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
In 2020, the Hubble Space Telescope achieved its 30th year in orbit. Hubble’s unique design, allowing it to be repaired and upgraded with advanced technology by astronauts, has made it one of NASA’s longest-living and most valuable space-based observatories, beaming transformational astronomical images to Earth for decades.
Figure 1: Hubble has fundamentally changed our understanding of the cosmos, and its story — filled with challenges overcome by innovation, determination, and the human spirit — inspires us (video credit: NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center, Paul R. Morris (USRA): Lead Producer) 2)
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 2: 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). 3) 4)
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.
STS109-E-5700 (9 March 2002) — The Hubble Space Telescope, sporting new solar arrays and other important but less visible new hardware, begins its separation from the Space Shuttle Columbia. The STS-109 crew deployed the giant telescope at 4:04 a.m. CST (1004 GMT), March 9, 2002. Afterward, the seven crew members began to focus their attention to the trip home, scheduled for March 12. The STS-109 astronauts conducted five space walks to service and upgrade Hubble. 5)
The power for the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope's scientific discoveries comes from solar cells. Designing and constructing Hubble's first two sets of solar cell arrays, and the accompanying Solar Array Drive Mechanism (SADM) and Solar Array Drive Electronics (SADE), constituted a huge technological achievement for the European Space Agency (ESA) and European industry. After an in-orbit life of more than 10 years, the ESA-built solar arrays were replaced by new, more powerful arrays. However, ESA’s SADM and SADE, which control the telescope’s current solar arrays, are still on board and under ESA purview. They are among the telescope’s oldest subsystems. 6)
In December 2019, the accumulated slew angles of the SADM had reached 1,000,000 degrees of travel. This travel began accumulating on this day 18 years ago, 5 March 2002, when ESA’s solar arrays were replaced during the Space Shuttle Servicing Mission 3B.
“This milestone is a special occasion to recognize that after all of these years of operation, the SADM and SADE are still functioning perfectly without any sign of degradation. It's a fantastic achievement,” said Lothar Gerlach, former ESA project manager for the European hardware onboard the Hubble Space Telescope. “The SADM and SADE have greatly exceeded their design life, and we are very proud they are still a key part of Hubble scientific operations”.
Notes: The Hubble Space Telescope is a project of international co-operation between ESA and NASA. The ESA Hubble Space Telescope solar arrays have been provided to the European Space Agency by Astrium (UK/Germany — formerly British Aerospace, United Kingdom, AEG/Telefunken and Dornier — now Airbus, Germany), and Oerlikon Contraves Space (Switzerland).
Europe & Hubble 7)
ESA’s contribution to the Hubble Project guarantees European scientists access to 15% of Hubble observing time. Hubble time is allocated on scientific merit by an international panel that includes European experts. Over Hubble’s lifetime, European astronomers have, in open competition, been allocated more than the guaranteed 15%, and in some years the proportion has been closer to 25%.
Scientists from most ESA Member States have had an opportunity to observe with Hubble. To date, almost 800 observing programs with European principal investigators (lead scientists) have been carried out or are scheduled to be in the next observing round, with many others involved as co-investigators.
Figure 3: An overview of the fraction of observing time that has been rewarded to ESA proposals. It is measured in two different ways: In number of proposals and in time (here measured in units of Hubble orbits, i.e. 96 minutes). By both metrics, European scientists have won comfortably more than 15% of observing time in the majority of years since launch (image credit: ESA)
The success of a scientific mission can be measured by the number and quality of scientific papers that are published in the specialized press. The number of papers based on Hubble observations published each year has been increasing continuously since the telescope’s launch. There is at least one European author or co-author on about 30% of these papers, indicating the importance of Hubble to European astronomy.
Figure 4: 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 5: 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 6: 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) 8)
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. 9)
Figure 7: 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 8: 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 9: 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 10: 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) 10)
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 (FOC), provided by ESA
• 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. 11)
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.
Note: As of 25 April 2020, the previously large Hubble file has been split into three files, to make the file handling manageable for all parties concerned, in particular for the user community.
• This article covers the Hubble mission and its imagery in the period 2021, in addition to some of the mission milestones.
HST (Hubble Space Telescope) - Status and some observation imagery in the period 2021
• April 30, 2021: The Necklace Nebula — which also goes by the less glamorous name of PN G054.2-03.4 — was produced by a pair of tightly orbiting Sun-like stars. Roughly 10,000 years ago, one of the aging stars expanded and engulfed its smaller companion, creating something astronomers call a “common envelope”. The smaller star continued to orbit inside its larger companion, increasing the bloated giant’s rotation rate until large parts of it spun outwards into space. This escaping ring of debris formed the Necklace Nebula, with particularly dense clumps of gas forming the bright “diamonds” around the ring. 12)
- The pair of stars which created the Necklace Nebula remain so close together — separated by only a few million kilometers — that they appear as a single bright dot in the centre of this image. Despite their close encounter the stars are still furiously whirling around each other, completing an orbit in just over a day.
