Picture of The Week
Hubble Spies a Stately Spiral Galaxy
Mon, 26 Sep 2022 06:00:00 +0200

The stately sweeping spiral arms of the spiral galaxy NGC 5495 are revealed by the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope’s Wide Field Camera 3 in this image. NGC 5495, which lies around 300 million light-years from Earth in the constellation Hydra, is a Seyfert galaxy, a type of galaxy with a particularly bright central region. These luminous cores — known to astronomers as active galactic nuclei — are dominated by the light emitted by dust and gas falling into a supermassive black hole.

This image is drawn from a series of observations captured by astronomers studying supermassive black holes lurking in the hearts of other galaxies. Studying the central regions of galaxies can be challenging: as well as the light created by matter falling into supermassive black holes, areas of star formation and the light from existing stars all contribute to the brightness of galactic cores. Hubble’s crystal-clear vision helped astronomers disentangle the various sources of light at the core of NGC 5495, allowing them to precisely weigh its supermassive black hole.

As well as NGC 5495, two stellar interlopers are visible in this image. One is just outside the centre of NGC 5495, and the other is very prominent alongside the galaxy. While they share the same location on the sky, these objects are much closer to home than NGC 5495: they are stars from our own Milky Way. The bright stars are surrounded by criss-cross diffraction spikes, optical artefacts created by the internal structure of Hubble interacting with starlight.


An Enigmatic Astronomical Explosion
Mon, 19 Sep 2022 06:00:00 +0200

A bright young star is surrounded by a shroud of thick gas and dust in this image from the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope. Hubble’s Wide Field Camera 3 inspected a young stellar object, over 9000 light years away in the constellation Taurus, to help astronomers understand the earliest stages in the lives of massive stars. This object — which is known to astronomers as IRAS 05506+2414 — is thought to be an example of an explosive event caused by the disruption of a massive young star system. If so, it would only be the second such example known.

Usually the swirling discs of material surrounding a young star are funnelled into twin outflows of gas and dust from the star. In the case of IRAS 05506+2414, however, a fan-like spray of material travelling at velocities of up to 350 kilometres per second is spreading outwards from the centre of this image.

Astronomers turned to Hubble’s Wide Field Camera 3 to measure the distance to IRAS 05506+2414. While it is possible to measure the velocity of material speeding outwards from the star, astronomers cannot tell how far from Earth the star actually is from a single observation. However, by measuring the distance that the outflow travels between successive images, they will be able to infer the distance to IRAS 05506+2414. This will allow astronomers to determine how bright the star is and how much energy it is emitting, and hence to estimate its mass — all vital information that will help to understand the origin of this bright young star’s unusual outflow.


Starstruck in Terzan 4
Mon, 12 Sep 2022 06:00:00 +0200

A glittering multitude of stars in the globular cluster Terzan 4 fill this image from the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope. Globular clusters are collections of stars bound together by their mutual gravitational attraction, and can contain millions of individual stars. As this image shows, the heart of a globular cluster such as Terzan 4 is a densely packed, crowded field of stars — which makes for spectacular images!

The launch of Hubble in 1990 revolutionised the study of globular clusters. The individual stars in these dense crowds are almost impossible to distinguish from one another with ground-based telescopes, but can be picked apart using space telescopes. Astronomers have taken advantage of Hubble’s crystal-clear vision to study the stars making up globular clusters, as well as how these systems change over time.

This particular observation comes from astronomers using Hubble to explore Terzan 4 and other globular clusters to understand the shape, density, age, and structure of globular clusters close to the centre of the Milky Way. Unlike globular clusters elsewhere in the sky, these globular clusters have evaded detailed observation because of the clouds of gas and dust swirling around the galactic core. These clouds blot out starlight in a process that astronomers refer to as ‘extinction’, and complicate astronomical observations.

Astronomers took advantage of the sensitivity of two of Hubble’s instruments — the Advanced Camera for Surveys and Wide Field Camera 3 — to overcome the impact of extinction on Terzan 4. By combining Hubble imagery with sophisticated data processing, astronomers were able to determine the ages of galactic globular clusters to within a billion years — a relatively accurate measurement in astronomical terms!

