Picture of The Week
One Large Stellar Latte To Go
Mon, 25 May 2020 06:00:00 +0200

Far away in the Ursa Major constellation is a swirling galaxy that would not look out of place on a coffee made by a starry-eyed barista. NGC 3895 is a barred spiral galaxy that was first spotted by William Herschel in 1790 and was later observed by the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope.

Hubble's orbit high above the Earth's distorting atmosphere allows astronomers to make the very high resolution observations that are essential to opening new windows on planets, stars and galaxies — such as this beautiful view of NGC 3895. The telescope is positioned approximately 570 km above the ground, where it whirls around Earth at 28 000 kilometres per hour and takes 96 minutes to complete one orbit. 

Stellar Glitter in a Field of Black
Mon, 18 May 2020 06:00:00 +0200

Unlike a spiral or elliptical galaxy, the galaxy KK 246 looks like glitter spilled across a black velvet sheet. KK 246, also known as ESO 461-036, is a dwarf irregular galaxy residing within the Local Void, a vast region of empty space. This lonely galaxy is the only one known for certain to reside in this enormous volume, along with 15 others that have been tentatively identified.

Although the picture appears to be full of galaxies, they are actually beyond this void, and instead form part of other galaxy groups or clusters. Cosmic voids, such as this one, are the spaces within the web-like structure of the Universe wherein very few or no galaxies exist. 

Adjacent to the Local Group, this region of empty space is at least 150 million light-years across. For perspective, our own Milky Way galaxy is estimated to be 150 000 light-years across, making this void immense in its nothingness.

Two Supernovae, One Galaxy
Mon, 11 May 2020 06:00:00 +0200

Approximately 85 million light-years from Earth, in the constellation of Libra, is the beautiful galaxy NGC 5861,  captured here by the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope

NGC 5861 is an intermediate spiral galaxy. Astronomers classify most galaxies by their morphology. For example, the Milky Way galaxy is a barred spiral galaxy. An intermediate spiral galaxy has a shape lying in between that of a barred spiral galaxy, one that appears to have a central bar-shaped structure, and that of an unbarred spiral galaxy, one without a central bar. 

Two supernovae, SN1971D and SN2017erp, have been observed in the galaxy. Supernovae are powerful and luminous explosions that can light up the night sky. The brightest supernova ever recorded was possibly SN 1006. It shone 16 times as bright as Venus from April 30 to May 1, 1006 AD.

Galaxy Galaxy, Burning Bright!
Mon, 04 May 2020 06:00:00 +0200

In the forests of the night lies a barred spiral galaxy called NGC 3583, imaged here by the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope. This is a barred spiral galaxy with two arms that twist out into the Universe. This galaxy is located 98 million light-years away from the Milky Way. Two supernovae exploded in this galaxy, one in 1975 and another, more recently, in 2015.

There are a few different ways that supernova can form. In the case of these two supernovae, the explosions evolved from two independent binary star systems in which the stellar remnant of a Sun-like star, known as a white dwarf, was collecting material from its companion star. Feeding off of its partner, the white dwarf gorged on the material until it reached a maximum mass. At this point, the star collapsed inward before exploding outward in a brilliant supernova.

Two of these events were spotted in NGC 3583, and though not visible in this picture of the week, we can still marvel at the galaxy’s fearful symmetry.

A Stretched Spiral
Mon, 27 Apr 2020 06:00:00 +0200

This sparkling spiral galaxy looks almost stretched across the sky in this new image from the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope. Known as NGC 4100, the galaxy boasts a neat spiral structure and swirling arms speckled with the bright blue hue of newly formed stars.

Like so many of the stunning images of galaxies we enjoy today, this image was captured by Hubble’s Advanced Camera for Surveys (ACS). This remarkable instrument was installed in 2002, and, with some servicing over the years by intrepid astronauts, is still going strong. You can access many of the stunning images captured by the ACS here, featuring objects from out-of-this-world spiral galaxies to dark, imposing nebulae, bizarre cosmic phenomena, and sparkling clusters made up of thousands upon thousands of stars.

Stealing the Show
Mon, 20 Apr 2020 09:00:00 +0200

As beautiful as the surrounding space may be, the sparkling galaxy in the foreground of this image from the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope undeniably steals the show.

This spotlight-hogging galaxy, seen set against a backdrop of more distant galaxies of all shapes and sizes, is known as PGC 29388. Although it dominates in this image, this galaxy is a small player on the cosmic stage, and is known as a dwarf elliptical galaxy. As the “dwarf” moniker suggests, the galaxy is on the smaller side, and boasts a “mere” 100 million to a few billion stars — a very small number indeed when compared to the Milky Way's population of around 250 to 400 billion stellar residents.

