 to 750 million years ago. The most likely explanation for this is that the galaxies are indeed an interacting pair, approaching each other every so often and swirling up gas and dust as they pass close by.

Small but significant
Mon, 07 Aug 2017 06:00:00 +0200

The subject of this NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope image is a dwarf galaxy named NGC 5949. Thanks to its proximity to Earth — it sits at a distance of around 44 million light-years from us, placing it within the Milky Way’s cosmic neighbourhood — NGC 5949 is a perfect target for astronomers to study dwarf galaxies.

With a mass of about a hundredth that of the Milky Way, NGC 5949 is a relatively bulky example of a dwarf galaxy. Its classification as a dwarf is due to its relatively small number of constituent stars, but the galaxy’s loosely-bound spiral arms also place it in the category of barred spirals. This structure is just visible in this image, which shows the galaxy as a bright yet ill-defined pinwheel. Despite its small proportions, NGC 5949’s proximity has meant that its light can be picked up by fairly small telescopes, something that facilitated its discovery by the astronomer William Herschel in 1801.

Astronomers have run into several cosmological quandaries when it comes to dwarf galaxies like NGC 5949. For example, the distribution of dark matter within dwarfs is quite puzzling (the “cuspy halo” problem), and our simulations of the Universe predict that there should be many more dwarf galaxies than we see around us (the “missing satellites” problem).

The Hockey Stick Galaxy
Mon, 31 Jul 2017 06:00:00 +0200

The star of this Hubble Picture of the Week is a galaxy known as NGC 4656, located in the constellation of Canes Venatici (The Hunting Dogs). However, it also has a somewhat more interesting and intriguing name: the Hockey Stick Galaxy! The reason for this is a little unclear from this partial view, which shows the bright central region, but the galaxy is actually shaped like an elongated, warped stick, stretching out through space until it curls around at one end to form a striking imitation of a celestial hockey stick.

This unusual shape is thought to be due to an interaction between NGC 4656 and a couple of near neighbours, NGC 4631 (otherwise known as The Whale Galaxy) and NGC 4627 (a small elliptical). Galactic interactions can completely reshape a celestial object, shifting and warping its constituent gas, stars, and dust into bizarre and beautiful configurations. The NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope has spied a large number of interacting galaxies over the years, from the cosmic rose of Arp 273 to the egg-penguin duo of Arp 142 and the pinwheel swirls of Arp 240. More Hubble images of interacting galaxies can be seen here.