Galactic Overlap
Mon, 05 Sep 2022 06:00:00 +0200

Two overlapping spiral galaxies are pictured in this image from the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope. The two galaxies, which have the uninspiring names SDSS J115331 and LEDA 2073461, lie more than a billion light-years from Earth. Despite appearing to collide in this image, the alignment of the two galaxies is likely just by chance — the two are not actually interacting. While these two galaxies might simply be ships that pass in the night, Hubble has captured a dazzling array of interacting galaxies in the past.

This image is one of many Hubble observations delving into highlights of the Galaxy Zoo project. Originally established in 2007, the Galaxy Zoo project and its successors are massive citizen science projects which crowdsource galaxy classifications from a pool of hundreds of thousands of volunteers. These volunteers classify galaxies imaged by robotic telescopes and are often the first to ever set eyes on an astronomical object. 

Over the course of the original Galaxy Zoo project, volunteers discovered a menagerie of weird and wonderful galaxies such as unusual 3-armed spiral galaxies and colliding ring galaxies. The astronomers coordinating the project applied for Hubble time to observe the most unusual inhabitants of the Galaxy Zoo — but true to the project’s crowdsourced roots, the list of targets was chosen by a public vote.


Hubble Gazes into M74
Mon, 29 Aug 2022 06:00:00 +0200

The arms of the spiral galaxy M74 are studded with rosy pink regions of fresh star formation in this image from the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope. M74 — also known as the Phantom Galaxy — lies around 32 million light-years away from Earth in the constellation Pisces, and is a familiar sight for Hubble.
The beautiful reddish blooms that spread throughout M74 are huge clouds of hydrogen gas which are made to glow by the ultraviolet radiation from hot, young stars embedded within them. These regions — which astronomers refer to as H II regions — mark the location of recent star formation and are an important target for both space- and ground-based telescopes. Hubble’s Advanced Camera for Surveys, which collected the data in this image, even has a filter designed to pick out only this specific red wavelength of light!

The data in this image come from a set of observations exploring the evolution of local spiral galaxies such as M74, which aim to gain insights into the history of star formation in these spirals. To do this astronomers examined star clusters to date the different parts of spiral galaxies, enabling them to understand how the galaxies assembled over time. They also explored the distribution of dust in spiral galaxies; this dust is visible in this image as the dark threads winding along the spiral arms of M74.

Aside from their quest to understand the history of spiral galaxies, astronomers also observed M74 to complement observations from other telescopes. Combining observations of the same object from different telescopes across the electromagnetic spectrum gives astronomers far more insight than observations from a single telescope would. Hubble’s observations also paved the way for future instruments; M74 was one of the first targets of the powerful new NASA/ESA/CSA James Webb Space Telescope.


A Marvel of Galactic Morphology
Mon, 22 Aug 2022 06:00:00 +0200

The galaxy featured in this Picture of the Week has a shape unlike many of the galaxies familiar to Hubble. Its thousands of bright stars evoke a spiral galaxy, but it lacks the characteristic ‘winding’ structure. The shining red blossoms stand out as well, twisted by clouds of dust — these are the locations of intense star formation. Yet it also radiates a diffuse glow, much like an elliptical galaxy and its core of older, redder stars. This galactic marvel is known to astronomers as NGC 1156.

NGC 1156 is located around 25 million light-years from Earth, in the constellation Aries. It has a variety of different features that are of interest to astronomers. A dwarf irregular galaxy, it’s also classified as isolated, meaning no other galaxies are nearby enough to influence its odd shape and continuing star formation. The extreme energy of freshly formed young stars gives colour to the galaxy, against the red glow of ionised hydrogen gas, while its centre is densely-packed with older generations of stars.

Hubble has captured NGC 1156 before — this new image features data from a galactic gap-filling programme simply titled “Every Known Nearby Galaxy”. Astronomers noticed that only three quarters of the galaxies within just over 30 million light-years of Earth had been observed by Hubble in sufficient detail to study the makeup of the stars within them. They proposed that in between larger projects, Hubble could take snapshots of the remaining quarter — including NGC 1156. Gap-filling programmes like this one ensure that the best use is made of Hubble’s valuable observing time.