Hunting for Dead Stars
Mon, 13 Apr 2020 06:00:00 +0200

This image depicts a swirling spiral galaxy named NGC 2906. 

The blue speckles seen scattered across this galaxy are massive  young stars, which emit hot, blue-tinged radiation as they burn through their fuel at an immense rate. The swathes of orange are a mix of older stars that have swollen and cooled, and low-mass stars that were never especially hot to begin with. Owing to their lower temperatures, these stars emit a cooler, reddish, radiation. 

This image of NGC 2906 was captured by the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope’s Wide Field Camera 3, an instrument installed on Hubble in 2009 during the telescope’s fourth servicing mission. Hubble observed this galaxy on the hunt for fading light from recent, nearby occurrences of objects known as supernovae.

Rings Upon Rings
Mon, 06 Apr 2020 06:00:00 +0200

At first glance, the subject of this NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope image looks to be a simple spiral galaxy, with two pinwheeling arms emerging from a central bar of stars and material that cuts through the galactic centre. In fact, there are rings within these spiral arms, too: spirals within a spiral. 

This kind of morphology is known as a multiring structure. As this description suggests, this galaxy, named NGC 2273, hosts an inner ring and two outer “pseudorings” — having so many distinct rings is rare, and makes NGC 2273 unusual. Rings are created when a galaxy’s spiral arms appear to loop around to nearly close upon one another, combined with a trick of cosmic perspective. NGC 2273’s two pseudorings are formed by two swirling sets of spiral arms coming together, and the inner ring by two arcing structures nearer to the galactic centre, which seem to connect in a similar way.

These rings are not the only unique feature of this galaxy. NGC 2273 is also a Seyfert galaxy, a galaxy with an extremely luminous core. In fact, the centre of a galaxy such as this is powered by a supermassive black hole, and can glow brightly enough to outshine an entire galaxy like the Milky Way.

Feeding Time
Mon, 30 Mar 2020 06:00:00 +0200

This remarkable spiral galaxy, known as NGC 4651, may look serene and peaceful as it swirls in the vast, silent emptiness of space, but don’t be fooled — it keeps a violent secret. It is believed that this galaxy consumed another smaller galaxy to become the large and beautiful spiral that we observe today.

Although only a telescope like the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope, which captured this image, could give us a picture this clear, NGC 4651 can also be observed with an amateur telescope — so if you have a telescope at home and a star-gazing eye, look out for this glittering carnivorous spiral.

Single Arm Galaxy
Mon, 23 Mar 2020 06:00:00 +0100

NGC 4618 was discovered on 9 April 1787 by the German-British astronomer, Wilhelm Herschel, who also discovered Uranus in 1781. Only a year before discovering NGC 4618, Herschel theorised that the “foggy” objects astronomers were seeing in the night sky were likely to be large star clusters located much further away then the individual stars he could easily discern. 

Since Herschel proposed his theory, astronomers have come to understand that what he was seeing was a galaxy. NGC 4618, classified as a barred spiral galaxy, has the special distinction amongst other spiral galaxies of only having one arm rotating around the centre of the galaxy. 

Located about 21 million light-years from our galaxy in the constellation Canes Venatici, NGC 4618 has a diameter of about one third that of the Milky Way. Together with its neighbour, NGC 4625, it forms an interacting galaxy pair, which means that the two galaxies are close enough to  influence each other gravitationally. These interactions may result in the two (or more) galaxies merging together to form a new formation, such as a ring galaxy

Cotton Wool Galaxy
Mon, 16 Mar 2020 06:00:00 +0100

This Picture of the Week, taken by the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope, shows the galaxy NGC 4237. Located about 60 million light-years from Earth in the constellation of Coma Berenices (Berenice's Hair), NGC 4237 is classified as a flocculent spiral galaxy. This means that its spiral arms are not clearly distinguishable from each other, as in grand design spiral galaxies, but are instead patchy and discontinuous. This gives the galaxy a fluffy appearance, somewhat resembling cotton wool.

Astronomers studying NGC 4237 were actually more interested in its galactic bulge — its bright central region. By learning more about these bulges, we can explore how spiral galaxies have evolved, and study the growth of the supermassive black holes that lurk at the centres of most spirals. There are indications that the mass of the black hole at the centre of a galaxy is related to the mass of its bulge.

