Picture of The Week
Between Local and Laniakea
Mon, 21 May 2018 06:00:00 +0200

At first glance, this image is dominated by the vibrant glow of the swirling spiral to the lower left of the frame. However, this galaxy is far from the most interesting spectacle here — behind it sits a galaxy cluster.

Galaxies are not randomly distributed in space; they swarm together, gathered up by the unyielding hand of gravity, to form groups and clusters. The Milky Way is a member of the Local Group, which is part of the Virgo Cluster, which in turn is part of the 100 000-galaxy-strong Laniakea Supercluster.

The galaxy cluster seen in this image is known as SDSS J0333+0651. Clusters such as this can help astronomers understand the distant — and therefore early — Universe. SDSS J0333+0651 was imaged as part of a study of star formation in far-flung galaxies. Star-forming regions are typically not very large, stretching out for a few hundred light-years at most, so it is difficult for telescopes to resolve them at a distance. Even using its most sensitive and highest-resolution cameras, Hubble cannot resolve very distant star-forming regions, so astronomers use a cosmic trick: they search instead for galaxy clusters, which have a gravitational influence so immense that they warp the spacetime around them. This distortion acts like a lens, magnifying the light of galaxies sitting far behind the cluster and producing elongated arcs like the one seen to the left of centre in this image.

A spiral disguised
Mon, 14 May 2018 06:00:00 +0200

Resembling a wizard’s staff set aglow, NGC 1032 cleaves the quiet darkness of space in two in this image from the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope.

NGC 1032 is located about a hundred million light years away in the constellation Cetus (The Sea Monster). Although beautiful, this image perhaps does not do justice to the galaxy’s true aesthetic appeal: NGC 1032 is actually a spectacular spiral galaxy, but from Earth, the galaxy’s vast disc of gas, dust and stars is seen nearly edge-on.

A handful of other galaxies can be seen lurking in the background, scattered around the narrow stripe of NGC 1032. Many are oriented face-on or at tilted angles, showing off their glamorous spiral arms and bright cores. Such orientations provide a wealth of detail about the arms and their nuclei, but fully understanding a galaxy’s three-dimensional structure also requires an edge-on view. This gives astronomers an overall idea of how stars are distributed throughout the galaxy and allows them to measure the “height” of the disc and the bright star-studded core.

From toddlers to babies
Mon, 07 May 2018 06:00:00 +0200

In the darkness of the distant Universe, galaxies resemble glowing fireflies, flickering candles, charred embers floating up from a bonfire, light bulbs softly shining. This Picture of the Week, captured by the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope, shows a massive group of galaxies bound together by gravity: a cluster named RXC J0032.1+1808.

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.

Expected to launch in 2018, the JWST is designed to see in infrared wavelengths, which is exceedingly useful for observing distant objects. As a result of the expansion of the Universe, very distant objects are highly redshifted (their light is shifted towards the redder end of the spectrum) and so infrared telescopes are needed to study them. While Hubble currently has the ability to peer billions of years into the past to see “toddler” galaxies, the JWST will have the capability to study “baby” galaxies, the first galaxies that formed in the Universe.

Monster in the deep
Mon, 30 Apr 2018 06:00:00 +0200

Though the bright, light-speckled foreground galaxy on the left is eye-catching, it is far from the most intriguing object in this NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope image. In the upper part of the frame, the light from distant galaxies has been smeared and twisted into odd shapes, arcs, and streaks. This phenomenon indicates the presence of a giant galaxy cluster, which is bending the light coming from the galaxies behind it with its monstrous gravitational influence.

This cluster, called SDSSJ0150+2725, lies some three billion light-years away and was first documented by the Sloan Digital Sky Survey (SDSS), hence its name. The SDSS uses a 2.5-metre optical telescope located at the Apache Point Observatory in New Mexico to observe millions of objects and create detailed 3D maps of the Universe. This particular cluster was part of the Sloan Giant Arcs Survey (SGAS), which detected galaxy clusters with strong lensing properties; their gravity stretches and warps the light of more distant galaxies sitting behind them, creating weird and spectacular arcs such as those seen here.

The Hubble data on of SDSSJ0150+2725 were part of a study of star formation in brightest cluster galaxies (called BCGs), lying between approximately 2 and 6 billion light-years away. This study found the star formation rate in these galaxies to be low, which is consistent with models that suggest that most stars in such galaxies form very early on. These BCGs also emit strong radio signals thought to be from active galactic nuclei (AGN) at their centers, suggesting that the activity from both the AGN and any ongoing star formation is fuelled by cold gas found within the host galaxies.

Stuck in the middle
Mon, 23 Apr 2018 06:00:00 +0200

This pretty, cloud-like object may not look much like a galaxy — it lacks the well-defined arms of a spiral galaxy, or the reddish bulge of an elliptical — but it is in fact something known as a lenticular galaxy. Lenticular galaxies sit somewhere between the spiral and elliptical types; they are disc-shaped, like spirals, but they no longer form large numbers of new stars and thus contain only ageing populations of stars, like ellipticals.