Hubble Spies a Scintillating Globular Cluster
Mon, 15 Aug 2022 06:00:00 +0200

This scintillating image showcases the globular cluster NGC 6540 in the constellation Sagittarius, which was captured by the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope’s Wide Field Camera 3 and Advanced Camera for Surveys. These two instruments have slightly different fields of view — which determines how large an area of sky each instrument captures. This composite image shows the star-studded area of sky that was captured in both instruments’ field of view. 

NGC 6540 is a globular cluster, a stable, tightly bound multitude of stars. The populations of these clusters can range from tens of thousands to millions of stars, all of which are trapped in a closely-packed group by their mutual gravitational attraction.

The brightest stars in this image are adorned with prominent cross-shaped patterns of light known as diffraction spikes. These astronomical embellishments are a type of imaging artefact, meaning that they are caused by the structure of Hubble rather than the stars themselves. The path taken by the starlight as it enters the telescope is slightly disturbed by its internal structure, causing bright objects to be surrounded by spikes of light.

Hubble peered into the heart of NGC 6540 to help astronomers measure the ages, shapes, and structures of globular clusters towards the centre of the Milky Way. The gas and dust shrouding the centre of our galaxy block some of the light from these clusters, as well as subtly changing the colours of their stars. Globular clusters contain insights into the earliest history of the Milky Way, and so studying them can help astronomers understand how our galaxy has evolved.


Celestial Cloudscape in the Orion Nebula
Mon, 08 Aug 2022 06:00:00 +0200

This celestial cloudscape from the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope captures the colourful region surrounding the Herbig-Haro object HH 505. Herbig-Haro objects are luminous regions surrounding newborn stars, and are formed when stellar winds or jets of gas spewing from these newborn stars form shockwaves colliding with nearby gas and dust at high speeds. In the case of HH 505, these outflows originate from the star IX Ori, which lies on the outskirts of the Orion Nebula around 1000 light-years from Earth. The outflows themselves are visible as gracefully curving structures at the top and bottom of this image, and are distorted into sinuous curves by their interaction with the large-scale flow of gas and dust from the core of the Orion Nebula.

This observation was captured with Hubble’s Advanced Camera for Surveys (ACS) by astronomers studying the properties of outflows and protoplanetary discs. The Orion Nebula is awash in intense ultraviolet radiation from bright young stars. The shockwaves formed by the outflows are brightly visible to Hubble, but the slower-moving currents of stellar material are also highlighted by this radiation. That allows astronomers to directly observe jets and outflows and learn more about their structures.

The Orion Nebula is a dynamic region of dust and gas where thousands of stars are forming, and is the closest region of massive star formation to Earth. As a result, it is one of the most scrutinised areas of the night sky and has often been a target for Hubble. This observation was also part of a spellbinding Hubble mosaic of the Orion Nebula, which combined 520 ACS images in five different colours to create the sharpest view ever taken of the region.



Star-Studded Skyfield
Mon, 01 Aug 2022 06:00:00 +0200

This star-studded image from the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope shows the heart of the globular cluster NGC 6638 in the constellation Sagittarius. The star-strewn observation highlights the density of stars at the heart of globular clusters, which are stable, tightly bound clusters of tens of thousands to millions of stars. To capture the data in this image, Hubble used two of its cutting-edge astronomical instruments: Wide Field Camera 3 and the Advanced Camera for Surveys

Hubble revolutionised the study of globular clusters, as it is almost impossible to clearly distinguish the stars in globular clusters with ground-based telescopes. The blurring caused by Earth’s atmosphere makes it impossible to tell one star from another, but from Hubble’s location in low Earth orbit the atmosphere no longer poses a problem. As a result, Hubble has been used to study what kind of stars globular clusters are made up of, how they evolve, and the role of gravity in these dense systems.

The NASA/ESA/CSA James Webb Space Telescope will further our understanding of globular clusters by peering into those globular clusters that are currently obscured by dust. Webb will predominantly observe at infrared wavelengths, which are less affected by the gas and dust surrounding newborn stars. This will allow astronomers to inspect star clusters that are freshly formed, providing insights into stellar populations before they have a chance to evolve. 


Follow the LEDA
Mon, 25 Jul 2022 06:00:00 +0200

This luminescent image features multiple galaxies, perhaps most noticeably LEDA 58109, the lone galaxy in the upper right. LEDA 58109 is flanked by two further galactic objects to its lower left — an active galactic nucleus (AGN) called SDSS J162558.14+435746.4 that partially obscures the galaxy SDSS J162557.25+435743.5, which appears to poke out to the right behind the AGN. 