However, this connection is still uncertain, and why these two components should be so strongly correlated is still a mystery — one that astronomers hope to solve by studying galaxies in the nearby Universe, such as NGC 4237.

Hunger Pangs
Mon, 09 Mar 2020 06:00:00 +0100

The subject of this Picture of the Week, a spiral galaxy named NGC 1589, was once the scene of a violent bout of cosmic hunger pangs; as astronomers looked on, a poor, hapless star was torn apart and devoured by the ravenous supermassive black hole at the centre of the galaxy.

The astronomers are now using the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope to test this interpretation. Hubble has observed such events before so the scientists are confident that Hubble will be able to provide smoking gun evidence in the form of stellar debris that was ejected during the disruption event.

A Galactic Traffic Jam
Mon, 02 Mar 2020 06:00:00 +0100

The barred spiral galaxy NGC 3887, seen here as viewed by the Wide Field Camera 3 aboard the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope, lies over 60  million light-years away from us in the southern constellation of Crater (The Cup); it was discovered on 31 December 1785 by the German/British astronomer William Herschel.

Its orientation to us, while not exactly face-on, allows us to see NGC 3887’s spiral arms and central bulge in detail, making it an ideal target for studying a spiral galaxy’s winding arms and the stars within them. 

The very existence of spiral arms was for a long time a problem for astronomers. The arms emanate from a spinning core and should therefore become wound up ever more tightly, causing them to eventually disappear after a (cosmologically) short amount of time. It was only in the 1960s that astronomers came up with the solution to this winding problem; rather than behaving like rigid structures, spiral arms are in fact areas of greater density in a galaxy’s disc, with dynamics similar to those of a traffic jam. The density of cars moving through a traffic jam increases at the centre of the jam, where they move more slowly. Spiral arms function in a similar way; as gas and dust move through the density waves they become compressed and linger, before moving out of them again.

Centuries Before Hubble
Mon, 24 Feb 2020 06:00:00 +0100

This image of an archetypal spiral galaxy was captured by the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope

The subject of this image is known as NGC 691, and it can be found some 120 million light-years from Earth. This galaxy was one of thousands of objects discovered by astronomer William Herschel during his prolific decades-long career spent hunting for, characterising, and cataloguing a wide array of the galaxies and nebulae visible throughout the night sky — almost 200 years before Hubble was even launched. 

The intricate detail visible in this Picture of the Week would likely be extraordinary to Herschel. Hubble was able to capture an impressive level of structure within NGC 691’s layers of stars and spiralling arms — all courtesy of the telescope’s high-resolution Wide Field Camera 3.

A Smudged Fingerprint
Mon, 17 Feb 2020 06:00:00 +0100

TheNASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope is no stranger to spiral galaxies. The telescope has brought us some of the most beautiful images ever taken of our spiral neighbours — and this Picture of the Week, which features a galaxy known as NGC 4689, is no exception.

However, seen almost face on, NGC 4689 appears less like a majestic spiral and more like a smudged fingerprint on the sky. No matter how good the image quality, there is little contrast between the spiralling arms of stars, gas, and dust, and the less dense areas in between. This is because NGC 4689 is something known as an “anaemic galaxy”, a galaxy that contains only quite small quantities of the raw materials needed to produce stars. This means that star formation is quelled in NGC 4689, and the pinwheeling, bustling arms are less bright than those belonging to other Hubble muses.

Despite this subtlety when compared to its brash, spotlight-stealing relatives, NGC 4689 retains an otherworldly charm, its delicately glowing material standing out subtly from the surrounding darkness of space.

Open Arms
Mon, 10 Feb 2020 06:00:00 +0100

The spiral galaxy NGC 2008 sits centre stage, its ghostly spiral arms spreading out towards us, in this image captured by the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope

This galaxy is located about 425 million light-years from Earth in the constellation of Pictor (The Painter’s Easel). Discovered in 1834 by astronomer John Herschel, NGC 2008 is categorised as a type Sc galaxy in the Hubble sequence, a system used to describe and classify the various morphologies of galaxies. The “S” indicates that NGC 2008 is a spiral, while the “c” means it has a relatively small central bulge and more open spiral arms. Spiral galaxies with larger central bulges tend to have more tightly wrapped arms, and are classified as Sa galaxies, while those in between are classified as type Sb.

Spiral galaxies are ubiquitous across the cosmos, comprising over 70% of all observed galaxies — including our own, the Milky Way. However, their ubiquity does not detract from their beauty. These grand, spiralling collections of billions of stars are among the most wondrous sights that have been captured by telescopes such as Hubble, and are firmly embedded in astronomical iconography. 