- The Necklace Nebula was featured in a previously released Hubble image, but now this new image has been created by applying advanced processing techniques, making for a new and improved view of this intriguing object. The composite image includes several exposures from Hubble’s Wide Field Camera 3.
Figure 11: The interaction of two doomed stars has created this spectacular ring adorned with bright clumps of gas — a diamond necklace of cosmic proportions. Fittingly known as the Necklace Nebula, this planetary nebula is located 15,000 light-years away from Earth in the small, dim constellation of Sagitta (The Arrow), image credit: ESA/Hubble & NASA, K. Noll; CC BY 4.0)
• April 29, 2021: NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope is giving astronomers a rare look at a Jupiter-sized, still-forming planet that is feeding off material surrounding a young star. 13)
- “We just don’t know very much about how giant planets grow,” said Brendan Bowler of the University of Texas at Austin. “This planetary system gives us the first opportunity to witness material falling onto a planet. Our results open up a new area for this research.”
- Though over 4,000 exoplanets have been cataloged so far, only about 15 have been directly imaged to date by telescopes. And the planets are so far away and small, they are simply dots in the best photos. The team’s fresh technique for using Hubble to directly image this planet paves a new route for further exoplanet research, especially during a planet’s formative years.
- This huge exoplanet, designated PDS 70b, orbits the orange dwarf star PDS 70, which is already known to have two actively forming planets inside a huge disk of dust and gas encircling the star. The system is located 370 light-years from Earth in the constellation Centaurus.
- “This system is so exciting because we can witness the formation of a planet,” said Yifan Zhou, also of the University of Texas at Austin. “This is the youngest bona fide planet Hubble has ever directly imaged.” At a youthful five million years, the planet is still gathering material and building up mass.
- Hubble’s ultraviolet light (UV) sensitivity offers a unique look at radiation from extremely hot gas falling onto the planet. “Hubble’s observations allowed us to estimate how fast the planet is gaining mass,” added Zhou.
Figure 12: This illustration of the newly forming exoplanet PDS 70b shows how material may be falling onto the giant world as it builds up mass. By employing Hubble’s ultraviolet light (UV) sensitivity, researchers got a unique look at radiation from extremely hot gas falling onto the planet, allowing them to directly measure the planet’s mass growth rate for the first time. The planet PDS 70b is encircled by its own gas-and-dust disk that’s siphoning material from the vastly larger circumstellar disk in this solar system. The researchers hypothesize that magnetic field lines extend from its circumplanetary disk down to the exoplanet’s atmosphere and are funneling material onto the planet’s surface. The illustration shows one possible magnetospheric accretion configuration, but the magnetic field’s detailed geometry requires future work to probe. The remote world has already bulked up to five times the mass of Jupiter over a period of about five million years, but is anticipated to be in the tail end of its formation process. PDS 70b orbits the orange dwarf star PDS 70 approximately 370 light-years from Earth in the constellation Centaurus [image credits: NASA, ESA, STScI, Joseph Olmsted (STScI)]
- The UV observations, which add to the body of research about this planet, allowed the team to directly measure the planet’s mass growth rate for the first time. The remote world has already bulked up to five times the mass of Jupiter over a period of about five million years. The present measured accretion rate has dwindled to the point where, if the rate remained steady for another million years, the planet would only increase by approximately an additional 1/100th of a Jupiter-mass.
- Zhou and Bowler emphasize that these observations are a single snapshot in time – more data are required to determine if the rate at which the planet is adding mass is increasing or decreasing. “Our measurements suggest that the planet is in the tail end of its formation process.”
- The youthful PDS 70 system is filled with a primordial gas-and-dust disk that provides fuel to feed the growth of planets throughout the entire system. The planet PDS 70b is encircled by its own gas-and-dust disk that’s siphoning material from the vastly larger circumstellar disk. The researchers hypothesize that magnetic field lines extend from its circumplanetary disk down to the exoplanet’s atmosphere and are funneling material onto the planet’s surface.
Figure 13: ESO's (European Southern Observatory’s) VLT (Very Large Telescope) caught the first clear image of a forming planet, PDS 70b, around a dwarf star in 2018. The planet stands out as a bright point to the right of the center of the image, which is blacked out by the coronagraph mask used to block the light of the central star [image credits: ESO, VLT, André B. Müller (ESO)]
- “If this material follows columns from the disk onto the planet, it would cause local hot spots,” Zhou explained. “These hot spots could be at least 10 times hotter than the temperature of the planet.” These hot patches were found to glow fiercely in UV light.