Galaxy classification is sometimes presented as something of a dichotomy: spiral and elliptical. However, the diversity of galaxies in this image alone highlights the complex web of galaxy classifications that exist, including galaxies that house extremely luminous AGNs at their cores, and galaxies whose shapes defy the classification of either spiral or elliptical. 

The sample of galaxies here also illustrates the wide variety of names that galaxies have: some relatively short, like LEDA 58109, and some very long and challenging to remember, such as the two galaxies to the left. This is due to the variety of cataloguing systems that chart the celestial objects in the night sky. No one catalogue is exhaustive, and they cover overlapping regions of the sky, so that many galaxies belong to several different catalogues. For example, the galaxy on the right is LEDA 58109 in the LEDA galaxy database, but is also known as MCG+07-34-030 in the MCG galaxy catalogue, and SDSS J162551.50+435747.5 in the SDSS galaxy catalogue — the same catalogue that also lists the two galaxies to the left.


Lens Flair
Mon, 18 Jul 2022 06:00:00 +0200

This intriguing observation from the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope shows a gravitationally lensed galaxy with the long-winded identification SGAS J143845+145407. Gravitational lensing has resulted in a mirror image of the galaxy at the centre of this image, creating a captivating centrepiece.

Gravitational lensing occurs when a massive celestial body — such as a galaxy cluster — causes a sufficient curvature of spacetime for the path of light around it to be visibly bent, as if by a lens. Appropriately, the body causing the light to curve is called a gravitational lens, and the distorted background object is referred to as being "lensed". Gravitational lensing can result in multiple images of the original galaxy, as seen in this image, or in the background object appearing as a distorted arc or even a ring. Another important consequence of this lensing distortion is magnification, allowing astronomers to observe objects that would otherwise be too far away or too faint to be seen.

Hubble has a special flair for detecting lensed galaxies. The telescope's sensitivity and crystal-clear vision allow it to see faint and distant gravitational lenses that cannot be detected with ground-based telescopes because of the blurring effect of Earth's atmosphere. Hubble was the first telescope to resolve details within lensed images of galaxies, and is capable of imaging both their shape and internal structure.

This particular lensed galaxy is from a set of Hubble observations that take advantage of gravitational lensing to peer inside galaxies in the early Universe. The lensing reveals details of distant galaxies that would otherwise be unobtainable, and this allows astronomers to determine star formation in early galaxies. This in turn gives scientists a better insight into how the overall evolution of galaxies has unfolded.  


Portrait of a Globular Cluster
Mon, 11 Jul 2022 06:00:00 +0200

The globular cluster Terzan 2 in the constellation Scorpio features in this observation from the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope. Globular clusters are stable, tightly gravitationally bound clusters of tens of thousands to millions of stars found in a wide variety of galaxies. The intense gravitational attraction between the closely packed stars gives globular clusters a regular, spherical shape. As a result, images of the hearts of globular clusters, such as this observation of Terzan 2, are crowded with a multitude of glittering stars.  

Hubble used both its Advanced Camera for Surveys and its Wide Field Camera 3 in this observation, taking advantage of the complementary capabilities of these instruments. Despite having only one primary mirror, Hubble’s design allows multiple instruments to be used to inspect astronomical objects. Light from distant astronomical objects enters Hubble and is collected by the telescope's 2.4-metre primary mirror; it is then reflected off the secondary mirror into the depths of the telescope, where smaller mirrors can direct light into individual instruments. 

Each of the four operational instruments on Hubble is a masterpiece of astronomical engineering in its own right, and contains an intricate array of mirrors and other optical elements to remove any aberrations or optical imperfections from observations, as well as filters which allow astronomers to observe specific wavelength ranges. The mirrors inside each instrument also correct for the slight imperfection of Hubble's primary mirror. The end result is a crystal-clear observation, such as this glittering portrait of Terzan 2.


Hubble Spies a Galactic Gem
Mon, 04 Jul 2022 06:00:00 +0200

This NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope observation has captured the galaxy CGCG 396-2, an unusual multi-armed galaxy merger which lies around 520 million light-years from Earth in the constellation Orion. 