Nature’s Grand Design
Mon, 03 Feb 2020 06:00:00 +0100

This eye-catching galaxy is known as NGC 5364. 

Unmistakably a spiral, NGC 5364 is also something known as a grand design spiral galaxy — a descriptive name deserved by only one-tenth of spirals. While all spirals have a structure that is broadly similar, there is quite a bit of variation amongst individual galaxies; some have patchy, oddly-shaped arms, some have bars of stars cutting through their core, some are colossal and radiant, and others are dim and diminutive. Grand designs like NGC 5364 are in many ways the archetype of a spiral galaxy. They are characterised by their prominent, well-defined arms, which circle outwards from a clear core. 

Despite being classified in this way, NGC 5364 is far from perfect. Its arms are asymmetrical compared to other grand design spirals — this is thought to be due to interactions with a nearby neighbour. This neighbour and NGC 5364 are tugging on one another, warping and moving their stars and gas around and causing this misshapen appearance. 

This image was captured by the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope’s Advanced Camera for Surveys and Wide Field Camera 3.

Bars and Baby Stars
Mon, 27 Jan 2020 06:00:00 +0100

The galaxy depicted in this Picture of the Week is a barred spiral known as NGC 7541, seen here as viewed by the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope, in the constellation of Pisces (The Fishes)

A barred spiral is a galaxy with whirling, pinwheeling, spiral arms, and a bright centre that is intersected by a bar of gas and stars. This bar cuts directly through the galaxy’s central region, and is thought to  invigorate the region somewhat, sparking activity and fuelling myriad processes that may otherwise have never occurred or have previously ground to a halt (star formation and active galactic nuclei being key examples). We think bars exist in up to two-thirds of all spiral galaxies, including our own home, the Milky Way.

NGC 7541 is actually observed to have a higher-than-usual star formation rate, adding weight to the theory that spiral bars act as stellar nurseries, corralling and funnelling inwards the material and fuel needed to create and nurture new baby stars. Along with its nearby companion NGC 7537, the galaxy makes up a pair of galaxies located about 110 million light-years away from us.

Supermassive Influence
Mon, 20 Jan 2020 06:00:00 +0100

This peculiar galaxy, beautifully streaked with tendrils of reddish dust, is captured here in wonderful detail by the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope

The galaxy is known as NGC 1022, and is officially classified as a barred spiral galaxy. You can just about make out the bar of stars in the centre of the galaxy in this image, with swirling arms emerging from its ends. This bar is much less prominent than in some of the galaxy’s barred cousins and gives the galaxy a rather squat appearance; but the lanes of dust that swirl throughout its disc ensure it is no less beautiful. 

Hubble observed this image as part of a study into one of the Universe’s most notorious residents: black holes. These are fundamental components of galaxies, and are thought to lurk at the hearts of many — if not all — spirals. In fact, they may have quite a large influence over their cosmic homes. Studies suggest that the mass of the black hole sitting at a galaxy’s centre is linked with the larger-scale properties of the galaxy itself. However, in order to learn more, we need observational data of a wider and more diverse range of galaxies — something Hubble’s study aims to provide.

Catalogues Galore
Mon, 13 Jan 2020 06:00:00 +0100

This bright, somewhat blob-like object — seen in this Picture of the Week as observed by the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope — is a galaxy named NGC 1803. It is about 200 million light-years away, in the southern constellation of Pictor (The Painter’s Easel).

NGC 1803 was discovered in 1834 by astronomer John Herschel. Herschel is a big name in astronomy; John, his father William, and his aunt Caroline all made huge contributions to the field, and their legacies remain today. William systematically catalogued many of the objects he viewed in the night sky, named many moons in the Solar System, discovered infrared radiation, and more. Caroline discovered several comets and nebulae. John took this aforementioned catalogue of night-sky objects and reworked and expanded it into his General Catalogue of Nebulae and Clusters of Stars. This was the basis for the cataloguing system still used today by astronomers (Dreyer’s New General Catalogue of Nebulae and Clusters of Stars, or the New General Catalogue for short).

This gives rise to the NGC names assigned to a vast number of galaxies — including NGC 1803. This galaxy is one of a galactic pair. It was described by Dreyer as being “faint, small, [and] round”, and located near to a very bright star to the southeast. This star is in fact the nebulous lenticular galaxy PGC 16720 — not visible in this image.

Imposter or the Real Deal?
Mon, 06 Jan 2020 06:00:00 +0100

This Picture of the Week, taken by the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope, shows a close-up view of a galaxy named NGC 2770. NGC 2770 is intriguing, as over time it has hosted four different observed supernovae (not visible here). 