Figure 14: Hubble observations pinpoint planet PDS 70b. A coronagraph on Hubble’s camera blocks out the glare of the central star for the planet to be directly observed. Though over 4,000 exoplanets have been cataloged so far, only about 15 have been directly imaged to date by telescopes. The team’s fresh technique for using Hubble to directly image this planet paves a new route for further exoplanet research, especially during a planet’s formative years ([image credits: Joseph DePasquale (STScI)]
- These observations offer insights into how gas giant planets formed around our Sun 4.6 billion years ago. Jupiter may have bulked up on a surrounding disk of infalling material. Its major moons would have also formed from leftovers in that disk.
- A challenge to the team was overcoming the glare of the parent star. PDS 70b orbits at approximately the same distance as Uranus does from the Sun, but its star is more than 3,000 times brighter than the planet at UV wavelengths. As Zhou processed the images, he very carefully removed the star’s glare to leave behind only light emitted by the planet. In doing so, he improved the limit of how close a planet can be to its star in Hubble observations by a factor of five.
- “Thirty-one years after launch, we’re still finding new ways to use Hubble,” Bowler added. “Yifan’s observing strategy and post-processing technique will open new windows into studying similar systems, or even the same system, repeatedly with Hubble. With future observations, we could potentially discover when the majority of the gas and dust falls onto their planets and if it does so at a constant rate.”
- The researchers' results were published in April 2021 in The Astronomical Journal. 14)
• April 23, 2021: The giant star featured in this latest Hubble Space Telescope anniversary image is waging a tug-of-war between gravity and radiation to avoid self-destruction. The star, called AG Carinae, is surrounded by an expanding shell of gas and dust — a nebula — that is shaped by the powerful winds of the star. The nebula is about five light-years wide, which equals the distance from here to our nearest star, Alpha Centauri. 15)
- The huge structure was created from one or more giant eruptions several thousand years ago. The star’s outer layers were blown into space, the expelled material amounting to roughly 10 times the mass of our Sun. These outbursts are typical in the life of a rare breed of star called a Luminous Blue Variable (LBV), a brief unstable phase in the short life of an ultra-bright, glamorous star that lives fast and dies young. These stars are among the most massive and brightest stars known. They live for only a few million years, compared to the roughly 10-billion-year lifetime of our own Sun. AG Carinae is a few million years old and resides 20,000 light-years away inside our Milky Way galaxy. The star’s expected lifetime is between 5 million and 6 million years.
- LBVs have a dual personality. They appear to spend years in semi-quiescent bliss and then they erupt in a petulant outburst, during which their luminosity increases — sometimes by several orders of magnitude. These behemoths are stars in the extreme, far different from normal stars like our Sun. In fact AG Carinae is estimated to be up to 70 times more massive than our Sun and shines with the blinding brilliance of 1 million suns.
- Major outbursts such as the one that produced the nebula featured in this image occur a few times during a LBV’s lifetime. A LBV star only casts off material when it is in danger of self-destruction. Because of their massive forms and super-hot temperatures, luminous blue variable stars like AG Carinae are in a constant battle to maintain stability. It’s an arm-wrestling contest between radiation pressure from within the star pushing outward and gravity pressing inward. This arm-wrestling match results in the star’s expanding and contracting. The outward pressure occasionally wins the battle, and the star expands to such an immense size that it blows off its outer layers, like a volcano erupting. But this outburst only happens when the star is on the verge of coming apart. After the star ejects the material, it contracts to its normal (large) size, settles back down, and becomes stable again.
- LBV stars are rare: fewer than 50 are known among the galaxies in our local group of neighboring galaxies. These stars spend tens of thousands of years in this phase, a blink of an eye in cosmic time. Some are expected to end their lives in titanic supernova blasts, which enrich the Universe with the heavier elements beyond iron.
- Like many other LBVs, AG Carinae remains unstable. It has experienced lesser outbursts that have not been as powerful as the one that created the present nebula. Although AG Carinae is semi-quiescent now, its searing radiation and powerful stellar wind (streams of charged particles) have been shaping the ancient nebula, sculpting intricate structures as outflowing gas slams into the slower-moving outer nebula. The wind is travelling at up to 1 million kilometers per hour, about 10 times faster than the expanding nebula. Over time, the hot wind catches up with the cooler expelled material, ploughs into it, and pushes it farther away from the star. This “snowplough” effect has cleared a cavity around the star.
