Hubble Space Telescope
HST (Hubble Space Telescope) Mission
The HST (Hubble Space Telescope) of NASA is named in honor of the American astronomer Edwin Hubble (1889-1953), Dr. Hubble confirmed an "expanding" universe, which provided the foundation for the big-bang theory. Hubble, the observatory, is the first major optical telescope to be placed in space, the ultimate mountaintop. Above the distortion of the atmosphere, far far above rain clouds and light pollution, Hubble has an unobstructed view of the universe. Scientists have used Hubble to observe the most distant stars and galaxies as well as the planets in our solar system. 1)
The planning for HST started in the early 1970s. The HST was launched into LEO (Low Earth Orbit) on April 24, 1990 on STS-31 (12:33:51 UTC, on Shuttle Discovery). Hubble is operational as of 2019, in its 30th year on orbit, and is one of NASA's Great Observatories. Hubble's launch and deployment in April 1990 marked the most significant advance in astronomy since Galileo's telescope. Thanks to five servicing missions and more than 25 years of operation, our view of the universe and our place within it has never been the same.
• Deployment of Hubble: April 25, 1990
• First Image: May 20, 1990: Star cluster NGC 3532
• Servicing Mission 1 (STS-61): December 1993
• Servicing Mission 2 (STS-82): February 1997
• Servicing Mission 3A (STS-103): December 1999
• Servicing Mission 3B (STS-109): February 2002
• Servicing Mission 4 (STS-125): May 2009
Spacecraft: The spacecraft has a length of 13.2 m, a mass at launch of 10,886 kg, post SM (Servicing Mission) 4 of 12,247 kg, and a maximum diameter of 4.2 m.
Orbit: LEO with an altitude of 547 km an inclination of 28.5º, and a period of 95 minutes.
The HST (Hubble Space Telescope) of NASA features a ULE TM(Ultra-Low Expansion) primary mirror of 2.4 m diameter (f/24 Ritchey-Chretien) and a 0.3 m Zerodur secondary mirror. The HST primary mirror was a lightweighted monolithic design (824 kg) by Perkin-Elmer (now Goodrich Inc.), Danbury, CN, using a lightweight, thick egg crate core sandwiched between two plates and fused together.
The HST is the most precisely pointed instrument in spaceborne astronomy. The pointing requirements call for a continuous 24 hour target lock maintenance of 0.007 arcseconds (2 millionth degree).
Figure 1: IMAX Cargo Bay Camera view of the Hubble Space Telescope at the moment of release, mission STS-31 in April 1990 (image credit: NASA)
The telescope's original equipment package included the Wide Field/Planetary Camera (WF/PC), Goddard High Resolution Spectograph (GHRS), Faint Object Camera (FOC), Faint Object Spectograph (FOS), and High Speed Photometer (HSP). 2) 3)
After a few weeks of operation, scientists noticed that images being sent back from Hubble were slightly blurred. While this distortion still allowed scientists to study the cosmos and make significant discoveries, it resulted in less spectacular images, and some of the original mission could not be fulfilled. An investigation finally revealed a spherical aberration in the primary mirror, due to a miscalibrated measuring instrument that caused the edges of the mirror to be ground slightly too flat. Engineers rushed to come up with a fix to the problem in time for Hubble's first scheduled servicing mission in 1993. The system designed to correct the error was designated COSTAR (Corrective Optics Space Telescope Axial Replacement). COSTAR was a set of optics that compensated for the aberration and would allow all of Hubble's instruments to function normally.
In December, 1993, the crew of STS-61 embarked on a service mission to replace a number of Hubble's parts. Following intensive training on the use of new tools never used before in space, two teams of astronauts completed repairs during a record five back-to-back spacewalks. During the EVAs, COSTAR was installed and the Wide Field/Planetary Camera was replaced with the Wide Field/Planetary Camera 2, which was designed to compensate for the mirror problem. The team also performed basic maintenance on the craft, installed new solar arrays, and replaced four of Hubble's gyroscopes.
Shortly after the crew returned to Earth and the Hubble Space Telescope began returning sharp and spectacular images, NASA deemed the servicing mission a success. Astronomers could now take advantage of a fully functional space telescope, and the public was treated to breathtaking photos of stars, galaxies, nebulae, and other deep-space objects. Subsequent servicing missions improved Hubble's capabilities and performed routine repairs.
In February, 1997, the crew of STS-82 installed the Near Infrared Camera and Multi-Object Spectrometer (NICMOS) and the Space Telescope Imaging Spectograph (STIS) to detect infrared light from deep-space objects and take detailed photos of celestial objects. Servicing mission 3A in December, 1999 replaced all six of the telescope's aging gyroscopes, which accurately point the telescope at its target. STS-103 astronauts also replaced one of the telescope's three fine guidance sensors and installed a new computer, all in time to redeploy Hubble into orbit on Christmas Day. The most recent servicing mission to the spacecraft, servicing mission 3B, came aboard STS-109 in March, 2002. Columbia crewmembers installed the new Advanced Camera for Surveys (ACS), which had sharper vision, a wider field of view, and quicker data gathering than the Wide Field/Planetary Camera 2. Astronauts also replaced Hubble's solar panels with a more efficient array and conducted repairs on the NICMOS.
Figure 2: This photograph of NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope was taken on the fifth servicing mission to the observatory in May 2009 (image credit: NASA)
Figure 3: Artist's view of the HST in space along with the designation of the key element locations (image credit: NASA)
The Hubble Space Telescope is an international collaboration among NASA and ESA (European Space Agency). NASA has overall responsibility for the Hubble mission and operations. ESA provided the original FOC (Faint Object Camera) and solar panels, and provides science operations support.
Figure 4: Photo of the Hubble mission operations team at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, as of Hubble’s 25th anniversary of flight in April 2015. Since Hubble’s official start in 1977, thousand of people from the United States and Europe have supported the mission through building and testing hardware and software, operating the vehicle, and performing science operations. More than 30 astronauts have flown to Hubble to deploy, upgrade and repair the observatory with the support of a human spaceflight and space shuttle staff. Thousands of astronomers from dozens of countries have used Hubble and analyzed its data to produce more than 15,000 peer reviewed papers to date (image credit: NASA/GSFC, Bill Hrybyk) 4)
Note: At this stage of the mission (2018), no attempt is being made to recover all facets of Hubble regarding the spacecraft, instrumentation and the past history (it would have required a constant accompaniment of the mission with all updates over its lifetime). Instead, some fairly recent images of the mission and the operational status of the mission are presented.
The Hubble Servicing Missions are shortly described in a separate chapter of this file.
HST sensor complement: (ACS, WFC3, STIS, COS, FGS, NICMOS)
The Hubble Space Telescope has three types of instruments that analyze light from the universe: cameras, spectrographs and interferometers. 5)
Figure 5: Hubble’s scientific instruments analyze different types of light ranging from ultraviolet (UV) to infrared (IR). This graphic shows which wavelengths each instrument studies (image credit: NASA)
Hubble has two primary camera systems to capture images of the cosmos. Called the Advanced Camera for Surveys (ACS) and the Wide Field Camera 3 (WFC3), these two systems work together to provide superb wide-field imaging over a broad range of wavelengths.
ACS (Advanced Camera for Surveys)
Installed on Hubble in 2002, ACS was designed primarily for wide-field imagery in visible wavelengths, although it can also detect ultraviolet and near-infrared light. ACS has three cameras, called channels, that capture different types of images. An electronics failure in January 2007 rendered the two most-used science channels inoperable. In 2009, astronauts were able to repair one of the channels and restored ACS’s capacity to capture high-resolution, wide-field views.
WFC3 (Wide Field Camera 3)
Installed in 2009, WFC3 provides wide-field imagery in ultraviolet, visible and infrared light. WFC3 was designed to complement ACS and expand the imaging capabilities of Hubble in general. While ACS is primarily used for visible-light imaging, WFC3 probes deeper into infrared and ultraviolet wavelengths, providing a more complete view of the cosmos.
Figure 6: Astronaut Andrew Feustel prepares to install WFC3 (Wide Field Camera 3) on Hubble during Servicing Mission 4 in 2009 (image credit: NASA)
Spectrographs practice spectroscopy, the science of breaking light down to its component parts, similar to how a prism splits white light into a rainbow. Any object that absorbs or emits light can be studied with a spectrograph to determine characteristics such as temperature, density, chemical composition and velocity.
Hubble currently utilizes two spectrographs: COS (Cosmic Origins Spectrograph) and the STIS (Space Telescope Imaging Spectrograph). COS and STIS are complementary instruments that provide scientists with detailed spectral data for a variety of celestial objects. While STIS is a versatile, “all purpose” spectrograph that handles bright objects well, COS measures exceedingly faint levels of ultraviolet light emanating from distant cosmic sources, such as quasars in remote galaxies. Working together, the two spectrographs provide a full set of spectroscopic tools for astrophysical research.
Figure 7: Hubble's STIS captured a spectrum (right) of material ejected by a pair of massive stars called Eta Carinae, while the Wide Field and Planetary Camera 2 took an image of the billowing clouds of gas enveloping the stellar pair (left). The spectrum reveals that one of the lobes contains the elements helium (He), argon (Ar), iron (Fe) and nickel (Ni), image credit: NASA, ESA and the Hubble SM4 ERO Team
Figure 8: Hubble's 2.4 m diameter primary mirror collects light from its astronomical target and reflex it to a 0.3 m diameter secondary mirror located in the optical tube. This secondary mirror then reflects the light through a hole in the primary mirror to form an image at the telescope’s focal plane. There it is intercepted by pick-off mirrors that pass it into the scientific instruments (image credit: Hubblesite) 6)
Hubble’s interferometers serve a dual purpose — they help the telescope maintain a steady aim and also serve as a scientific instrument. The three interferometers aboard Hubble are called the FGS (Fine Guidance Sensors). The Fine Guidance Sensors measure the relative positions and brightnesses of stars.
When Hubble is pointing at a target, two of the three Fine Guidance Sensors are used to lock the telescope onto the target. For certain observations, the third Fine Guidance Sensor can be used to gather scientific information about a target, such as a celestial object’s angular diameter or star positions that are ten times more accurate than those obtained by ground-based telescopes.
The Fine Guidance Sensors are very sensitive instruments. They seek out stable point sources of light (known as “guide stars”) and then lock onto them to keep the telescope pointing steadily. When a light in the sky is not a point source, the Fine Guidance Sensor cannot lock on and so it rejects the guide star. Often, a rejected guide star is actually a faraway galaxy or a double-star system. Since Hubble was launched in 1990, the Fine Guidance Sensors have detected hundreds of double-star systems that were previously thought to be single stars.
Only one of the instruments remaining on Hubble — the third Fine Guidance Sensor — was launched with the observatory in 1990. The rest of the instruments were installed during Hubble’s five servicing missions. In addition to installing new instruments, astronauts also repaired two instruments (ACS and STIS) while visiting Hubble on Servicing Mission 4 in 2009. The NICMOS (Near-Infrared Camera and Multi-Object Spectrometer) on Hubble is in hibernation following a cryocooler anomaly, but most of its infrared duties have since been taken over by WFC3.
Hubble’s past instruments include:
• High Speed Photometer
• Faint Object Camera
• Faint Object Spectrograph
• Goddard High Resolution Spectrograph
• Wide Field and Planetary Camera
• Wide Field and Planetary Camera 2
• Fine Guidance Sensors (three).
ACS (Advanced Camera for Surveys) - ACS is a third-generation imaging camera. This camera is optimized to perform surveys or broad imaging campaigns. ACS replaced Hubble's Faint Object Camera (FOC) during Servicing Mission 3B. Its wavelength range extends from the ultraviolet, through the visible and out to the near-infrared (115-1050 nm). ACS has increased Hubble's potential for new discoveries by a factor of ten.
COS (Cosmic Origins Spectrograph) - COS focuses exclusively on ultraviolet (UV) light and is the most sensitive ultraviolet spectrograph ever, increasing the sensitivity at least 10 times in the UV spectrum and up to 70 times when looking at extremely faint objects. It is best at observing points of light, like stars and quasars. COS was installed during during Servicing Mission 4 in May 2009.