This observation is a gem from the Galaxy Zoo project, a citizen science project in which hundreds of thousands of volunteers classified galaxies to help scientists solve a problem of astronomical proportions — how to sort through the vast amounts of data generated by robotic telescopes. Following a public vote, a selection of the most astronomically intriguing objects from the Galaxy Zoo were selected for follow-up observations with Hubble. CGCG 396-2 is one such object, and was captured in this image by Hubble’s Advanced Camera for Surveys.

The Galaxy Zoo project originated when an astronomer was set an impossibly mind-numbing task; classifying more than 900 000 galaxies by eye. By making a web interface and inviting citizen scientists to contribute to the challenge, the Galaxy Zoo team was able to crowdsource the analysis, and within six months a legion of 100 000 volunteer citizen astronomers had contributed more than 40 million galaxy classifications.
Since its initial success, the Galaxy Zoo project and its successor projects have contributed to more than 100 peer-reviewed scientific articles and led to a rich variety of intriguing astronomical discoveries above and beyond their initial goals. The success of the project also inspired more than 100 citizen science projects on the Zooniverse portal, ranging from analysing data from the ESA Rosetta spacecraft's visit to Comet 67P/Churyumov–Gerasimenko to counting killer whales around remote Alaskan islands!


Delving into an Astronomical Treasure Trove
Mon, 27 Jun 2022 06:00:00 +0200

This image from the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope captures the sparkling globular cluster NGC 6569 in the constellation Sagittarius. Hubble explored the heart of this cluster with both its Wide Field Camera 3 and Advanced Camera for Surveys, revealing a glittering hoard of stars in this astronomical treasure trove. 

Globular clusters are stable, tightly bound clusters containing tens of thousands to millions of stars, and are associated with all types of galaxies. The intense gravitational attraction of these closely packed clusters of stars means that globular clusters have a regular spherical shape with a densely populated centre — as can be seen in the heart of this star-studded image.

This observation comes from an investigation of globular clusters which lie close to the centre of the Milky Way. These objects have been avoided in previous surveys, as the dust spread throughout  the centre of our galaxy blocks light from these globular clusters and alters the colours of the stars residing in them. The last factor is particularly important for astronomers studying stellar evolution, as the colours of stars can give astronomers insights into their ages, compositions, and temperatures. 

The astronomers who proposed these observations combined data from Hubble with data from astronomical archives, allowing them to measure the ages of globular clusters including NGC 6569. Their research also provided insights into the structure and density of globular clusters towards the centre of the Milky Way.


Snapshot of a Massive Cluster
Mon, 20 Jun 2022 06:00:00 +0200

The massive galaxy cluster Abell 1351 is captured in this image by the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope’s Wide Field Camera 3 and Advanced Camera for Surveys. This galaxy cluster lies in the constellation Ursa Major in the northern hemisphere.

This image is filled with streaks of light, which are actually the images of distant galaxies. The streaks are the result of gravitational lensing, an astrophysical phenomenon that occurs when a massive celestial body such as a galaxy cluster distorts spacetime sufficiently strongly to affect the path of light passing through it — almost as if the light were passing through a gigantic lens. Gravitational lensing comes in two varieties — strong and weak — and both can give astronomers an insight into the distribution of mass within a lensing galaxy cluster such as Abell 1351.

This observation is part of an astronomical album comprising snapshots of some of the most massive galaxy clusters. This menagerie of massive clusters demonstrates interesting astrophysical phenomena such as strong gravitational lensing, as well as showcasing spectacular examples of violent galaxy evolution. To obtain this astronomical album, astronomers proposed a Snapshot Program to be slotted into Hubble’s packed observing schedule. These Snapshot Programs are lists of separate, relatively short exposures which can fit into gaps between longer Hubble observations. Having a large pool of Snapshot candidates to dip into allows Hubble to use every second of observing time possible and to maximise the scientific output of the observatory.


Cosmic Treasure Chest
Mon, 13 Jun 2022 06:00:00 +0200

This star-studded image shows the globular cluster Terzan 9 in the constellation Sagittarius, towards the centre of the Milky Way. The NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope captured this glittering scene using its Wide Field Camera 3 and Advanced Camera for Surveys

Globular clusters are stable, tightly bound groupings of tens of thousands to millions of stars. As this image demonstrates, the hearts of globular clusters can be densely packed with stars; the night sky in this image is strewn with so many stars that it resembles a sea of sequins or a vast treasure chest crammed with gold.