NGC 2655’s core is extremely luminous, resulting in its additional classification as a Seyfert galaxy: a type of active galaxy with strong and characteristic emission lines. This luminosity is thought to be produced as matter is dragged onto the accretion disc of a supermassive black hole sitting at the centre of NGC 2655. The structure of NGC 2655’s outer disc, on the other hand, appears calmer, but it is oddly-shaped. The complex dynamics of the gas in the galaxy suggest that it may have had a turbulent past, including mergers and interactions with other galaxies.

NGC 2655 is located about 80 million light-years from Earth in the constellation of Camelopardalis (The Giraffe). Camelopardalis contains many other interesting deep-sky objects, including the open cluster NGC 1502, the elegant Kemble’s Cascade asterism, and the starburst galaxy NGC 2146.

Approaching the Universe’s origins
Mon, 16 Apr 2018 06:00:00 +0200

This intriguing image from the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope shows a massive galaxy cluster called PSZ2 G138.61-10.84, about six billion light-years away. Galaxies are not randomly distributed in space, but rather aggregated in groups, clusters and superclusters. The latter span over hundreds of millions of light-years and contain billions of galaxies.

Our own galaxy, for example, is part of the Local Group, which in turn is part of the giant Laniakea Supercluster. It was thanks to Hubble that we were able to study massive galactic superstructures such as the Hercules-Corona Borealis Great Wall; a giant galaxy cluster that contains billions of galaxies and extends 10 billion light-years across — making it the biggest known structure in the 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 colossal cluster
Mon, 09 Apr 2018 06:00:00 +0200

This NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope image shows a massive galaxy cluster glowing brightly in the darkness. Despite its beauty, this cluster bears the distinctly unpoetic name of PLCK_G308.3-20.2.

Galaxy clusters can contain thousands of galaxies all held together by the glue of gravity. At one point in time they were believed to be the largest structures in the Universe — until they were usurped in the 1980s by the discovery of superclusters, which typically contain dozens of galaxy clusters and groups and span hundreds of millions of light-years. However, clusters do have one thing to cling on to; superclusters are not held together by gravity, so galaxy clusters still retain the title of the biggest structures in the Universe bound by gravity.

One of the most interesting features of galaxy clusters is the stuff that permeates the space between the constituent galaxies: the intracluster medium (ICM). High temperatures are created in these spaces by smaller structures forming within the cluster. This results in the ICM being made up of plasma — ordinary matter in a superheated state. Most luminous matter in the cluster resides in the ICM, which is very luminous X-rays. However, the majority of the mass in a galaxy cluster exists in the form of non-luminous dark matter. Unlike plasma, dark matter is not made from ordinary matter such as protons, neutrons and electrons. It is a hypothesised substance thought to make up 80 % of the Universe’s mass, yet it has never been directly observed.

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.

 

Cosmic cloning
Mon, 02 Apr 2018 06:00:00 +0200

This image is packed full of galaxies! A keen eye can spot exquisite ellipticals and spectacular spirals, seen at various orientations: edge-on with the plane of the galaxy visible, face-on to show off magnificent spiral arms, and everything in between. The vast majority of these specks are galaxies, but to spot a foreground star from our own galaxy, you can look for a point of light with tell-tale diffraction spikes.

The galaxies within the image are almost all part of a galaxy cluster — a monstrous collection of hundreds of galaxies all shackled together in the unyielding grip of gravity — with the charming name of SDSSJ0146-0929. The mass of this galaxy cluster is large enough to severely distort the spacetime, creating the odd, looping curves that almost encircle the central regions of the cluster.

These graceful arcs are examples of a cosmic phenomenon known as an Einstein ring. The ring is created as the light from a distant objects, like galaxies, pass by an extremely large mass, like this galaxy cluster. In this image, the light from a background galaxy is diverted and distorted around the massive intervening cluster and forced to travel along many different light paths towards Earth, making it seem as though the galaxy is in several places at once.

The curious case of calcium-rich supernovae
Mon, 26 Mar 2018 06:00:00 +0200

This image, captured by the Advanced Camera for Surveys (ACS) on the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope, shows the spiral galaxy NGC 5714, about 130 million light-years away in the constellation of Boötes (the Herdsman). NGC 5714 is classified as a Sc spiral galaxy, but its spiral arms — the dominating feature of spiral galaxies — are almost impossible to see, as NGC 5714 presents itself at an almost perfectly edge-on angle.

Discovered by William Herschel in 1787, NGC 5714 was host to a fascinating and rare event in 2003. A faint supernova appeared about 8000 light-years below the central bulge of NGC 5714. Supernovae are the huge, violent explosions of dying stars, and the one that exploded in NGC 5714 — not visible in this much later image — was classified as a Type Ib/c supernova and named SN 2003dr. It was particularly interesting because its spectrum showed strong signatures of calcium.

Calcium-rich supernovae are rare and hence of great interest to astronomers. Astronomers still struggle to explain these particular explosions as their existence presents a challenge to both observation and theory. In particular, their appearance outside of galaxies, their lower luminosity compared to other supernovae, and their rapid evolution are still open questions for researchers.

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.

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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).

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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.

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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.


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