STIS (Space Telescope Imaging Spectrograph) - STIS is a second-generation imager/spectrograph. STIS is used to obtain high resolution spectra of resolved objects. STIS has the special ability to simultaneously obtain spectra from many different points along a target. The STIS instrument has a mass of 318 kg and a wavelength range of 115-1000 nm.
STIS spreads out the light gathered by a telescope so that it can be analyzed to determine such properties of celestial objects as chemical composition and abundances, temperature, radial velocity, rotational velocity, and magnetic fields. Its spectrograph can be switched between two different modes of usage:
C So-called "long slit spectroscopy" where spectra of many different points across an object are obtained simultaneously.
1) So-called "echelle spectroscopy" where the spectrum of one object is spread over the detector giving better wavelength resolution in a single exposure.
STIS also has a so-called coronagraph which can block light from bright objects, and in this way enables investigations of nearby fainter objects.
WFC3 (Wide Field Camera 3) - Wide Field Camera 3 is the main imager on the telescope. It has a camera that records visible and ultraviolet (UVIS, 200-1000 nm) wavelengths of light and is 35 times more sensitive in the UV wavelengths than its predecessor. A second camera that is built to view infrared (NIR, 850-1700 nm) light increases Hubble's IR resolution from 65,000 to 1 million pixels. Its combination of field-of-view, sensitivity, and low detector noise results in a 15-20 time improvement over Hubble’s previous IR camera. WFC3 was jointly developed at GSFC, STScI (Space Telescope Science Institute) in Baltimore and Ball Aerospace & Technologies Corporation in Boulder, CO. 7)
FGS (Fine Guidance Sensor) – The FGS provides pointing information for the spacecraft by locking onto guide stars. The FGS can also function as a scientific instrument by precisely measuring the relative positions of stars, detecting rapid changes in a star’s brightness, and resolving double-star systems that appear as point sources even to Hubble’s cameras. Hubble has three FGSs onboard the observatory.
NICMOS (Near Infrared Camera and Multi-Object Spectrometer) – NICMOS has the ability to obtain images and spectroscopic observations of astronomical targets at near-infrared wavelengths. Although NICMOS is currently inactive, most of its functionality is replaced by Hubble’s other science instruments.
HST (Hubble Space Telescope) - Status and some observation imagery
• 08 January 2020: Using NASA's Hubble Space Telescope and a new observing technique, astronomers have found that dark matter forms much smaller clumps than previously known. This result confirms one of the fundamental predictions of the widely accepted "cold dark matter" theory. — The mysterious material makes up most of the mass in the universe, yet scientists don't understand its fundamental properties. Hubble observations have provided new clues. 8)
Figure 9: Each snapshot shows four distorted images of a background quasar (an extremely bright region in the center of some distant galaxies), surrounding the core of a massive foreground galaxy. The gravity of the foreground galaxy magnifies the quasar, an effect called gravitational lensing (image credit: NASA, ESA, A. Nierenberg, T. Treu)
- All galaxies, according to this theory, form and are embedded within clouds of dark matter. Dark matter itself consists of slow-moving, or "cold," particles that come together to form structures ranging from hundreds of thousands of times the mass of the Milky Way galaxy to clumps no more massive than the heft of a commercial airplane. (In this context, "cold" refers to the particles' speed.)
- The Hubble observation yields new insights into the nature of dark matter and how it behaves. "We made a very compelling observational test for the cold dark matter model and it passes with flying colors," said Tommaso Treu of the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), a member of the observing team.
Figure 10: This graphic illustrates how a faraway quasar (an extremely bright region in the center of some distant galaxies) is altered by a massive foreground galaxy. The galaxy's powerful gravity warps and magnifies the quasar's light, producing four distorted images of the quasar [image credit: NASA, ESA and D. Player (STScI)]
- Dark matter is an invisible form of matter that makes up the bulk of the universe's mass and creates the scaffolding upon which galaxies are built. Although astronomers cannot see dark matter, they can detect its presence indirectly by measuring how its gravity affects stars and galaxies. Detecting the smallest dark matter formations by looking for embedded stars can be difficult or impossible because they contain very few stars.
- While dark matter concentrations have been detected around large- and medium-sized galaxies, much smaller clumps of dark matter have not been found until now. In the absence of observational evidence for such small-scale clumps, some researchers have developed alternative theories, including "warm dark matter." This idea suggests that dark matter particles are fast moving, zipping along too quickly to merge and form smaller concentrations. The new observations do not support this scenario, finding that dark matter is "colder" than it would have to be in the warm dark matter alternative theory.
- "Dark matter is colder than we knew at smaller scales," said Anna Nierenberg of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, leader of the Hubble survey. "Astronomers have carried out other observational tests of dark matter theories before, but ours provides the strongest evidence yet for the presence of small clumps of cold dark matter. By combining the latest theoretical predictions, statistical tools and new Hubble observations, we now have a much more robust result than was previously possible."
- Hunting for dark matter concentrations devoid of stars has proved challenging. The Hubble research team, however, used a technique in which they did not need to look for the gravitational influence of stars as tracers of dark matter. The team targeted eight powerful and distant cosmic "streetlights," called quasars (regions around active black holes that emit enormous amounts of light). The astronomers measured how the light emitted by oxygen and neon gas orbiting each of the quasars' black holes is warped by the gravity of a massive foreground galaxy, which acts as a magnifying lens.
- Using this method, the team uncovered dark matter clumps along the telescope's line of sight to the quasars, as well as in and around the intervening lensing galaxies. The dark matter concentrations detected by Hubble are 1/10,000th to 1/100,000th times the mass of the Milky Way's dark matter halo. Many of these tiny groupings most likely do not contain even small galaxies, and therefore would have been impossible to detect by the traditional method of looking for embedded stars.
- The eight quasars and galaxies were aligned so precisely that the warping effect, called gravitational lensing, produced four distorted images of each quasar. The effect is like looking at a funhouse mirror. Such quadruple images of quasars are rare because of the nearly exact alignment needed between the foreground galaxy and background quasar. However, the researchers needed the multiple images to conduct a more detailed analysis.
- The presence of the dark matter clumps alters the apparent brightness and position of each distorted quasar image. Astronomers compared these measurements with predictions of how the quasar images would look without the influence of the dark matter. The researchers used the measurements to calculate the masses of the tiny dark matter concentrations. To analyze the data, the researchers also developed elaborate computing programs and intensive reconstruction techniques.
- "Imagine that each one of these eight galaxies is a giant magnifying glass," explained team member Daniel Gilman of UCLA. "Small dark matter clumps act as small cracks on the magnifying glass, altering the brightness and position of the four quasar images compared to what you would expect to see if the glass were smooth."
- The researchers used Hubble's Wide Field Camera 3 to capture the near-infrared light from each quasar and disperse it into its component colors for study with spectroscopy. Unique emissions from the background quasars are best seen in infrared light. "Hubble's observations from space allow us to make these measurements in galaxy systems that would not be accessible with the lower resolution of ground-based telescopes - and Earth's atmosphere is opaque to the infrared light we needed to observe," explained team member Simon Birrer of UCLA.
- Treu added: "It's incredible that after nearly 30 years of operation, Hubble is enabling cutting-edge views into fundamental physics and the nature of the universe that we didn't even dream of when the telescope was launched."
- The gravitational lenses were discovered by sifting through ground-based surveys such as the Sloan Digital Sky Survey and Dark Energy Survey, which provide the most detailed three-dimensional maps of the universe ever made. The quasars are located roughly 10 billion light-years from Earth; the foreground galaxies, about 2 billion light-years.
- The number of small structures detected in the study offers more clues about dark matter's nature. "The particle properties of dark matter affect how many clumps form," Nierenberg explained. "That means you can learn about the particle physics of dark matter by counting the number of small clumps."
- However, the type of particle that makes up dark matter is still a mystery. "At present, there's no direct evidence in the lab that dark matter particles exist," Birrer said. "Particle physicists would not even talk about dark matter if the cosmologists didn't say it's there, based on observations of its effects. When we cosmologists talk about dark matter, we're asking 'how does it govern the appearance of the universe, and on what scales?'"
- Astronomers will be able to conduct follow-up studies of dark matter using future NASA space telescopes such as the James Webb Space Telescope and the Wide Field Infrared Survey Telescope (WFIRST), both infrared observatories. Webb will be capable of efficiently obtaining these measurements for all known quadruply lensed quasars. WFIRST's sharpness and large field of view will help astronomers make observations of the entire region of space affected by the immense gravitational field of massive galaxies and galaxy clusters. This will help researchers uncover many more of these rare systems.
- The team will present its results at the 235th meeting of the American Astronomical Society in Honolulu (4-8 January 2020).
- The Hubble Space Telescope is a project of international cooperation between NASA and ESA (European Space Agency). NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, manages the telescope. The Space Telescope Science Institute (STScI) in Baltimore, Maryland, conducts Hubble science operations. STScI is operated for NASA by the Association of Universities for Research in Astronomy in Washington.
• 06 January 2020: To kickstart the 30th anniversary year of the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope, Hubble has imaged a majestic spiral galaxy. Galaxy UGC 2885 may be the largest known in the local universe. It is 2.5 times wider than our Milky Way and contains 10 times as many stars. This galaxy is 232 million light-years away, located in the northern constellation of Perseus. 9) 10)
- Despite its gargantuan size, researchers are calling it a “gentle giant” because it looks as if it has been sitting quietly over billions of years, possibly sipping hydrogen from the filamentary structure of intergalactic space. This is fuelling modest ongoing star birth at a rate half that of our Milky Way. In fact, its supermassive central black hole is also a sleeping giant; because the galaxy does not appear to be feeding on much smaller satellite galaxies, it is starved of infalling gas.
- A number of foreground stars in our Milky Way can be seen in the image, identified by their diffraction spikes. The brightest appears to sit on top of the galaxy’s disc, though UGC 2885 is really 232 million light-years farther away. The giant galaxy is located in the northern constellation Perseus.
- The galaxy has also been nicknamed “Rubin’s galaxy”, after astronomer Vera Rubin (1928–2016), by Benne Holwerda of the University of Louisville, Kentucky, who observed the galaxy with the Hubble Space Telescope.
- “My research was in large part inspired by Vera Rubin’s work in 1980 on the size of this galaxy,” said Holwerda. Rubin measured the galaxy’s rotation, providing evidence for dark matter that makes up most of the galaxy’s mass. “We consider this a commemorative image. The goal of citing Dr. Rubin in our observation was very much part of our original Hubble proposal.”
- Researchers are still seeking to understand what led to the galaxy’s monstrous size. “It’s as big as you can make a disk galaxy without hitting anything else in space,” added Holwerda.
- One clue is that the galaxy is fairly isolated in space and doesn’t have any nearby galaxies to crash into and disrupt the shape of its disc.
- Did the monster galaxy gobble up much smaller satellite galaxies over time? Or did it just slowly accrete gas to make new stars? “It seems like it’s been puttering along, slowly growing,” Holwerda said. Using Hubble’s exceptional resolution, his team is counting the number of globular star clusters in the galaxy’s halo — a vast shell of faint stars surrounding the galaxy. An excess of clusters would yield evidence that they were captured from smaller infalling galaxies over many billions of years.
- The upcoming NASA/ESA/CSA James Webb Space Telescope could be used to explore the center of this galaxy as well as the globular cluster population. The infrared capability of this telescope will give researchers a less impeded view of the underlying stellar populations that will complement Hubble’s visible-light ability to track wispy star formation throughout the galaxy.
Figure 11: This Hubble Space Telescope photograph showcases the majestic spiral galaxy UGC 2885, located 232 million light-years away in the northern constellation Perseus. The galaxy is 2.5 times wider than our Milky Way and contains 10 times as many stars. A number of foreground stars in our Milky Way can be seen in the image, identified by their diffraction spikes. The brightest star photobombs the galaxy's disk. The galaxy has been nicknamed "Rubin's galaxy," after astronomer Vera Rubin (1928 – 2016), who studied the galaxy's rotation rate in search of dark matter (image credit: NASA, ESA, and B. Holwerda (University of Louisville)
• 27 December 2019: 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. 11)
Figure 12: 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 center of the galaxy. This radiation is generated by material falling inward into the very central region of ESO 021-G004, and meeting the behemoth lurking there — a supermassive black hole. As material falls toward this black hole it is dragged into orbit as part of an accretion disk; 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 (image credit: ESA/Hubble & NASA, D. Rosario et al.)