This starry snapshot is from a Hubble programme investigating globular clusters located towards the heart of the Milky Way. The central region of our home galaxy contains a tightly packed group of stars known as the Galactic bulge, which is also rich in interstellar dust. This dust has made globular clusters near the Galactic centre difficult to study, as it absorbs starlight and can even change the apparent colours of the stars in these clusters. Hubble's sensitivity at both visible and infrared wavelengths has allowed astronomers to measure how the colours of these globular clusters have been changed by interstellar dust, and thereby to establish their ages.


Hubble Investigates an Enigmatic Globular Cluster
Mon, 06 Jun 2022 06:00:00 +0200

Like Sherlock Holmes’s magnifying glass writ large, the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope has been used to peer into an astronomical mystery in search of clues. The enigma in question concerns the globular cluster Ruprecht 106, which is pictured in this image. While the constituent stars of globular clusters all formed at approximately the same location and time, it turns out that almost all globular clusters contain groups of stars with distinct chemical compositions. These distinct chemical fingerprints are left by groups of stars with very slightly different ages or compositions from the rest of the cluster. A tiny handful of globular clusters do not possess these multiple populations of stars, and Ruprecht 106 is a member of this enigmatic group.

Hubble captured this star-studded image using one of its most versatile instruments; the Advanced Camera for Surveys (ACS). Much like the stars in globular clusters, Hubble’s instruments also have distinct generations: ACS is a third generation instrument which replaced the original Faint Object Camera in 2002. Some of Hubble’s other instruments have also gone through three iterations: the Wide Field Camera 3 replaced the Wide Field and Planetary Camera 2 (WFPC2) during the final servicing mission to Hubble. WFPC2 itself replaced the original Wide Field and Planetary Camera, which was installed on Hubble at launch. 

Astronauts on the NASA Space Shuttle serviced Hubble in orbit a total of five times, and were able to either upgrade aging equipment or replace instruments with newer, more capable versions. This high-tech tinkering in low Earth orbit has helped keep Hubble at the cutting edge of astronomy for more than 3 decades.


Hubble Goes Galactic Birdwatching
Mon, 30 May 2022 06:00:00 +0200

This image from the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope shows the barred spiral galaxy NGC 7496, which lies over 24 million light-years away in the constellation Grus. This constellation, whose name is Latin for crane, is one of four constellations collectively known as the Southern Birds. The others are Pavo, Phoenix and Tucana, which depict a peacock, phoenix, and toucan respectively. The rest of the night sky is also home to a flock of ornithological constellations, including an eagle (Aquilla), swan (Cygnus), crow (Corvus), and dove (Columba). 

This image comes from a collection of observations delving into the relationship between young stars and the cold, dense clouds of gas in which they form. In addition to observations with Hubble’s Wide Field Camera 3 and Advanced Camera for Surveys, the astronomers behind this project gathered data using the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA), one of the largest radio telescopes in the world. 

As well as shedding light on the speed and efficiency of star formation in a variety of galactic environments, this project is also creating a treasury of data incorporating both Hubble and ALMA observations. This treasure trove of data from two of the world’s most capable observatories will contribute to wider research into star formation, as well as paving the way for future science with the James Webb Space Telescope.


Hiding in Plain Sight
Mon, 23 May 2022 06:00:00 +0200

The muted red tones of the globular cluster Liller 1 are partially obscured in this image by a dense scattering of piercingly blue stars. In fact, it is thanks to Hubble’s Wide Field Camera 3 (WFC3) that we are able to see Liller 1 so clearly in this image, because the WFC3 is sensitive to wavelengths of light that the human eye cannot detect. Liller 1 is only 30 000 light-years from Earth — relatively neighbourly in astronomical terms — but it lies within the Milky Way’s ‘bulge’, the dense and dusty region at our galaxy’s centre. Because of that, Liller 1 is heavily obscured from view by interstellar dust, which scatters visible light (particularly blue light) very effectively. Fortunately, some infrared and red visible light are able to pass through these dusty regions. WFC3 is sensitive to both visible and near-infrared (infrared that is close to the visible) wavelengths, allowing us to see through the obscuring clouds of dust, and providing this spectacular view of Liller 1. 

