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HubbleSOURCE

Informal Science Education Resources
from the home of NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope

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Planetary Nebulae

Planetary Nebulae

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As stars similar to our Sun approach the end of their lives they become unstable, pulsating and casting off their outer gaseous layers, which slowly dissipate into space. Once a star’s outer layers are gone, hotter inner regions are exposed, flooding space with ultraviolet light that illuminates (by fluorescence) the gas emitted over previous millennia. From Earth we see glowing shells of gas, called planetary nebulae. (Nebula is Latin for cloud. The description “planetary” was applied by early telescopic astronomers because the tiny disks of glowing gas superficially resemble the disks of planets. Astronomers have never confused the two, however.)

With its superior eyesight, Hubble reveals beautiful structure in planetary nebulae never seen before. These details testify to the complexity of stellar environments. Many of these nebulae may surround multiple star systems.

Hubble Space Telescope • Wide Field Planetary Camera 2

Supernova 1987A

Supernova 1987A

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Glittering stars and wisps of gas create a breathtaking backdrop for the self-destruction of a massive star, called supernova 1987A, in the Large Magellanic Cloud, a nearby galaxy. Astronomers in the Southern Hemisphere witnessed the brilliant explosion of this star on Feb. 23, 1987, before the 1990 deployment of the Hubble Space Telescope. In this Hubble image the supernova remnant, surrounded by inner and outer rings of material, is set in a forest of ethereal, diffuse clouds of gas. This three-color image is composed of several pictures of the supernova and its neighboring region taken in September 1994, February 1996 and July 1997.

Several years after these images were taken, the supernova’s fast-moving material swept the inner ring with full force, heating and exciting its gas, producing a new series of cosmic fireworks.

The many bright blue stars near the supernova are massive ones, each more than six times heftier than our Sun. With ages of about 12 million years, they are members of the same stellar generation as that of the star that exploded. Bright gas clouds in the region show that it is a fertile breeding ground for new stars.

Hubble Space Telescope • Wide Field Planetary Camera 2

Photo Credit: NASA and The Hubble Heritage Team (STScI/AURA)

STScI-1999-04

Galaxy NGC 4414

Galaxy NGC 4414

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This majestic spiral floats in space about 60 million light-years away. Its central regions contain primarily older yellow and red stars. The outer spiral arms glow with the bluer light of young stars, the brightest of which can be seen individually. The spiral arms are also rich with clouds of interstellar dust, seen as dark patches and streaks silhouetted against the starlight.

Hubble Space Telescope • Wide Field Planetary Camera 2

Photo Credit: Hubble Heritage Team (AURA/STScI/NASA)

STScI-1999-25

Heart of the Whirlpool Galaxy M51

Heart of the Whirlpool Galaxy M51

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Caption:
New images from the Hubble Space Telescope are helping researchers view in unprecedented detail the spiral arms and dust clouds of a nearby galaxy, which are the birth sites of massive and luminous stars. M51, also known as NGC 5194, is having a close encounter with a nearby companion galaxy, NGC 5195, just off the edge of this image. The companion’s gravitational pull is triggering star formation in the main galaxy, as seen in brilliant detail by numerous luminous clusters of young and energetic stars. The bright clusters are highlighted in red by their associated emission from glowing hydrogen gas.

Intricate structure is also seen for the first time in the dust clouds. Along the spiral arms, dust “spurs” are seen branching out almost perpendicular to the main spiral arms. The new images also reveal a dust disk in the nucleus, which may provide fuel for a black hole.

Hubble Space Telescope • Wide Field Planetary Camera 2

Photo Credit: NASA and the Hubble Heritage Team (STScI/AURA)

STScI-2001-10

Tadpole Galaxy

Tadpole Galaxy

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Against a stunning backdrop of thousands of galaxies, this spiral galaxy is unlike the textbook images of stately galaxies. Its distorted shape was caused by a small blue compact galaxy visible in the upper left corner of the more massive Tadpole. The tiny intruder is likely a hit-and-run galaxy that is now leaving the scene of the accident. Strong gravitational forces from the interaction created the long tail of debris, consisting of stars and gas that stretch out more than 280,000 light-years.

Numerous young blue stars and star clusters, spawned by the galaxy collision, populate the spiral arms, as well as the long “tidal” tail of stars. The clusters will eventually become old globular clusters similar to those found in essentially all halos of galaxies, including our own Milky Way.

The Tadpole resides about 420 million light-years away in the constellation Draco.

Hubble Space Telescope • Advanced Camera for Surveys

Photo Credit: NASA, H. Ford (JHU), G. Illingworth (USCS/LO), M. Clampin (STScI), G. Hartig (STScI), the ACS Science Team, and ESA

STScI-2002-11

The Mice – Merging Galaxies

The Mice – Merging Galaxies

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Three hundred million light-years away in the constellation Coma Berenices a spectacular pair of galaxies is engaged in a celestial dance of cat and mouse or, in this case, mouse and mouse. The colliding galaxies have been nicknamed “The Mice” because of the long tails of stars and gas emanating from each galaxy. The pair will eventually merge into a single giant galaxy. The bright blue patch in the galaxy on the left is a cascade of clusters of young, hot blue stars whose formation was triggered by the tidal forces of the gravitational interaction. The long, straight tidal tail – which also contains massive clusters of newborn stars – is actually curved, but appears straight because we see it edge-on.