• 19 December 2019: New Type of World is Unlike Anything Found in the Solar System. When astronomers look around the solar system, they find that planets can be made out of almost anything. Terrestrial planets like Earth, Mars, and Venus have dense iron cores and rocky mantles. The massive outer planets like Jupiter and Saturn are mostly gaseous and liquid. Astronomers can't peel back their cloud layers to look inside, but their composition is deduced by comparing the planet's mass (as calculated from its orbital motion) to its size. The result is that Jupiter has the density of water, and Saturn has an even lower density (it could float in a huge bathtub). These gas giants are just 1/5th the density of rocky Earth. 12) 13)
Figure 13: This illustration depicts the Sun-like star Kepler 51 and three giant planets that NASA's Kepler space telescope discovered in 2012–2014. These planets are all roughly the size of Jupiter but a tiny fraction of its mass. This means the planets have an extraordinarily low density, more like that of Styrofoam rather than rock or water, based on new Hubble Space Telescope observations. The planets may have formed much farther from their star and migrated inward. Now their puffed-up hydrogen/helium atmospheres are bleeding off into space. Eventually, much smaller planets might be left behind. The background starfield is correctly plotted as it would look if we gazed back toward our Sun from Kepler 51's distance of approximately 2,600 light-years, along our galaxy's Orion spiral arm. However, the Sun is too faint to be seen in this simulated naked-eye view [image credit: NASA, ESA, and L. Hustak, J. Olmsted, D. Player and F. Summers (STScI)]
- Now astronomers have uncovered a completely new class of planet unlike anything found in our solar system. Rather than a "terrestrial" or "gas giant" they might better be called "cotton candy" planets because their density is so low. These planets are so bloated they are nearly the size of Jupiter, but are just 1/100th of its mass. Three of them orbit the Sun-like star Kepler 51, located approximately 2,600 light-years away.
- The puffed-up planets might represent a brief transitory phase in planet evolution, which would explain why we don't see anything like them in the solar system. The planets may have formed much farther from their star and migrated inward. Now their low-density hydrogen/helium atmospheres are bleeding off into space. Eventually, much smaller planets might be left behind.
- "Super-Puffs" may sound like a new breakfast cereal. But it's actually the nickname for a unique and rare class of young exoplanets that have the density of cotton candy. Nothing like them exists in our solar system.
- New data from NASA's Hubble Space Telescope have provided the first clues to the chemistry of two of these super-puffy planets, which are located in the Kepler 51 system. This exoplanet system, which actually boasts three super-puffs orbiting a young Sun-like star, was discovered by NASA's Kepler space telescope in 2012. However, it wasn't until 2014 when the low densities of these planets were determined, to the surprise of many.
- The recent Hubble observations allowed a team of astronomers to refine the mass and size estimates for these worlds — independently confirming their "puffy" nature. Though no more than several times the mass of Earth, their hydrogen/helium atmospheres are so bloated they are nearly the size of Jupiter. In other words, these planets might look as big and bulky as Jupiter, but are roughly a hundred times lighter in terms of mass.
- How and why their atmospheres balloon outwards remains unknown, but this feature makes super-puffs prime targets for atmospheric investigation. Using Hubble, the team went looking for evidence of components, notably water, in the atmospheres of the planets, called Kepler-51 b and 51 d. Hubble observed the planets when they passed in front of their star, aiming to observe the infrared color of their sunsets. Astronomers deduced the amount of light absorbed by the atmosphere in infrared light. This type of observation allows scientists to look for the telltale signs of the planets' chemical constituents, such as water.
- To the amazement of the Hubble team, they found the spectra of both planets not to have any telltale chemical signatures. They attribute this result to clouds of particles high in their atmospheres. "This was completely unexpected," said Jessica Libby-Roberts of the University of Colorado, Boulder. "We had planned on observing large water absorption features, but they just weren't there. We were clouded out!" However, unlike Earth's water-clouds, the clouds on these planets may be composed of salt crystals or photochemical hazes, like those found on Saturn's largest moon, Titan.
- These clouds provide the team with insight into how Kepler-51 b and 51 d stack up against other low-mass, gas-rich planets outside of our solar system (Figure 14). When comparing the flat spectra of the super-puffs against the spectra of other planets, the team was able to support the hypothesis that cloud/haze formation is linked to the temperature of a planet — the cooler a planet is, the cloudier it becomes.
- The team also explored the possibility that these planets weren't actually super-puffs at all. The gravitational pull among the planets creates slight changes to their orbital periods, and from these timing effects planetary masses can be derived. By combining the variations in the timing of when a planet passes in front of its star (an event called a transit) with those transits observed by the Kepler space telescope, the team better constrained the planetary masses and dynamics of the system. Their results agreed with previous measured ones for Kepler-51 b. However, they found that Kepler-51 d was slightly less massive (or the planet was even more puffy) than previously thought.
- In the end, the team concluded that the low densities of these planets are in part a consequence of the young age of the system, a mere 500 million years old, compared to our 4.6-billion-year-old Sun. Models suggest these planets formed outside of the star's "snow line," the region of possible orbits where icy materials can survive. The planets then migrated inward, like a string of railroad cars.
- Now, with the planets much closer to the star, their low-density atmospheres should evaporate into space over the next few billion years. Using planetary evolution models, the team was able to show that Kepler-51 b, the planet closest to the star, will one day (in a billion years) look like a smaller and hotter version of Neptune, a type of planet that is fairly common throughout the Milky Way. However, it appears that Kepler-51 d, which is farther from the star, will continue to be a low-density oddball planet, though it will both shrink and lose some small amount of atmosphere. "This system offers a unique laboratory for testing theories of early planet evolution," said Zach Berta-Thompson of the University of Colorado, Boulder.
- The good news is that all is not lost for determining the atmospheric composition of these two planets. NASA's upcoming James Webb Space Telescope, with its sensitivity to longer infrared wavelengths of light, may be able to peer through the cloud layers. Future observations with this telescope could provide insight as to what these cotton candy planets are actually made of. Until then, these planets remain a sweet mystery.
Figure 14: This illustration depicts the Sun-like star Kepler 51 and three giant planets that NASA's Kepler space telescope discovered in 2012–2014. These planets are all roughly the size of Jupiter but a tiny fraction of its mass. This means the planets have an extraordinarily low density, more like that of Styrofoam rather than rock or water, based on new Hubble Space Telescope observations. The planets may have formed much farther from their star and migrated inward. Now their puffed-up hydrogen/helium atmospheres are bleeding off into space. Eventually, much smaller planets might be left behind. The background starfield is correctly plotted as it would look if we gazed back toward our Sun from Kepler 51's distance of approximately 2,600 light-years, along our galaxy's Orion spiral arm. However, the Sun is too faint to be seen in this simulated naked-eye view. [image credit: NASA, ESA, and L. Hustak, J. Olmsted, D. Player and F. Summers (STScI)]
- The Hubble Space Telescope is a project of international cooperation between NASA and ESA (European Space Agency). NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, manages the telescope. The Space Telescope Science Institute (STScI) in Baltimore conducts Hubble science operations. STScI is operated for NASA by the Association of Universities for Research in Astronomy in Washington, D.C.
• 16 December 2019: Galaxies come in a range of shapes and sizes. Spiral galaxies are characterized by a bright core and vast, pinwheeling arms of gas, dust and stars – NGC 1175 is such a galaxy, and also hosts something known as a ‘bar’ of material that slices through its center. Bars affect how material circulates throughout a galaxy, and look uniquely intriguing from afar. 14)
Figure 15: This image from the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope shows NGC 1175, a galaxy with an intriguing and distinctive shape (image credit: NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope and William Keel (University of Alabama) and the Galaxy Zoo team)
- And there’s more. When viewed edge-on, galaxies like this one have an even more peculiar morphology: their inner regions appear to be thicker in some directions than others, causing them to adopt a shape that is boxy and resembles an unshelled peanut or giant ‘X’.
- NGC 1175 was observed as part of a Hubble proposal named ‘Gems of the Galaxy Zoos’, for which a number of citizen scientists voted on the galaxies they wanted Hubble to observe when the telescope had gaps of time between scheduled projects. Voting took place on the Zooniverse platform. This image comprises infrared data gathered by Hubble’s Advanced Camera for Surveys on 18 July 2019.
- Despite studies implying that our very own cosmic home, the Milky Way, has an ‘X’-shaped core, it remains unclear how and when these boxy bulges formed. A recent study led by ESA research fellow Sandor Kruk used high-resolution Hubble data to explore galaxies more distant than NGC 1175. They found that these boxy bulges began forming some seven billion years ago, when the Universe was around half its current age. Their formation is related to that of galactic bars, which are thought to have formed about two billion years before the intriguingly shaped bulges began to emerge. The stars within these bars orbit the galactic center in complex, dynamic ways, with an array of vertical motions that contribute to the galaxies’ observed central boxy morphology.
- Hubble has spied a number of boxy/peanut-shaped galaxies, including the beautiful NGC 4710. Further research into these intriguing galaxies will be made possible by ESA’s upcoming Euclid mission, which will be able to survey how often these bulges crop up across a much larger number of galaxies, and by the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST), Hubble’s successor, which will be able to observe incredibly distant galaxies like these in order to better understand their history and formation. JWST is a joint project of NASA, ESA and the Canadian Space Agency.
• 13 December 2019: The NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope has once again captured comet 2I/Borisov streaking through our solar system on its way back into interstellar space. At a breathtaking speed of over 175,000 km/hour, Borisov is one of the fastest comets ever seen. It is only the second interstellar object known to have passed through the Solar System. 15) 16)
- Comet 2I/Borisov is only the second interstellar object known to have passed through our Solar System. In this image taken by the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope, the comet appears in front of a distant background spiral galaxy.
- The galaxy's bright central core is smeared in the image because Hubble was tracking the comet. Borisov was approximately 326 million kilometers from Earth in this exposure. Its tail of ejected dust streaks off to the upper right.
Figure 16: Comet 2I/Borisov and Distant Galaxy in November 2019 as observed by the Hubble Space Telescope (NASA, ESA, and D. Jewitt (UCLA) , CC BY 4.0) 17)
• 06 December 2019: Some of the most dramatic events in the Universe occur when certain stars die — and explode catastrophically in the process. 18)
- Such explosions, known as supernovae, mainly occur in a couple of ways: either a massive star depletes its fuel at the end of its life, become dynamically unstable and unable to support its bulk, collapses inwards, and then violently explodes; or a white dwarf in an orbiting stellar couple syphons more mass off its companion than it is able to support, igniting runaway nuclear fusion in its core and beginning the supernova process. Both types result in an intensely bright object in the sky that can rival the light of a whole galaxy.
Figure 17: In the last 20 years the galaxy NGC 5468, visible in this image, has hosted a number of observed supernovae of both the aforementioned types: SN 1999cp, SN 2002cr, SN2002ed, SN2005P, and SN2018dfg. Despite being just over 130 million light-years away, the orientation of the galaxy with respect to us makes it easier to spot these new ‘stars’ as they appear; we see NGC 5468 face on, meaning we can see the galaxy’s loose, open spiral pattern in beautiful detail in images such as this one from the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope (image credit: ESA/Hubble & NASA, W. Li et al.; Acknowledgements: Judy Schmidt (Geckzilla); CC BY 4.0)
• 29 November 2019: Some galaxies are closer friends than others. While many live their own separate, solitary lives, others stray a little too close to a near neighbor and take their relationship to the next level. 19)
- The NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope has viewed a number of interacting pairs. These can have distinctive, beautiful, and downright odd shapes, ranging from sheet music to a spaceship entering a sci-fi-esque wormhole, a bouquet of celestial blooms, and a penguin fiercely guarding its precious egg.
- Arp 293 is located in the constellation of Draco (The Dragon), and lies over 250 million light-years from Earth.