Liller 1 is a particularly interesting globular cluster, because unlike most of its kind, it contains a mix of very young and very old stars. Globular clusters typically house only old stars, some nearly as old as the Universe itself. Liller1 instead contains at least two distinct stellar populations with remarkably different ages: the oldest one is 12 billion years old and the youngest component is just 1-2 billion years old. This led astronomers to conclude that this stellar system was able to form stars over an extraordinary long period of time. 


Hubble Spies a Glittering Gathering of Stars
Mon, 16 May 2022 06:00:00 +0200

This glittering gathering of stars is the globular cluster NGC 6558, and it was captured by the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope’s Advanced Camera for Surveys. NGC 6558 is closer to the centre of the Milky Way than Earth is, and lies about 23 000 light years away in the constellation Sagittarius.

Globular clusters like NGC 6558 are tightly bound collections of tens of thousands to millions of stars, and they can be found in a wide range of galaxies. As this observation shows, the stars in globular clusters can be densely packed; this image is thronged with stars in a rich variety of hues. Some of the brightest inhabitants of this globular cluster are surrounded by prominent diffraction spikes, which are imaging artefacts caused by starlight interacting with the inner workings of Hubble.

Globular clusters equip astronomers with interesting natural laboratories in which to test their theories, as all the stars in a globular cluster formed at approximately the same time with similar initial composition. These stellar clusters therefore provide unique insights into how different stars evolve under similar conditions. This image comes from a set of observations investigating globular clusters in the inner Milky Way. Astronomers were interested in studying these globular clusters to gain greater insight into how globular clusters in the inner Milky Way form and evolve.


Aftermath of a Cosmic Cataclysm
Mon, 09 May 2022 06:00:00 +0200

This image from the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope shows the tattered remnant of a supernova — a titanic explosion marking the end of the life of a dying star. This object — known as DEM L249 — is thought to have been created by a Type 1a supernova during the death throes of a white dwarf. While white dwarfs are usually stable, they can slowly accrue matter if they are part of a binary star system. This accretion of matter continues until the white dwarf reaches a critical mass and undergoes a catastrophic supernova explosion, ejecting a vast amount of material into space in the process.

DEM L249 lies in the constellation Mensa and is within the Large Magellanic Cloud (LMC), a small satellite galaxy of the Milky Way only 160 000 light-years from Earth. The LMC is an ideal natural laboratory where astronomers can study the births, lives, and deaths of stars, as this region is nearby, oriented towards Earth, and contains relatively little light-absorbing interstellar dust. The data in this image were gathered by Hubble’s Wide Field Camera 3 instrument, and were obtained during a systematic search of the LMC for the surviving companions of white dwarf stars which have gone supernova.

Hubble Sees Double in M99
Mon, 02 May 2022 06:00:00 +0200

The magnificent spiral galaxy M99 fills the frame in this image from the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope. M99 — which lies roughly 42 million light-years from Earth in the constellation Coma Berenices — is a “grand design” spiral galaxy, so-called because of the well-defined, prominent spiral arms visible in this image. M99 was captured by Hubble’s Wide Field Camera 3 on two separate occasions, helping astronomers study two entirely different astronomical phenomena. 

The first set of observations aimed to explore a gap between two different varieties of cosmic explosions; novae and supernovae. Novae, which are caused by the interactions between white dwarfs and larger stars in binary systems, are far less bright than the supernovae which mark the catastrophically violent deaths of massive stars. However, current astronomical theories predict that sudden, fleeting events could occur that shine with brightnesses between those of novae and supernovae. Despite being described by astronomers as being shrouded in mystery and controversy, just such an event was observed in M99. Astronomers turned to Hubble’s keen vision to take a closer look and precisely locate the fading source.