The Mice presage what may happen to our own Milky Way several billion years from now when it collides with our nearest large neighbor, the Andromeda Galaxy (M31).

Hubble Space Telescope • Advanced Camera for Surveys

Photo Credit: NASA, H. Ford (JHU), G. Illingworth (USCS/LO), M. Clampin (STScI), G. Hartig (STScI), the ACS Science Team, and ESA

STScI-2002-11

Colliding Galaxies NGC 2207 and IC 2163

Colliding Galaxies NGC 2207 and IC 2163

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Caption:
Two spiral galaxies emerge from a grazing collision. The lower galaxy has already swung past the larger one but cannot escape its gravity Over the next few billion years, these galaxies will circle each other in an ever-tightening orbit until they coalesce to form a single, much larger galaxy.

Hubble Space Telescope • Wide Field Planetary Camera 2

Photo Credit: NASA and the Hubble Heritage Team (AURA/STScI)

STScI-1999-41

Strange Galaxies

Strange Galaxies

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Caption:
Astronomers group most galaxies into three broad categories: spiral, elliptical, and irregular. The galaxies shown in this Hubble photo collection defy such norms. Each testifies to the effect of a major gravitational interaction with another galaxy, either in the past or on-going, that radically altered its shape.

NGC 6745, a large spiral galaxy that appears like a bird’s head, peers at the smaller passing galaxy, while a bright blue beak and bright whitish-blue top feathers show the distinct path taken during the smaller galaxy’s journey. These galaxies did not merely interact gravitationally as they passed one another, they actually collided.

NGC 4650A is one of about 100 known “polar-ring” galaxies. Their unusual disk-ring structure is not yet understood fully. One possibility is that polar rings are the remnants of colossal collisions between two galaxies sometime in the distant past, probably at least 1 billion years ago. During the collision, gas from a smaller galaxy would have been stripped off and captured by a larger galaxy, forming a new ring of dust, gas, and stars, which orbit around the inner galaxy almost at right angles to the larger galaxy’s disk. This is the vertical polar ring, which we see almost edge-on in Hubble’s view.

The Cartwheel Galaxy shows immense comet-shaped knots of gas in its heart. The galaxy’s unusual wagon-wheel shape was created by a nearly head-on collision with a smaller galaxy about 200 million years ago.

Hoag’s Object, a galaxy slightly wider than our own Milky Way, appears as a wheel within a wheel. The blue ring of stars may be the shredded remains of a galaxy that passed nearby some 2 or 3 billion years ago.

Hubble Space Telescope • Wide Field Planetary Camera 2

Gravitational Lens Abell 1689

Gravitational Lens Abell 1689

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Caption:
A natural “zoom lens” in space boosts Hubble’s view of the distant universe in this view through the center of one of the most massive clusters of galaxies known, Abell 1689. The gravity of the cluster’s trillion stars – plus dark matter – acts as a 2-million-light-year-wide “lens” in space. This “gravitational lens” bends and magnifies the light of galaxies located far behind it.

Hubble’s Advanced Camera for Surveys reveals remote galaxies previously beyond even Hubble’s reach. A few may be twice as faint as those photographed in the Hubble Deep Field, which previously pushed the telescope to its sensitivity limits. Some of the faintest objects here may be over 13 billion light-years away.

In the image hundreds of galaxies many billions of light-years away are smeared by the gravitational bending of light into a spider-web tracing of blue and red arcs of light. Interspersed with the foreground cluster are thousands of galaxies, which are lensed images of the galaxies in the background universe. Detailed analysis of the images promises to shed light on the mystery of dark matter, an invisible form of matter.

It is the source of most of the gravity in the universe because it is much more abundant than the “normal matter” that makes up planets, stars, and galaxies. The lensing allows astronomers to map the distribution of dark matter in galaxy clusters. The picture is an exquisite demonstration of Albert Einstein’s prediction that gravity warps space and therefore distorts the path of a beam of light.

Hubble Space Telescope • Advanced Camera for Surveys

Photo Credit: NASA, N. Benitez (JHU), T. Broadhurst (The Hebrew University), H. Ford (JHU), M. Clampin(STScI), G. Hartig (STScI), G. Illingworth (UCO/Lick Observatory), the ACS Science Team and ESA

STScI-2003-01

Hubble Deep Field

Hubble Deep Field

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Caption:
In December 1995 the Hubble Space Telescope stared at a tiny portion of the sky for 10 straight days, gathering all the light it could. When the 342 separate exposures were combined, humanity had its deepest ever view of the universe, a bewildering assortment of some 2,000 galaxies covering a speck of sky no larger than a dime located 75 feet away.

The Hubble Deep Field is a cosmological “core sample.” The light from the most distant galaxies here – and virtually every speck is a galaxy – has been traveling for most of the history of the universe to reach us. We see early galaxies as they appeared as much as 10 billion years ago. The image shows galaxies as much as 4 billion times fainter than can be seen by a human eye.

Hubble Space Telescope • Wide Field Planetary Camera 2

Photo Credit: R. Williams (STScI), the Hubble Deep Field Team and NASA

STScI-1996-01

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