Figure 18: The two galaxies featured in this Picture of the Week, named NGC 6285 (left) and NGC 6286 (right), have done just that! Together, the duo is named Arp 293 and they are interacting, their mutual gravitational attraction pulling wisps of gas and streams of dust from them, distorting their shapes, and gently smudging and blurring their appearances on the sky — to Earth-based observers, at least (image credit: ESA/Hubble & NASA, K. Larson et al.)
• 21 November 2019: New observations from the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope have investigated the nature of the gamma-ray burst GRB 190114C. 20)
- Gamma-ray bursts are the most powerful explosions in the Universe. They emit most of their energy in gamma rays, light which is much more energetic than the visible light we can see with our eyes.
- In January 2019, an extremely bright and long gamma-ray burst (GRB) was detected by a suite of telescopes, including NASA's Swift and Fermi telescopes, as well as by the Major Atmospheric Gamma Imaging Cherenkov (MAGIC) telescopes. Known as GRB 190114C, some of the light detected from the object had the highest energy ever observed: 1Tera electron volt (TeV)—about one trillion times as much energy per photon as visible light. Scientists have been trying to observe such very high energy emission from GRBs for a long time, so this detection is considered a milestone in high-energy astrophysics.
- Previous observations revealed that to achieve this energy, material must be emitted from a collapsing star at 99.999% the speed of light. This material is then forced through the gas that surrounds the star, causing a shock that creates the gamma-ray burst itself. For the first time, scientists have observed extremely energetic gamma rays from this particular burst.
- “Hubble’s observations suggest that this particular burst was sitting in a very dense environment, right in the middle of a bright galaxy 5 billion light years away. This is really unusual, and suggests that this concentrated location might be why it produced this exceptionally powerful light,” explained one of the lead authors, Andrew Levan of the Institute for Mathematics, Astrophysics and Particle Physics Department of Astrophysics at Radboud University in the Netherlands. 21) 22)
- “Scientists have been trying to observe very high energy emission from gamma-ray bursts for a long time,” explained lead author Antonio de Ugarte Postigo of the Instituto de Astrofísica de Andalucía in Spain. "This new Hubble observation of accompanying lower-energy radiation from the region is a vital step in our understanding of gamma-ray bursts [and] their immediate surroundings."
Figure 19: New observations (artist's impression) from the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope have investigated the nature of the powerful gamma-ray burst GRB 190114C by studying its environment (image credit: NASA, ESA, Hubble, M. Kornmesser)
Figure 20: This image shows a ground-based wide-field view of the region around GRB 190114C from the Digitized Sky Survey 2 (image credit: ESA/Digitized Sky Survey 2. Acknowledgement: Davide De Martin)
• 15 November 2019: The Universe is simply so vast that it can be difficult to maintain a sense of scale. Many galaxies we see through telescopes such as the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope, the source of this beautiful Picture of the Week, look relatively similar: spiralling arms, a glowing center, and a mixture of bright specks of star formation and dark ripples of cosmic dust weaving throughout. 23)
- This galaxy, a spiral galaxy named NGC 772, is no exception. It actually has much in common with our home galaxy, the Milky Way. Each boasts a few satellite galaxies, small galaxies that closely orbit and are gravitationally bound to their parent galaxies. One of NGC 772’s spiral arms has been distorted and disrupted by one of these satellites (NGC 770 — not visible in the image here), leaving it elongated and asymmetrical.
- However, the two are also different in a few key ways. For one, NGC 772 is both a peculiar and an unbarred spiral galaxy; respectively, this means that it is somewhat odd in size, shape, or composition, and that it lacks a central feature known as a bar, which we see in many galaxies throughout the cosmos — including the Milky Way. These bars are built of gas and stars, and are thought to funnel and transport material through the galactic core, possibly fueling and igniting various processes such as star formation.
Figure 21: The galaxy NGC 772, is a local universe object at a distance of 100 million light years (image credit: ESA/Hubble & NASA, A. Seth et al., CC BY 4.0)
• 07 November 2019: This new
image from the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope shows an astronomical
object whose image is multiplied by the effect of strong gravitational lensing.
The galaxy, nicknamed the Sunburst Arc, is almost 11 billion
light-years away from Earth and has been lensed into multiple images by
a massive cluster of galaxies 4.6 billion light-years away . 24)
- The mass of the galaxy cluster is large enough to bend and magnify the light from the more distant galaxy behind it. This process leads not only to a deformation of the light from the object, but also to a multiplication of the image of the lensed galaxy.
- In the case of the Sunburst Arc the lensing effect led to at least 12 images of the galaxy, distributed over four major arcs. Three of these arcs are visible in the top right of the image, while one counterarc is visible in the lower left — partially obscured by a bright foreground star within the Milky Way.
- Hubble uses these cosmic magnifying glasses to study objects otherwise too faint and too small for even its extraordinarily sensitive instruments. The Sunburst Arc is no exception, despite being one of the brightest gravitationally lensed galaxies known.
- The lens makes various images of the Sunburst Arc between 10 and 30 times brighter. This allows Hubble to view structures as small as 520 light-years across — a rare detailed observation for an object that distant. This compares reasonably well with star forming regions in galaxies in the local Universe, allowing astronomers to study the galaxy and its environment in great detail.
- Hubble’s observations showed
that the Sunburst Arc is an analogue of galaxies which existed at a
much earlier time in the history of the Universe: a period known as the
epoch of reionization — an era which began only 150 million years
after the Big Bang .
Figure 22: Astronomers using the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope have observed a galaxy in the distant regions of the Universe which appears duplicated at least 12 times on the night sky. This unique sight, created by strong gravitational lensing, helps astronomers get a better understanding of the cosmic era known as the epoch of reionization (image credit: ESA, NASA, E. Rivera-Thorsen et al.)
- The epoch of reionization was a
key era in the early Universe, one which ended the “dark
ages”, the epoch before the first stars were created when the
Universe was dark and filled with neutral hydrogen .
- Once the first stars formed, they
started to radiate light, producing the high-energy photons required to
ionize the neutral hydrogen .
- This converted the intergalactic matter into the mostly ionized form in which it exists today. However, to ionize intergalactic hydrogen, high-energy radiation from these early stars would have had to escape their host galaxies without first being absorbed by interstellar matter. So far only a small number of galaxies have been found to “leak” high-energy photons into deep space. How this light escaped from the early galaxies remains a mystery.
- The analysis of the Sunburst Arc
helps astronomers to add another piece to the puzzle — it seems
that at least some photons can leave the galaxy through narrow channels
in a gas rich neutral medium. This is the first observation of a
long-theorized process . While this process is unlikely to be the
main mechanism that led the Universe to become reionized, it may very
well have provided a decisive push.
• 01 November 2019: Merope is located just out of the frame at the top right (Figure 23). Light from the star is reflected from the surface of the cloud, which illuminates it to become what astronomers call a reflection nebula. The beams of light at the upper right from the star are an effect produced by the telescope but the eerie wisps of light from the lower left to upper right are real. 25)
- Astronomers believe that radiation pressure from the star is acting like a sieve to separate dust particles of different sizes. As the nebula approaches Merope, the starlight decelerates dust particles, but the small particles slow down more than the large particles. As an effect, the almost straight lines that are reaching out towards Merope in this view are made of large particles, whereas smaller-sized particles lag behind to create the wispy structure on the lower left.
- The nebula will continue its approach towards Merope over the next few thousand years and will eventually move past the star, if it survives. Studying the nebula's interaction with the star is important as it provides a chance to observe interstellar material in an unusual situation and learn more about interstellar dust.
- The nebula near Merope was discovered in 1890 by E. E. Barnard using the 36 inch telescope at the Lick Observatory in California. This image was captured by the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope on 19 September 1999 and was originally published in 2000.
Figure 23: This ghostly image shows what can happen when an interstellar cloud passes too close to a star. Barnard's Merope Nebula, also known as IC 349, is a cloud of interstellar gas and dust travelling through the Pleiades star cluster at a relative speed of 11 km/s. It is passing close to the star Merope, located 0.06 light years away from the cloud, which is equivalent to about 3 500 times the distance between the Earth and the Sun. This passage is disrupting the nebula and creating the wispy effect seen in the image [image credit: NASA/ESA and The Hubble Heritage Team (STScI/AURA), George Herbig and Theodore Simon (University of Hawaii)]
• 28 October 2019: Although galaxy collisions are common — especially in the early universe — most are not head-on impacts like the collision that likely created this Arp-Madore system 704 million light-years from Earth. This violent encounter gives the system an arresting ring structure, but only for a short amount of time. The crash has pulled and stretched the galaxies’ discs of gas, dust, and stars outward, forming the ring of intense star formation that shapes the “nose” and “face” features of the system. 26) 27)
- Ring galaxies are rare, and only a few hundred of them reside in our larger cosmic neighborhood. The galaxies have to collide at just the right orientation so that they interact to create the ring, and before long they will have merged completely, hiding their messy past.
- The side-by-side juxtaposition of the two central bulges of stars from the galaxies that we see here is also unusual. Since the bulges that form the “eyes” appear to be the same size, we can be sure that the two galaxies involved in the crash were of equal size. This is different from the more common collisions in which small galaxies are gobbled up by their larger neighbors.
- This galaxy system is catalogued as Arp-Madore 2026-424 (AM 2026-424) in the Arp-Madore “Catalog of Southern Peculiar Galaxies and Associations”. Astronomer Halton Arp published his compendium of 338 unusual-looking interacting galaxies in 1966. He later partnered with astronomer Barry Madore to extend the search for unique galactic encounters in the southern sky. Several thousand galaxies are listed in this 1987 survey.
- Hubble observed this unique system as part of a “snapshot” program that takes advantage of occasional gaps in the telescope’s observing schedule to squeeze in additional pictures. Astronomers plan to use this innovative Hubble program to take a close look at many other unusual interacting galaxies. The goal is to compile a robust sample of nearby interacting galaxies, which could offer insights into how galaxies grew over time through galactic mergers. By analyzing these detailed Hubble observations, astronomers will be able to decide which systems are prime targets for follow-up observations by the upcoming NASA/ESA/CSA James Webb Space Telescope, scheduled to launch in 2021.
Figure 24: In celebration of Halloween, this new image from the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope captures two galaxies of equal size in a collision that appears to resemble a ghostly face. This observation was made on 19 June 2019 in visible light by the telescope’s ACS (Advanced Camera for Surveys). This system is catalogued as Arp-Madore 2026-424 (AM 2026-424) in the Arp-Madore “Catalog of Southern Peculiar Galaxies and Associations”[image credit: NASA, ESA, J. Dalcanton, B. F. Williams, and M. Durbin (University of Washington)]
• 25 October 2019: This galaxy's whirling arms tells us a story about what’s happening inside this galaxy. Stars are generally brighter and bluer when they are younger, so the blue patches mark sites of new star formation. Studying the structures of other galaxies is a key way to learn about the structure of our own, given that humans can’t leave the Milky Way to look back and see what it looks like from the outside. It helps to compare our observations of our home galaxy with those of nearby galaxies we can see in their entirety. 28)
Figure 25: This image from the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope shows IC 4653, a galaxy just above 80 million light-years from Earth. That may sound like quite a distance, but it’s not that far on a cosmic scale. At these kinds of distances, the types and structures of the objects we see are similar to those in our local area [image credit: ESA/Hubble & NASA, D. Rosario (CEA, Durham University) (CC BY 4.0)]
• 18 October 2019: The galaxy NGC 4380 looks like a special effect straight out of a science fiction or fantasy film in this Hubble Picture of the Week, swirling like a gaping portal to another dimension. 29)
- In the grand scheme of things, though, the galaxy is actually quite ordinary. Spiral galaxies like NGC 4380 are one of the most common types of galaxy in the Universe. These colossal collections of stars, often numbering in the hundreds of billions, are shaped like a flat disc, sometimes with a rounded bulge in the center. Graceful spiral arms outlined by dark lanes of dust wind around the bulging core, which glows brightly and has the highest concentration of stars in the galaxy.