The second set of observations were part of a large Hubble project which aims to chart the connections between young stars and the clouds of cold gas from which they form. Hubble inspected 38 nearby galaxies, identifying clusters of hot, young stars. These galaxies were also observed by the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA), a colossal radio telescope consisting of 66 individual dishes perched high in the Chilean Andes. The combination of Hubble’s observations of young stars and ALMA’s insight into clouds of cold gas will allow astronomers to delve into the details of star formation, and paves the way for future science with the NASA/ESA/CSA James Webb Space Telescope

Hubble Spies a Tenuous Diffuse Galaxy
Mon, 25 Apr 2022 06:00:00 +0200

The ultra-diffuse galaxy GAMA 526784 appears as a tenuous patch of light in this image from the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope. This wispy object resides in the constellation Hydra, roughly four billion light-years from Earth. Ultra-diffuse galaxies such as GAMA 526784 have a number of peculiarities. For example, their dark matter content can be either extremely low or extremely high — ultra-diffuse galaxies have been observed with an almost complete lack of dark matter, whereas others consist of almost nothing but dark matter. Another oddity of this class of galaxies is their anomalous abundance of bright globular clusters, something not observed in other types of galaxies.

Hubble captured GAMA 526784 with the Advanced Camera for Surveys (ACS), which was installed in 2002 by astronauts during Hubble Servicing Mission 3B. Since then, the instrument has played a pivotal role in some of Hubble’s most impressive scientific results, including capturing the Hubble Ultra Deep Field. The ACS has also photographed Pluto in advance of the New Horizon mission, observed gargantuan gravitational lenses and found fully formed galaxies in the early Universe.

This image comes from a set of Hubble observations designed to shed light on the properties of ultra-diffuse galaxies. Hubble’s keen vision allowed astronomers to study GAMA 526784 in high resolution at ultraviolet wavelengths, helping to gauge the sizes and ages of the compact star-forming regions studding the galaxy.

Hubble Inspects a Set of Galactic Wings
Mon, 18 Apr 2022 06:00:00 +0200

Two merging galaxies in the VV689 system — nicknamed the Angel Wing —feature in this image from the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope. Unlike chance alignments of galaxies which only appear to overlap as seen from our vantage point on Earth, the two galaxies in VV689 are in the midst of a collision. The galactic interaction has left the VV689 system almost completely symmetrical, giving the impression of a vast set of galactic wings.

This angelic image comes from a set of Hubble observations inspecting the highlights of the Galaxy Zoo citizen science project. This crowdsourced astronomy project relied on hundreds of thousands of volunteers to classify galaxies and help astronomers wade through a deluge of data from robotic telescopes. In the process, volunteers discovered a rogues’ gallery of weird and wonderful galaxy types, some of which had not previously been studied. A similar, ongoing project called Radio Galaxy Zoo is using the same crowdsourcing approach to locate supermassive black holes in distant galaxies. 

Noteworthy objects from both projects were chosen for detailed follow-up observations with Hubble’s Advanced Camera for Surveys. In keeping with the crowdsourced nature of the Galaxy Zoo project, the targets for follow-up observations with Hubble were chosen via roughly 18 000 votes cast by the public. The selected targets include ring-shaped galaxies, unusual spirals, and a striking selection of galaxy mergers such as VV689.


Spiral Snapshot
Mon, 11 Apr 2022 06:00:00 +0200

The spiral galaxy M91 fills the frame of this Wide Field Camera 3 observation from the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope. M91 lies approximately 55 million light-years from Earth in the constellation Coma Berenices and — as is evident in this image — is a barred spiral galaxy. While M91’s prominent bar makes for a spectacular galactic portrait, it also hides an astronomical monstrosity. Like our own galaxy, M91 contains a supermassive black hole at its centre. A 2009 study using archival Hubble data found that this central black hole weighs somewhere between 9.6 and 38 million times as much as the Sun.

Whilst archival Hubble data allowed astronomers to weigh M91’s central black hole, more recent observations have had other scientific aims. This observation is part of an effort to build a treasure trove of astronomical data exploring the connections between young stars and the clouds of cold gas in which they form. To do this, astronomers used Hubble to obtain ultraviolet and visible observations of galaxies already seen at radio wavelengths by the ground-based Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA).

Observing time with Hubble is a highly valued, and much sought-after, resource for astronomers. To obtain data from the telescope, astronomers first have to write a proposal detailing what they want to observe and highlighting the scientific importance of their observations. These proposals are then anonymised and judged on their scientific merit by a variety of astronomical experts. This process is incredibly competitive: following Hubble’s latest call for proposals, only around 13% of the proposals were awarded observing time. 

Are you interested in finding out what Hubble is observing right now? You can follow the space telescope’s observations in real time at this link.