Supernovae form in a few different ways, but always involve a dying star. These stars become unbalanced, lose control, and explode violently, briefly shining as brightly as an entire galaxy before slowly fading away.

One of the four supernovae observed within this galaxy, SN 2015bh, is especially interesting. This particular supernova initially had its identity called into question. When it was first discovered in 2015, astronomers classified SN 2015bh as a supernova imposter, believing it to be not an exploding star but simply an unpredictable outburst from a massive star in its final phase of life. Thankfully, astronomers eventually discovered the truth and the object was given its correct classification as a Type II supernova, resulting from the death of a star between eight and 50 times the mass of the Sun.

Placed Among the Stars
Mon, 30 Dec 2019 06:00:00 +0100

This smattering of celestial sequins is a spiral galaxy named NGC 4455, located in the northern constellation of Coma Berenices (Berenice’s Hair). This might sound like an odd name for a constellation — and in fact it is somewhat unusual; it’s the only modern constellation to be named in honour of a real person from history: Queen Berenice II of Egypt.

The story of Queen Berenice II is an interesting one. A ruling queen of the ancient Greek city of Cyrene in modern-day Libya, and later a queen of Ptolemaic Egypt through her marriage to her cousin Ptolemy III Euergetes, Berenice became known for sacrificing locks of her hair as an offering to ensure her husband’s safe return from battle. Her husband did indeed return safely and her hair, which she had left in a Zephyrium temple, had disappeared — it had apparently been stolen and placed among the stars.

Should it be located in NGC 4455, it travelled a long way. The galaxy is about 45 million light-years away. This image was taken by the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope’s Advanced Camera for Surveys.

An Active Centre
Mon, 23 Dec 2019 06:00:00 +0100

This swirling mass of celestial gas, dust, and stars is a moderately luminous spiral galaxy named ESO 021-G004, located just under 130 million light-years away. 

This galaxy has something known as an active galactic nucleus. While this phrase sounds complex, this simply means that astronomers measure a lot of radiation at all wavelengths coming from the centre of the galaxy. This radiation is generated by material falling inwards into the very central region of ESO 021-G004, and meeting the behemoth lurking there — a supermassive black hole. As material falls towards this black hole it is dragged into orbit as part of an accretion disc; it becomes superheated as it swirls around and around, emitting characteristic high-energy radiation until it is eventually devoured.

The data comprising this image were gathered by the Wide Field Camera 3 aboard the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope.

Discs and Bulges
Mon, 16 Dec 2019 06:00:00 +0100

This image from the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope shows IC 2051, a galaxy in the southern constellation of Mensa (The Table Mountain), lying about 85 million light-years away. It is a spiral galaxy, as evidenced by its characteristic whirling, pinwheeling arms, and it has a bar of stars slicing through its centre.

This galaxy was observed for a Hubble study on galactic bulges, the bright round central region of spiral galaxies. Spiral galaxies like IC 2051 are shaped a bit like flying saucers when seen from the side; they comprise a thin, flat disc, with a bulky bulge of stars in the centre that extends above and below the disc. These bulges are thought to play a key role in how galaxies evolve, and to influence the growth of the supermassive black holes lurking at the centres of most spirals. While more observations are needed in this area, studies suggest that some, or even most, galactic bulges may be complex composite structures rather than simple ones, with a mix of spherical, disc-like, or boxy components, potentially leading to a wide array of bulge morphologies in the Universe.

This image comprises data from Hubble’s Wide Field Camera 3 at visible and infrared wavelengths.

Galactic Diversity
Mon, 09 Dec 2019 06:00:00 +0100

NGC 3175 is located around 50 million light-years away in the constellation of Antlia (The Air Pump). The galaxy can be seen slicing across the frame in this image from the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope, with its mix of bright patches of glowing gas, dark lanes of dust, bright core, and whirling, pinwheeling arms coming together to paint a beautiful celestial scene.

The galaxy is the eponymous member of the NGC 3175 group, which has been called a nearby analogue for the Local Group. The Local Group contains our very own home galaxy, the Milky Way, and around 50 others — a mix of spiral, irregular, and dwarf galaxies. The NGC 3175 group contains a couple of large spiral galaxies — the subject of this image, and NGC 3137 — and numerous lower-mass spiral and satellite galaxies. Galaxy groups are some of the most common galactic gatherings in the cosmos, and they comprise 50 or so galaxies all bound together by gravity.

This image comprises observations from Hubble’s Wide Field Camera 3.