Figure 26: A galactic portal, the galaxy NGC 4380 (image credit: ESA/Hubble & NASA, P. Erwin; CC)
• 17 October 2019: You’ve probably never noticed it, but our solar system is moving along at quite a clip. Stars in the outer reaches of the Milky Way, including our Sun, orbit at an average speed of 130 miles per second (210 km/s). But that’s nothing compared to the most massive spiral galaxies. “Super spirals,” which are larger, brighter, and more massive than the Milky Way, spin even faster than expected for their mass, at speeds up to 350 miles per second (570 km/s). 30)
Figure 27: The top row of this mosaic features Hubble images of three spiral galaxies, each of which with a mass several times as much as the Milky Way. The bottom row shows three even more massive spiral galaxies that qualify as “super spirals,” which were observed by the ground-based Sloan Digital Sky Survey. Super spirals typically have 10 to 20 times the mass of the Milky Way. The galaxy at lower right, 2MFGC 08638, is the most massive super spiral known to date, with a dark matter halo with a mass of at least 40 trillion Suns. — Astronomers have measured the rotation rates in the outer reaches of these spirals to determine how much dark matter they contain. They found that the super spirals tend to rotate much faster than expected for their stellar masses, making them outliers. Their speed may be due to the influence of a surrounding dark matter halo, the largest of which contains the mass of at least 40 trillion suns [image credit: NASA, ESA, P. Ogle and J. DePasquale (STScI ). Bottom row: SDSS, P. Ogle and J. DePasquale (STScI)]
- Super spirals are exceptional in almost every way. In addition to being much more massive than the Milky Way, they’re also brighter and larger in physical size. The largest span 450,000 light-years compared to the Milky Way’s 100,000-light-year diameter. Only about 100 super spirals are known to date. Super spirals were discovered as an important new class of galaxies while studying data from the Sloan Digital Sky Survey (SDSS) as well as the NASA/IPAC Extragalactic Database (NED).
- “Super spirals are extreme by many measures,” says Patrick Ogle of the STSI (Space Telescope Science Institute) in Baltimore, Maryland. “They break the records for rotation speeds.”
- Ogle is first author of a paper that was published October 10, 2019 in the Astrophysical Journal Letters. The paper presents new data on the rotation rates of super spirals collected with the Southern African Large Telescope (SALT), the largest single optical telescope in the southern hemisphere. Additional data were obtained using the 5-meter Hale telescope of the Palomar Observatory, operated by the California Institute of Technology. Data from NASA’s Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer (WISE) mission was crucial for measuring the galaxy masses in stars and star formation rates.
- Referring to the new study, Tom Jarrett of the University of Cape Town, South Africa says, “This work beautifully illustrates the powerful synergy between optical and infrared observations of galaxies, revealing stellar motions with SDSS and SALT spectroscopy, and other stellar properties — notably the stellar mass or ‘backbone’ of the host galaxies — through the WISE mid-infrared imaging."
- Theory suggests that super spirals spin rapidly because they are located within incredibly large clouds, or halos, of dark matter. Dark matter has been linked to galaxy rotation for decades. Astronomer Vera Rubin pioneered work on galaxy rotation rates, showing that spiral galaxies rotate faster than if their gravity were solely due to the constituent stars and gas. An additional, invisible substance known as dark matter must influence galaxy rotation. A spiral galaxy of a given mass in stars is expected to rotate at a certain speed. Ogle’s team finds that super spirals significantly exceed the expected rotation rate.
- Super spirals also reside in larger than average dark matter halos. The most massive halo that Ogle measured contains enough dark matter to weigh at least 40 trillion times as much as our Sun. That amount of dark matter would normally contain a group of galaxies rather than a single galaxy.
- “It appears that the spin of a galaxy is set by the mass of its dark matter halo,” Ogle explains.
- The fact that super spirals break the usual relationship between galaxy mass in stars and rotation rate is a new piece of evidence against an alternative theory of gravity known as MOND (Modified Newtonian Dynamics). MOND proposes that on the largest scales like galaxies and galaxy clusters, gravity is slightly stronger than would be predicted by Newton or Einstein. This would cause the outer regions of a spiral galaxy, for example, to spin faster than otherwise expected based on its mass in stars. MOND is designed to reproduce the standard relationship in spiral rotation rates, therefore it cannot explain outliers like super spirals. The super spiral observations suggest no non-Newtonian dynamics is required.
- Despite being the most massive spiral galaxies in the universe, super spirals are actually underweight in stars compared to what would be expected for the amount of dark matter they contain. This suggests that the sheer amount of dark matter inhibits star formation. There are two possible causes: 1) Any additional gas that is pulled into the galaxy crashes together and heats up, preventing it from cooling down and forming stars, or 2) The fast spin of the galaxy makes it harder for gas clouds to collapse against the influence of centrifugal force.
- “This is the first time we’ve found spiral galaxies that are as big as they can ever get,” Ogle says.
- Despite these disruptive influences, super spirals are still able to form stars. Although the largest elliptical galaxies formed all or most of their stars more than 10 billion years ago, super spirals are still forming stars today. They convert about 30 times the mass of the Sun into stars every year, which is normal for a galaxy of that size. By comparison, our Milky Way forms about one solar mass of stars per year.
- Ogle and his team have proposed additional observations to help answer key questions about super spirals, including observations designed to better study the motion of gas and stars within their disks. After its 2021 launch, NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope could study super spirals at greater distances and correspondingly younger ages to learn how they evolve over time. And NASA’s WFIRST mission may help locate more super spirals, which are exceedingly rare, thanks to its large field of view.
- The Space Telescope Science Institute is expanding the frontiers of space astronomy by hosting the science operations center of the Hubble Space Telescope, the science and operations center for the James Webb Space Telescope, and the science operations center for the future Wide Field Infrared Survey Telescope (WFIRST). STScI also houses the Mikulski Archive for Space Telescopes (MAST) which is a NASA-funded project to support and provide to the astronomical community a variety of astronomical data archives, and is the data repository for the Hubble, Webb, Kepler, K2, TESS missions and more.
• 14 October 2019: When astronomers use the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope to study the deep sky, asteroids from our Solar System can leave their marks on the captured pictures of far-away galaxies or nebulae. But rather than be annoyed at the imprinted trails in Hubble images, astronomers realized they could use them to find out more about the asteroids themselves. 31)
- To do this, a team of ESA astronomers and software engineers started the Hubble Asteroid Hunter citizen science project in June, enlisting the public to help them find asteroids observed by chance in Hubble archival images. Through this project, over 1900 volunteers have identified more than 300,000 asteroid trails in nearly 11,000 images in only 1.5 months, completing the project with swiftness and enthusiasm that exceeded the team’s expectations.
- Astronomy-enthusiast Melina Thévenot from Germany was one of the project’s keen volunteers. While analyzing Hubble data, she found an asteroid trail on the foreground of a 2005 image of the Crab Nebula, one of the night sky's most famous objects.
- Inspired by this impressive combination, Melina decided to process the original Hubble image combining views taken in blue, green and red filters, to create the stunning color scene portrayed here. The faint trail of 2001 SE101, a main-belt asteroid discovered by the ground-based LINEAR survey in 2001, appears as a curved streak that crosses the image from bottom left to top right, near the nebula’s center.
- The Crab Nebula, also known as Messier 1 or M1, was the first object recorded by French astronomer Charles Messier in his famous catalogue of deep-sky objects. It is the expanding remnant of a bright supernova explosion observed by astronomers in 1054. Aside from the swirling cloud of gas and dust, the explosion left behind a rapidly rotating neutron star at the center of the nebula, also visible in this image as the leftmost star in the bright pair at the center of the picture.
- While the chance alignment of a relatively nearby object – the asteroid – with the distant nebula is fascinating, it is not completely unexpected. In fact, the Crab Nebula, which has been observed by Hubble on nearly 300 occasions, fortuitously lies close to the ecliptic – the orbital plane where most asteroids reside in the Solar System – so it was only a matter of time before one of them ‘photobombed’ an observation of this iconic supernova remnant.
Figure 28: Foreground asteroid passing the Crab Nebula (image credit: ESA/Hubble & NASA, M. Thévenot (@AstroMelina); CC BY 4.0)
- Now that volunteers have perused the platform to spot and mark asteroid trails, it is astronomers’ turn to get to work. Knowing the date and time when the Hubble images were taken, they can use the trails marked in the pictures to infer asteroids’ positions and velocities. This means they can determine the orbits and future trajectories of known and previously unknown asteroids with greater precision than before.
- This knowledge is especially important for near-Earth objects: precisely determining the orbits of these asteroids can help protect our planet from possible impacts.
- Meanwhile, the ESA team is planning to add new data to the Hubble Asteroid Hunter project soon, so users will have another chance to inspect Hubble images in search of passing asteroids. Stay tuned!
- This stunning scene and the Hubble Asteroid Hunter project were made possible thanks to Zooniverse, the world’s largest citizen-science platform. The project was initiated by ESA research fellow Sandor Kruk, graduate student Max Mahlke, software engineers Elena Racero and Fabrizio Giordano from the ESAC Science Data Center (ESDC) near Madrid, Spain, and Bruno Merín, head of the ESDC.
• 16 October 2019: NASA's Hubble Space Telescope has given astronomers their best look yet at an interstellar visitor — comet 2I/Borisov — whose speed and trajectory indicate it has come from beyond our solar system. 32)
- Comet 2I/Borisov is only the second such interstellar object known to have passed through the solar system. In 2017, the first identified interstellar visitor, an object officially named 'Oumuamua, swung within 24 million miles of the Sun before racing out of the solar system. "Whereas 'Oumuamua appeared to be a rock, Borisov is really active, more like a normal comet. It's a puzzle why these two are so different," said David Jewitt of the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), leader of the Hubble team who observed the comet.
Figure 29: This Hubble image, taken on Oct. 12, 2019, is the sharpest view of the comet to date. Hubble reveals a central concentration of dust around the nucleus (which is too small to be seen by Hubble), video credit: NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center
- As the second known interstellar object found to enter our solar system, the comet provides invaluable clues to the chemical composition, structure and dust characteristics of planetary building blocks presumably forged in an alien star system a long time ago and far away.
- "Though another star system could be quite different from our own, the fact that the comet's properties appear to be very similar to those of the solar system's building blocks is very remarkable," said Amaya Moro-Martin of the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore.
- Hubble photographed the comet at a distance of 260 million miles from Earth. The comet is falling past the Sun and will make its closest approach to the Sun on Dec. 7, 2019, when it will be twice as far from the Sun as Earth.
- The comet is following a hyperbolic path around the Sun, and currently is blazing along at an extraordinary speed of 110,000 miles per hour. "It's traveling so fast it almost doesn't care that the Sun is there," said Jewitt.
- By the middle of 2020 the comet will streak past Jupiter's distance of 500 million miles on its way back into interstellar space where it will drift for untold millions of years before skirting close to another star system.
Figure 30: This is a time-lapse sequence compressing Hubble Space Telescope observations of comet 2I/Borisov, spanning a seven-hour period. As the second known interstellar object to enter our solar system, the comet is moving along at a breakneck speed of 110,000 miles per hour. To photograph the comet Hubble has to track it, like a photographer tracking a racetrack horse. Therefore, background stars are streaked in the exposure frames. An artificial satellite also crosses the field of view. Hubble reveals a central concentration of dust around an unseen nucleus [image credit: NASA, ESA and J. DePasquale (STScI)]
- Crimean amateur astronomer Gennady Borisov discovered the comet on Aug. 30, 2019. After a week of observations by amateur and professional astronomers all over the world, the International Astronomical Union's Minor Planet Center and the Center for Near-Earth Object Studies at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, computed a trajectory for the comet, which confirms that it came from interstellar space.
- Until now, all cataloged comets have come from either a ring of icy debris at the periphery of our solar system, called the Kuiper belt, or the hypothetical Oort cloud, a shell of comets about a light-year from the Sun, defining the dynamical edge of our solar system.
- Borisov and 'Oumuamua are only the beginning of the discoveries of interstellar objects paying a brief visit to our solar system, say researchers. According to one study there are thousands of such interlopers here at any given time, though most are too faint to be detected with current-day telescopes.
- Observations by Hubble and other telescopes have shown that rings and shells of icy debris encircle young stars where planet formation is underway. A gravitational "pinball game" between these comet-like bodies or planets orbiting other stars can hurtle them deep into space where they go adrift among the stars.
- Future Hubble observations of 2I/Borisov are planned through January 2020, with more being proposed.
- "New comets are always unpredictable," said Max Mutchler, another member of the observing team. "They sometimes brighten suddenly or even begin to fragment as they are exposed to the intense heat of the Sun for the first time. Hubble is poised to monitor whatever happens next with its superior sensitivity and resolution."
• 11 October 2019: The NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope sees galaxies of all shapes, sizes, brightnesses, and orientations in the cosmos. Sometimes, the telescope gazes at a galaxy oriented sideways — as shown here. The spiral galaxy featured in this Picture of the Week is called NGC 3717, and it is located about 60 million light-years away in the constellation of Hydra (The Sea Serpent). 33)
- NGC 3717 is not captured perfectly edge-on in this image; the nearer part of the galaxy is tilted ever so slightly down, and the far side tilted up. This angle affords a view across the disc and the central bulge (of which only one side is visible).
Figure 31: Seeing a spiral almost in profile, as Hubble has here, can provide a vivid sense of its three-dimensional shape. Through most of their expanse, spiral galaxies are shaped like a thin pancake. At their cores, though, they have bright, spherical, star-filled bulges that extend above and below this disc, giving these galaxies a shape somewhat like that of a flying saucer when they are seen edge-on (image credit: ESA/Hubble & NASA, D. Rosario; CC BY 4.0)
• 04 October 2019: Often referred to by its somewhat drier New General Catalogue designation of NGC 4194, this was not always one entity, but two. An early galaxy consumed a smaller gas-rich system, throwing out streams of stars and dust out into space. These streams, seen rising from the top of the merger galaxy, resembles the writhing snakes that Medusa, a monster in ancient Greek mythology, famously had on her head in place of hair, lending the object its intriguing name. 34)
- The legend of Medusa also held that anyone who saw her face would transform into stone. In this case, you can feast your eyes without fear on the center of the merging galaxies, a region known as Medusa's eye. All the cool gas pooling here has triggered a burst of star formation, causing it to stand out brightly against the dark cosmic backdrop.
Figure 32: The galaxy pictured in this Hubble Picture of the Week has an especially evocative name: the Medusa merger. The Medusa merger is located about 130 million light-years away in the constellation of Ursa Major (The Great Bear), image credit: ESA/Hubble & NASA, A. Adamo; CC BY 4.0
• 23 September 2019: Messier 86 is part of the Virgo Cluster of galaxies and is situated about 50 million light-years from Earth. The galaxy is moving through space remarkably quickly — its current trajectory is bringing it in our direction, back towards the center of its cluster from the far side, at the incredible speed of over 875,000 km/hr! Because of the speed with which it is moving through the cluster, Messier 86 is undergoing a process known as ram-pressure stripping; the resistive material filling the gaps between individual cluster galaxies is pulling at the gas and dust in Messier 86 and stripping them out as the galaxy moves, creating a long trail of hot gas that is emitting X-ray radiation. 35) 36)
- Astronomers are using Hubble observations such as this to study elliptical and lenticular galaxies, both of which are often found at the centers of galaxy clusters. By studying the cores of these galaxies, astronomers hope to determine details of the central structure and to analyze both the history of the galaxy and the formation of its core.
Figure 33: This image from the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope shows the galaxy Messier 86. Despite its being discovered over 235 years ago by astronomer Charles Messier, the morphological classification of Messier 86 remains unclear; astronomers are still debating over whether it is either elliptical or lenticular (the latter being a cross between an elliptical and spiral galaxy), image credit: ESA/Hubble & NASA, P. Cote et al.
• 20 September 2019: Many of the best-loved galaxies in the cosmos are remarkably large, close, massive, bright, or beautiful, often with an unusual or intriguing structure or history. However, it takes all kinds to make a Universe — as demonstrated by this Hubble Picture of the Week of Messier 110. 37) 38)
- Messier 110 may not look like much, but it is a fascinating near neighbor of our home galaxy, and an unusual example of its type. It is a member of the Local Group, a gathering of galaxies comprising the Milky Way and a number of the galaxies closest to it. Specifically, Messier 110 is one of the many satellite galaxies encircling the Andromeda Galaxy, the nearest major galaxy to our own, and is classified as a dwarf elliptical galaxy, meaning that it has a smooth and almost featureless structure. Elliptical galaxies lack arms and notable pockets of star formation — both characteristic features of spiral galaxies. Dwarf ellipticals are quite common in groups and clusters of galaxies, and are often satellites of larger galaxies.
- Because they lack stellar nurseries and contain mostly old stars, elliptical galaxies are often considered ‘dead’ when compared to their spiral relatives. However, astronomers have spotted signs of a population of young, blue stars at the center of Messier 110 — hinting that it may not be so dead after all.
Figure 34: Not so dead after all, the Messier 110 dwarf elliptical galaxy observed with Hubble (image credit: ESA/Hubble & NASA, L. Ferrarese et al.; CC BY 4.0)
• 12 September 2019: Saturn is so beautiful that astronomers cannot resist using the Hubble Space Telescope to take yearly snapshots of the ringed world when it is at its closest distance to Earth. 39)
- These images, however, are more than just beauty shots. They reveal a planet with a turbulent, dynamic atmosphere. This year's Hubble offering, for example, shows that a large storm visible in the 2018 Hubble image in the north polar region has vanished. Smaller storms pop into view like popcorn kernels popping in a microwave oven before disappearing just as quickly. Even the planet's banded structure reveals subtle changes in color.
Figure 35: The latest view of Saturn from NASA's Hubble Space Telescope captures exquisite details of the ring system — which looks like a phonograph record with grooves that represent detailed structure within the rings — and atmospheric details that once could only be captured by spacecraft visiting the distant world. Hubble's Wide Field Camera 3 observed Saturn on June 20, 2019, as the planet made its closest approach to Earth, at about 845 million miles away. This image is the second in a yearly series of snapshots taken as part of the Outer Planets Atmospheres Legacy (OPAL) project. OPAL is helping scientists understand the atmospheric dynamics and evolution of our solar system's gas giant planets. In Saturn's case, astronomers will be able to track shifting weather patterns and other changes to identify trends (image credit: NASA, ESA, A. Simon (GSFC), M. H. Wong (University of California, Berkeley) and the OPAL Team)
- But the latest image shows plenty that hasn't changed. The mysterious six-sided pattern, called the "hexagon," still exists on the north pole. Caused by a high-speed jet stream, the hexagon was first discovered in 1981 by NASA's Voyager 1 spacecraft.
Figure 36: A new image of Saturn (video credit: NASA/GSFC, Scientific Visualization Studio)
- Saturn's signature rings are still as stunning as ever. The image reveals that the ring system is tilted toward Earth, giving viewers a magnificent look at the bright, icy structure. Hubble resolves numerous ringlets and the fainter inner rings.
- This image reveals an unprecedented clarity only seen previously in snapshots taken by NASA spacecraft visiting the distant planet. Astronomers will continue their yearly monitoring of the planet to track shifting weather patterns and identify other changes. The second in the yearly series, this image is part of the Outer Planets Atmospheres Legacy (OPAL) project. OPAL is helping scientists understand the atmospheric dynamics and evolution of our solar system's gas giant planets.
Figure 37: This Hubble time-lapse movie shows the orbits of some of Saturn's icy moons as they circle the planet over an 18-hour period. The video is composed of 33 Hubble snapshots of the planet, taken June 19 to 20, 2019, by the Wide Field Camera 3. The closer the moon is to Saturn, the faster it orbits, according to the laws of gravity [video credit: NASA, ESA, A. Simon (Goddard Space Flight Center), M. H. Wong (University of California, Berkeley), the OPAL Team and J. DePasquale (STScI)]
• 11 September 2019: With data from the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope, water vapor has been detected in the atmosphere of a super-Earth within the habitable zone by UCL (University College London) researchers in a world first. K2-18b, which is eight times the mass of Earth, is now the only planet orbiting a star outside the Solar System, or exoplanet, known to have both water and temperatures that could support life. 40) 41)
- The UCL team used archive data from 2016 and 2017 captured by the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope and developed open-source algorithms to analyze the starlight filtered through K2-18b's atmosphere. 42) The results revealed the molecular signature of water vapor, also indicating the presence of hydrogen and helium in the planet's atmosphere.
- The discovery, published today in Nature Astronomy, is the first successful atmospheric detection of an exoplanet orbiting in its star's habitable zone, at a distance where water can exist in liquid form. 43)
- The authors believe that other molecules, including nitrogen and methane, may be present but they remain undetectable with current observations. Further studies are required to estimate cloud coverage and the percentage of atmospheric water present.
- The planet orbits the cool dwarf star K2-18, which is 110 light years from Earth in the constellation of Leo. Given the high level of activity of its red dwarf star, K2-18b may be more hostile than Earth and is likely to be exposed to more radiation.
- K2-18b was discovered in 2015 and is one of hundreds of super-Earths – planets with masses between those of Earth and Neptune – found by NASA's Kepler spacecraft. NASA's TESS mission is expected to detect hundreds more super-Earths in the coming years.
- Co-author Ingo Waldmann (UCL CSED), said: "With so many new super-Earths expected to be found over the next couple of decades, it is likely that this is the first discovery of many potentially habitable planets. This is not only because super-Earths like K2-18b are the most common planets in our Milky Way, but also because red dwarfs – stars smaller than our Sun – are the most common stars."
Figure 38: This artist's impression shows the planet K2-18b, it's host star and an accompanying planet in this system. K2-18b is now the only super-Earth exoplanet known to host both water and temperatures that could support life (image credit: ESA/Hubble, M. Kornmesser, CC BY 4.0)
- The next generation of space telescopes, including the NASA/ESA/CSA James Webb Space Telescope and ESA's ARIEL mission, will be able to characterize atmospheres in more detail as they will carry more advanced instruments. ARIEL is expected to launch in 2028 and will observe 1000 planets in detail to get a truly representative picture of what they are like.
- Professor Giovanna Tinetti (UCL CSED), co-author and Principal Investigator for ARIEL, said: "Our discovery makes K2-18b one of the most interesting targets for future study. Over 4000 exoplanets have been detected but we don't know much about their composition and nature. By observing a large sample of planets, we hope to reveal secrets about their chemistry, formation and evolution."
- "This study contributes to our understanding of habitable worlds beyond our Solar System and marks a new era in exoplanet research, crucial to ultimately placing the Earth, our only home, into the greater picture of the Cosmos," said Angelos Tsiaras.
• 09 September 2019: Previous research on the formation and evolution of star clusters has suggested that these systems tend to be compact and dense when they form, before expanding with time to become clusters of both small and large sizes. New Hubble observations in the Large Magellanic Cloud (LMC) galaxy have increased our understanding of how the size of star clusters in the LMC changes with time. 44)
Note : The observations were achieved from a set of long exposures acquired with the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope’s Wide Field Camera 3 (WFC3) and Advanced Camera for Surveys (ACS) for five old star clusters in the Large Magellanic Cloud galaxy, secured under proposal 14164 (PI: Sarajedini).
- Star clusters are aggregates of many (up to one million) stars. They are active systems in which the mutual gravitational interactions among the stars change their structure over time (known to astronomers as "dynamical evolution"). Because of such interactions, heavy stars tend to progressively sink towards the central region of a star cluster, while low-mass stars can escape from the system. This causes a progressive contraction of the cluster core over different timescales and means that star clusters with the same chronological age can vary greatly in appearance and shape because of their different “dynamical ages”.
- Located nearly 160,000 light-years from Earth, the LMC is a satellite galaxy of the Milky Way which hosts star clusters covering a wide range of ages. This differs from our own Milky Way galaxy which primarily contains older star clusters. The distribution of sizes as a function of age observed for star clusters in the LMC is very puzzling, as the young clusters are all compact, while the oldest systems have both small and large sizes.
- All star clusters, including those in the LMC, have been found to host a special type of re-invigorated stars called blue stragglers . Under certain circumstances, stars receive extra fuel that bulks them up and substantially brightens them. This can happen if one star pulls matter off a neighbor, or if they collide.
Note : Blue stragglers are so called because of their blue color, and the fact that their evolution lags behind that of their neighbors.
- As a result of dynamical aging, heavier stars sink towards the center of a cluster as the cluster ages, in a process similar to sedimentation, called “central segregation”. Blue stragglers are bright, making them relatively easy to observe, and they have high masses, which means that they are affected by central segregation and can be used to estimate the dynamical age of a star cluster .
Note : Blue stragglers combine being relatively bright and having high mass by the standards of globular cluster stars, but they are not the only stars within these clusters that are either bright or massive.
- Francesco Ferraro of the University of Bologna in Italy and his team used the Hubble Space Telescope to observe blue stragglers in five (coeval) old LMC star clusters with different sizes and succeeded in ranking them in terms of their dynamical age. 45)
- “We demonstrated that different structures of star clusters are due to different levels of dynamical ageing: they are in different physical shape despite the fact that they were born at the same cosmic time. This is the first time that the effect of dynamical ageing has been measured in the LMC clusters” says Ferraro.
- “These findings present intriguing areas for further research, since they reveal a novel and valuable way of reading the observed patterns of LMC star clusters, providing new hints about the cluster formation history in the LMC galaxy,” adds co-author Barbara Lanzoni.
Figure 39: Just as people of the same age can vary greatly in appearance and shape, so do collections of stars or stellar aggregates. New observations from the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope suggest that chronological age alone does not tell the complete story when it comes to the evolution of star clusters. — This image from the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope reveals an ancient, glimmering ball of stars called NGC 1466. It is a globular cluster — a gathering of stars all held together by gravity — that is slowly moving through space on the outskirts of the Large Magellanic Cloud, one of our closest galactic neighbors. NGC 1466 certainly is one for extremes. It has a mass equivalent to roughly 140,000 Suns and an age of around 13.1 billion years, making it almost as old as the Universe itself. This fossil-like relic from the early Universe lies some 160,000 light-years away from us. NGC 1466 is one of the 5 clusters in the LMC in which the level of dynamical evolution (or "dynamical age") was measured (image credit: ESA/Hubble & NASA)
• 06 September 2019: This Picture of the Week shows a dwarf galaxy named UGC 685. Such galaxies are small and contain just a tiny fraction of the number of stars in a galaxy like the Milky Way. Dwarf galaxies often show a hazy structure, an ill-defined shape, and an appearance somewhat akin to a swarm or cloud of stars — and UGC 685 is no exception to this. Classified as an SAm galaxy — a type of unbarred spiral galaxy — it is located about 15 million light-years from Earth. 46)
Figure 40: These data were gathered under the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope’s LEGUS (Legacy ExtraGalactic UV Survey) Program, the sharpest and most comprehensive ultraviolet survey of star-forming galaxies in the nearby Universe (image credit: ESA/Hubble & NASA; the LEGUS team, B. Tully, D. Calzetti Acknowledgement(s): Judy Schmidt (Geckzilla); CC BY 4.0)
- LEGUS is imaging 50 spiral and dwarf galaxies in our cosmic neighborhood in multiple colors using Hubble’s Wide Field Camera 3. The survey is picking apart the structures of these galaxies and resolving their constituent stars, clusters, groups, and other stellar associations. Star formation plays a huge role in shaping its host galaxy; by exploring these targets in detail via both new observations and archival Hubble data, LEGUS will shed light on how stars form and cluster together, how these clusters evolve, how a star’s formation affects its surroundings, and how stars explode at the end of their lives.
• 23 August 2019: This atmospheric Picture of the Week, taken with the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope, shows a dark, gloomy scene in the constellation of Gemini (The Twins). The subject of this image confused astronomers when it was first studied — rather than being classified as a single object, it was instead recorded as two objects, owing to its symmetrical lobed structure (known as NGC 2371 and NGC 2372, though sometimes referred to together as NGC 2371/2). 47)
- The structure of this region is complex. It is filled with dense knots of gas, fast-moving jets that appear to be changing direction over time, and expanding clouds of material streaming outwards on diametrically opposite sides of the remnant star. Patches of this scene glow brightly as the remnant star emits energetic radiation that excites the gas within these regions, causing it to light up. This scene will continue to change over the next few thousand years; eventually the knotty lobes will dissipate completely, and the remnant star will cool and dim to form a white dwarf.
Figure 41: Two lobes are visible to the upper right and lower left of the frame, and together form something known as a planetary nebula. Despite the name, such nebulae have nothing to do with planets; NGC 2371/2 formed when a Sun-like star reached the end of its life and blasted off its outer layers, shedding the constituent material and pushing it out into space to leave just a superheated stellar remnant behind. This remnant is visible as the orange-tinted star at the center of the frame, sitting neatly between the two lobes (image credit: ESA/Hubble & NASA, R. Wade et al.; CC BY 4.0)
• 16 August 2019: When stars like the Sun grow advanced in age, they expand and glow red. These so-called red giants then begin to lose their outer layers of material into space. More than half of such a star's mass can be shed in this manner, forming a shell of surrounding gas. At the same time, the star's core shrinks and grows hotter, emitting ultraviolet light that causes the expelled gases to glow. 48)
- This type of object is called, somewhat confusingly, a planetary nebula, though it has nothing to do with planets. The name derives from the rounded, planet-like appearance of these objects in early telescopes.
- NGC 2022 is located in the constellation of Orion (The Hunter).
Figure 42: Although it looks more like an entity seen through a microscope than a telescope, this rounded object, named NGC 2022, is certainly no alga or tiny, blobby jellyfish. Instead, it is a vast orb of gas in space, cast off by an ageing star. The star is visible in the orb's center, shining through the gases it formerly held onto for most of its stellar life (image credit: ESA/Hubble & NASA, R. Wade; CC BY 4.0)
• 08 August 2019: Hubble Showcases New Portrait of Jupiter. Among the most striking features in the image are the rich colors of the clouds moving toward the Great Red Spot. This huge anticyclonic storm is roughly the diameter of Earth and is rolling counterclockwise between two bands of clouds that are moving in opposite directions toward it. 49)
- As with previous images of Jupiter taken by Hubble, and other observations from telescopes on the ground, the new image confirms that the huge storm which has raged on Jupiter’s surface for at least 150 years continues to shrink. The reason for this is still unknown so Hubble will continue to observe Jupiter in the hope that scientists will be able to solve this stormy riddle. Much smaller storms appear on Jupiter as white or brown ovals that can last as little as a few hours or stretch on for centuries.
- The worm-shaped feature located south of the Great Red Spot is a cyclone, a vortex spinning in the opposite direction to that in which the Great Red Spot spins. Researchers have observed cyclones with a wide variety of different appearances across the planet. The two white oval features are anticyclones, similar to small versions of the Great Red Spot.
- The Hubble image also highlights Jupiter’s distinct parallel cloud bands. These bands consist of air flowing in opposite directions at various latitudes. They are created by differences in the thickness and height of the ammonia ice clouds; the lighter bands rise higher and have thicker clouds than the darker bands. The different concentrations are kept separate by fast winds which can reach speeds of up to 650 km/hour.
- These observations of Jupiter form part of the Outer Planet Atmospheres Legacy (OPAL) program, which began in 2014. This initiative allows Hubble to dedicate time each year to observing the outer planets and provides scientists with access to a collection of maps, which helps them to understand not only the atmospheres of the giant planets in the Solar System, but also the atmosphere of our own planet and of the planets in other planetary systems.
Figure 43: The NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope reveals the intricate, detailed beauty of Jupiter’s clouds in this new image taken on 27 June 2019 by Hubble’s Wide Field Camera 3, when the planet was 644 million kilometers from Earth — its closest distance this year. The image features the planet’s trademark Great Red Spot and a more intense color palette in the clouds swirling in the planet’s turbulent atmosphere than seen in previous years [image credit: NASA, ESA, A. Simon (Goddard Space Flight Center), and M.H. Wong (University of California, Berkeley)]
• 02 August 2019: Believe it or not, this long, luminous streak, speckled with bright blisters and pockets of material, is a spiral galaxy like our Milky Way. But how could that be? 50)
- The galaxy is located in the constellation of Leo Minor (The Lesser Lion). Other telescopes that have had NGC 3432 in their sights include those of the Sloan Digital Sky Survey, the Galaxy Evolution Explorer (GALEX), and the Infrared Astronomical Satellite (IRAS).
Figure 44: It turns out that we see this galaxy, named NGC 3432, orientated directly edge-on to us from our vantage point here on Earth. The galaxy’s spiral arms and bright core are hidden, and we instead see the thin strip of its very outer reaches. Dark bands of cosmic dust, patches of varying brightness, and pink regions of star formation help with making out the true shape of NGC 3432 — but it’s still somewhat of a challenge! Because observatories such as the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope have seen spiral galaxies at every kind of orientation, astronomers can tell when we happen to have caught one from the side (image credit: ESA/Hubble & NASA, A. Filippenko, R. Jansen; CC BY 4.0)
• 01 August 2019: The scorching hot exoplanet WASP-121b represents a new twist on the phrase "heavy metal." — There are no loud electric guitar riffs, characteristic of heavy metal music, streaming into space. What is escaping the planet is iron and magnesium gas, dubbed heavy metals, because they are heavier than lightweight hydrogen and helium. The observations by the Hubble Space Telescope represent the first time heavy metal gas has been detected floating away from an exoplanet. 51)
- Observations by NASA's Hubble Space Telescope reveal magnesium and iron gas streaming from the strange world outside our solar system known as WASP-121b. The observations represent the first time that so-called "heavy metals"—elements heavier than hydrogen and helium—have been spotted escaping from a hot Jupiter, a large, gaseous exoplanet very close to its star.
- Normally, hot Jupiter-sized planets are still cool enough inside to condense heavier elements such as magnesium and iron into clouds.
- But that's not the case with WASP-121b, which is orbiting so dangerously close to its star that its upper atmosphere reaches a blazing 4,600 degrees Fahrenheit. The WASP-121 system resides about 900 light-years from Earth.
- "Heavy metals have been seen in other hot Jupiters before, but only in the lower atmosphere," explained lead researcher David Sing of the Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Maryland. "So you don't know if they are escaping or not. With WASP-121b, we see magnesium and iron gas so far away from the planet that they're not gravitationally bound."
- Ultraviolet light from the host star, which is brighter and hotter than the Sun, heats the upper atmosphere and helps lead to its escape. In addition, the escaping magnesium and iron gas may contribute to the temperature spike, Sing said. "These metals will make the atmosphere more opaque in the ultraviolet, which could be contributing to the heating of the upper atmosphere," he explained.
- The sizzling planet is so close to its star that it is on the cusp of being ripped apart by the star's gravity. This hugging distance means that the planet is football shaped due to gravitational tidal forces.
Figure 45: This artist's illustration shows an alien world that is losing magnesium and iron gas from its atmosphere. The observations represent the first time that so-called "heavy metals"—elements more massive than hydrogen and helium—have been detected escaping from a hot Jupiter, a large gaseous exoplanet orbiting very close to its star. (image credit: NASA, ESA, and J. Olmsted (STScI))
- "We picked this planet because it is so extreme," Sing said. "We thought we had a chance of seeing heavier elements escaping. It's so hot and so favorable to observe, it's the best shot at finding the presence of heavy metals. We were mainly looking for magnesium, but there have been hints of iron in the atmospheres of other exoplanets. It was a surprise, though, to see it so clearly in the data and at such great altitudes so far away from the planet. The heavy metals are escaping partly because the planet is so big and puffy that its gravity is relatively weak. This is a planet being actively stripped of its atmosphere."
- The researchers used the observatory's STIS (Space Telescope Imaging Spectrograph) to search in ultraviolet light for the spectral signatures of magnesium and iron imprinted on starlight filtering through WASP-121b's atmosphere as the planet passed in front of, or transited, the face of its home star.
- This exoplanet is also a perfect target for NASA's upcoming James Webb Space Telescope to search in infrared light for water and carbon dioxide, which can be detected at longer, redder wavelengths. The combination of Hubble and Webb observations would give astronomers a more complete inventory of the chemical elements that make up the planet's atmosphere.
- The WASP-121b study is part of the Panchromatic Comparative Exoplanet Treasury (PanCET) survey, a Hubble program to look at 20 exoplanets, ranging in size from super-Earths (several times Earth's mass) to Jupiters (which are over 100 times Earth's mass), in the first large-scale ultraviolet, visible, and infrared comparative study of distant worlds.
- The observations of WASP-121b add to the developing story of how planets lose their primordial atmospheres. When planets form, they gather an atmosphere containing gas from the disk in which the planet and star formed. These atmospheres consist mostly of the primordial, lighter-weight gases hydrogen and helium, the most plentiful elements in the universe. This atmosphere dissipates as a planet moves closer to its star.
- "The hot Jupiters are mostly made of hydrogen, and Hubble is very sensitive to hydrogen, so we know these planets can lose the gas relatively easily," Sing said. "But in the case of WASP-121b, the hydrogen and helium gas is outflowing, almost like a river, and is dragging these metals with them. It's a very efficient mechanism for mass loss."
- The results will appear online today in The Astronomical Journal. 52)
- The Hubble Space Telescope is a project of international cooperation between NASA and ESA (European Space Agency). NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, manages the telescope. The Space Telescope Science Institute (STScI) in Baltimore, Maryland, conducts Hubble science operations. STScI is operated for NASA by the Association of Universities for Research in Astronomy in Washington, D.C.
• 26 July 2019: Every now and then, the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope glimpses a common object — say, a spiral galaxy — in an interesting or unusual way. A sharply angled perspective, such as the one shown in this Hubble image, can make it seem as if we, the viewers, are craning our necks to see over a barrier into the galaxy's bright center. 53) 54)
- NGC 3169 is located about 70 million light-years away in the constellation of Sextans (The Sextant). It is part of the Leo I Group of galaxies, which, like the Local Group that houses our home galaxy, the Milky Way, is part of a larger galactic congregation known as the Virgo Supercluster.
Figure 46: In the case of NGC 3169, this barrier is the thick dust embedded within the galaxy's spiral arms. Cosmic dust comprises a potpourri of particles, including water ice, hydrocarbons, silicates, and other solid material. It has many origins and sources, from the leftovers of star and planet formation to molecules modified over millions of years by interactions with starlight (image credit: ESA/Hubble & NASA, L. Ho; CC BY 4.0)
• 16 July 2019: Astronomers have made a new measurement of how fast the universe is expanding, using an entirely different kind of star than previous endeavors. The revised measurement, which comes from NASA's Hubble Space Telescope, falls in the center of a hotly debated question in astrophysics that may lead to a new interpretation of the universe's fundamental properties. 55)
- Scientists have known for almost a century that the universe is expanding, meaning the distance between galaxies across the universe is becoming ever more vast every second. But exactly how fast space is stretching, a value known as the Hubble constant, has remained stubbornly elusive.
- Now, University of Chicago professor Wendy Freedman and colleagues have a new measurement for the rate of expansion in the modern universe, suggesting the space between galaxies is stretching faster than scientists would expect. Freedman's is one of several recent studies that point to a nagging discrepancy between modern expansion measurements and predictions based on the universe as it was more than 13 billion years ago, as measured by the European Space Agency's Planck satellite.
- As more research points to a discrepancy between predictions and observations, scientists are considering whether they may need to come up with a new model for the underlying physics of the universe in order to explain it.
- "The Hubble constant is the cosmological parameter that sets the absolute scale, size and age of the universe; it is one of the most direct ways we have of quantifying how the universe evolves," said Freedman. "The discrepancy that we saw before has not gone away, but this new evidence suggests that the jury is still out on whether there is an immediate and compelling reason to believe that there is something fundamentally flawed in our current model of the universe.”
Figure 47: These galaxies are selected from a Hubble Space Telescope program to measure the expansion rate of the universe, called the Hubble constant. The value is calculated by comparing the galaxies' distances to the apparent rate of recession away from Earth (due to the relativistic effects of expanding space). - By comparing the apparent brightnesses of the galaxies' red giant stars with nearby red giants, whose distances were measured with other methods, astronomers are able to determine how far away each of the host galaxies are. This is possible because red giants are reliable milepost markers because they all reach the same peak brightness in their late evolution. And, this can be used as a "standard candle" to calculate distance. Hubble's exquisite sharpness and sensitivity allowed for red giants to be found in the stellar halos of the host galaxies. - The red giants were searched for in the halos of the galaxies. The center row shows Hubble's full field of view. The bottom row zooms even tighter into the Hubble fields. The red giants are identified by yellow circles (image credit: NASA/ESA, W. Freedman (University of Chicago), ESO, and the Digitized Sky Survey)
- In a new paper accepted for publication in The Astrophysical Journal, Freedman and her team announced a new measurement of the Hubble constant using a kind of star known as a red giant. Their new observations, made using Hubble, indicate that the expansion rate for the nearby universe is just under 70 km/sec/Mpc (Megaparsec). One parsec is equivalent to 3.26 light-years distance. 56)
- This measurement is slightly smaller than the value of 74 km/sec/Mpc recently reported by the Hubble SH0ES (Supernovae H0 for the Equation of State) team using Cepheid variables, which are stars that pulse at regular intervals that correspond to their peak brightness. This team, led by Adam Riess of the Johns Hopkins University and Space Telescope Science Institute, Baltimore, Maryland, recently reported refining their observations to the highest precision to date for their Cepheid distance measurement technique.
How to Measure Expansion
- A central challenge in measuring the universe's expansion rate is that it is very difficult to accurately calculate distances to distant objects.
- In 2001, Freedman led a team that used distant stars to make a landmark measurement of the Hubble constant. The Hubble Space Telescope Key Project team measured the value using Cepheid variables as distance markers. Their program concluded that the value of the Hubble constant for our universe was 72 km/sec/Mpc.
- But more recently, scientists took a very different approach: building a model based on the rippling structure of light left over from the big bang, which is called the Cosmic Microwave Background. The Planck measurements allow scientists to predict how the early universe would likely have evolved into the expansion rate astronomers can measure today. Scientists calculated a value of 67.4 km/sec/Mpc, in significant disagreement with the rate of 74.0 km/sec/Mpc measured with Cepheid stars.
- Astronomers have looked for anything that might be causing the mismatch. "Naturally, questions arise as to whether the discrepancy is coming from some aspect that astronomers don't yet understand about the stars we're measuring, or whether our cosmological model of the universe is still incomplete," Freedman said. "Or maybe both need to be improved upon."
- Freedman's team sought to check their results by establishing a new and entirely independent path to the Hubble constant using an entirely different kind of star.
- Certain stars end their lives as a very luminous kind of star called a red giant, a stage of evolution that our own Sun will experience billions of years from now. At a certain point, the star undergoes a catastrophic event called a helium flash, in which the temperature rises to about 100 million degrees and the structure of the star is rearranged, which ultimately dramatically decreases its luminosity. Astronomers can measure the apparent brightness of the red giant stars at this stage in different galaxies, and they can use this as a way to tell their distance.
- The Hubble constant is calculated by comparing distance values to the apparent recessional velocity of the target galaxies — that is, how fast galaxies seem to be moving away. The team's calculations give a Hubble constant of 69.8 km/sec/Mpc — straddling the values derived by the Planck and Riess teams.
- "Our initial thought was that if there's a problem to be resolved between the Cepheids and the Cosmic Microwave Background, then the red giant method can be the tie-breaker," said Freedman.
- But the results do not appear to strongly favor one answer over the other say the researchers, although they align more closely with the Planck results.
- NASA's upcoming mission, the Wide Field Infrared Survey Telescope (WFIRST), scheduled to launch in the mid-2020s, will enable astronomers to better explore the value of the Hubble constant across cosmic time. WFIRST, with its Hubble-like resolution and 100 times greater view of the sky, will provide a wealth of new Type Ia supernovae, Cepheid variables, and red giant stars to fundamentally improve distance measurements to galaxies near and far.
- The Hubble Space Telescope is a project of international cooperation between NASA and ESA (European Space Agency). NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, manages the telescope. The Space Telescope Science Institute (STScI) in Baltimore, Maryland, conducts Hubble science operations. STScI is operated for NASA by the Association of Universities for Research in Astronomy in Washington, D.C.
Table 1: Red giant stars used as milepost markers
• 11 July 2019: Astronomers using the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope have observed an unexpected thin disc of material encircling a supermassive black hole at the heart of the spiral galaxy NGC 3147, located 130 million light-years away. 57) 58) 59)
- The presence of the black hole disc in such a low-luminosity active galaxy has astronomers surprised. Black holes in certain types of galaxies such as NGC 3147 are considered to be starving as there is insufficient gravitationally captured material to feed them regularly. It is therefore puzzling that there is a thin disc encircling a starving black hole that mimics the much larger discs found in extremely active galaxies.
- Of particular interest, this disc of material circling the black hole offers a unique opportunity to test Albert Einstein’s theories of relativity. The disc is so deeply embedded in the black hole’s intense gravitational field that the light from the gas disc is altered, according to these theories, giving astronomers a unique peek at the dynamic processes close to a black hole.
- “We’ve never seen the effects of both general and special relativity in visible light with this much clarity,” said team member Marco Chiaberge of AURA (Association of Universities for Research in Astronomy) for ESA, STScI and Johns Hopkins University.
- The disc’s material was measured by Hubble to be whirling around the black hole at more than 10% of the speed of light. At such extreme velocities, the gas appears to brighten as it travels toward Earth on one side, and dims as it speeds away from our planet on the other. This effect is known as relativistic beaming. Hubble’s observations also show that the gas is embedded so deep in a gravitational well that light is struggling to escape, and therefore appears stretched to redder wavelengths. The black hole’s mass is around 250 million times that of the Sun.
- “This is an intriguing peek at a disc very close to a black hole, so close that the velocities and the intensity of the gravitational pull are affecting how we see the photons of light,” explained the study’s first author, Stefano Bianchi, of Università degli Studi Roma Tre in Italy.
- In order to study the matter swirling deep inside this disc, the researchers used the Hubble Space Telescope Imaging Spectrograph (STIS) instrument. This diagnostic tool divides the light from an object into its many individual wavelengths to determine the object's speed, temperature, and other characteristics at very high precision. STIS was integral to effectively observing the low-luminosity region around the black hole, blocking out the galaxy’s brilliant light.
Figure 48: Artist’s impression of the peculiar thin disc of material circling a supermassive black hole at the heart of the spiral galaxy NGC 3147, located 130 million light-years away (image credit: ESA/Hubble, M. Kornmesser)
- The astronomers initially selected this galaxy to validate accepted models about lower-luminosity active galaxies: those with malnourished black holes. These models predict that discs of material should form when ample amounts of gas are trapped by a black hole’s strong gravitational pull, subsequently emitting lots of light and producing a brilliant beacon called a quasar.
- “The type of disc we see is a scaled-down quasar that we did not expect to exist,” Bianchi explained. “It’s the same type of disc we see in objects that are 1000 or even 100 000 times more luminous. The predictions of current models for very faint active galaxies clearly failed.”
- The team hopes to use Hubble to hunt for other very compact discs around low-luminosity black holes in similar active galaxies.
Figure 49: A Hubble Space Telescope image of the spiral galaxy NGC 3147 appears next to an artist's illustration of the supermassive black hole residing at the galaxy’s core. The Hubble image shows off the galaxy's sweeping spiral arms, full of young blue stars, pinkish nebulas, and dust in silhouette. However, at the brilliant core of NGC 3147 lurks a monster black hole, weighing about 250 million times the mass of our Sun. Hubble observations of the black hole demonstrate two of Einstein’s theories of relativity. The reddish-yellow features swirling around the center are the glow of light from gas trapped by the hefty black hole’s powerful gravity. The black hole is embedded deep within its gravitational field, shown by the green grid that illustrates warped space. The gravitational field is so strong that light is struggling to climb out, a principal described in Einstein's theory of general relativity. Material also is whipping so fast around the black hole that it brightens as it approaches Earth on one side of the disk and gets fainter as it moves away. This effect, called relativistic beaming, was predicted by Einstein's theory of special relativity. NGC 3147 is located 130 million light-years away in the northern circumpolar constellation Draco the Dragon [image credit: Hubble Image: NASA, ESA, S. Bianchi (Università degli Studi Roma Tre University), A. Laor (Technion-Israel Institute of Technology), & M. Chiaberge (ESA, STScI, and JHU); illustration: NASA, ESA, and A. Feild and L. Hustak (STScI)]