- The red material is glowing hydrogen gas laced with nitrogen gas. The diffuse red material at upper left pinpoints where the wind has broken through a tenuous region of material and swept it into space. The most prominent features, highlighted in blue, are filamentary structures shaped like tadpoles and lopsided bubbles. These structures are dust clumps illuminated by the star’s light. The tadpole-shaped features, most prominent at left and bottom, are denser dust clumps that have been sculpted by the stellar wind. Hubble’s sharp vision reveals these delicate-looking structures in great detail.
Figure 15: In celebration of the 31st anniversary of the launch of the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope, astronomers aimed the celebrated observatory at one of the brightest stars seen in our galaxy to capture its beauty. The image was taken in visible and ultraviolet light. Hubble is ideally suited for observations in ultraviolet light because this wavelength range can only be viewed from space (image credit: NASA, ESA and STScI)
• April 23, 2021: This image shows a close-up portrait of the magnificent spiral galaxy NGC 4603, which lies over 100 million light-years away in the constellation of Centaurus (The Centaur). Bright bands of blue young stars make up the arms of this galaxy, which wind lazily outwards from the luminous core. The intricate red-brown filaments threading through the spiral arms are known as dust lanes, and consist of dense clouds of dust which obscure the diffuse starlight from the galaxy. 16)
Figure 16: This galaxy is a familiar subject for Hubble. In the last years of the twentieth century, NGC 4063 was keenly and closely watched for signs of a peculiar class of stars known as Cepheid variables. These stars have a luminosity closely tied to the period with which they darken and brighten, allowing astronomers to accurately measure how far they are from Earth. Distance measurements from Cepheid variables are key to measuring the furthest distances in the Universe, and were one of the factors used by Georges Lemaître and Edwin Hubble to show that the Universe is expanding (image credit: ESA/Hubble & NASA, J. Maund; CC BY 4.0)
• April 16, 2021: This extraordinary image from the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope of the galaxy cluster Abell 2813 (also known as ACO 2813) has an almost delicate beauty, which also illustrates the remarkable physics at work within it. The image spectacularly demonstrates the concept of gravitational lensing. 17)
- In amongst the tiny dots, spirals and ovals that are the galaxies that belong to the cluster, there are several distinct crescent shapes. These curved arcs of light are strong examples of a phenomenon known as gravitational lensing. The image was compiled using observations taken with the Hubble Space Telescope’s Advanced Camera for Surveys (ACS) and Wide Field Camera 3 (WFC3).
- This very visual evidence that mass causes light to bend has been famously used as a proof of one of the most famous scientific theories: Einstein’s theory of general relativity.
Figure 17: Gravitational lensing occurs when an object’s mass causes light to bend. The curved crescents and s-shapes of light in this image are not curved galaxies, but are light from galaxies that actually lie beyond Abell 2813. The galaxy cluster has so much mass that it acts as a gravitational lens, causing light from more distant galaxies to bend around it. These distortions can appear as many different shapes, such as long lines or arcs (image credit: ESA/Hubble & NASA, D. Coe; CC BY 4.0)
• April 9, 2021: M61 appears almost face-on, making it a popular subject for astronomical images, even though the galaxy lies more than 52 million light-years from Earth. This particular astronomical image incorporates data from not only Hubble, but also the FORS camera at the European Southern Observatory’s VLT (Very Large Telescope), together revealing M61 in unprecedented detail. This striking image is one of many examples of telescope teamwork — astronomers frequently combine data from ground-based and space-based telescopes to learn more about the Universe. 18)
- Though the gleaming spiral of this galaxy makes for a spectacular sight, one of the most interesting features of M61 lurks unseen at the center of this image. As well as widespread pockets of star formation, M61 hosts a supermassive black hole more than 5 million times as massive as the Sun.
Figure 18: The luminous heart of the galaxy M61 dominates this image, framed by its winding spiral arms threaded with dark tendrils of dust. As well as the usual bright bands of stars, the spiral arms of M61 are studded with ruby-red patches of light. Tell-tale signs of recent star formation, these glowing regions lead to M61’s classification as a starburst galaxy (image credit: ESA/Hubble & NASA, ESO, J. Lee and the PHANGS-HST Team; CC BY 4.0)
• April 8, 2021: Forty years ago in 1981, the first space shuttle launched, the Voyager 2 space probe encountered Saturn, and in Baltimore, Maryland, the Space Telescope Science Institute (STScI) was founded. In that year, NASA selected a proposal by the Association of Universities for Research in Astronomy to establish STScI on the Johns Hopkins University Homewood campus. 19)
- STScI would serve as the science operations center for NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope (then known as the Large Space Telescope). Nine years later in 1990 Hubble launched, and for the past 31 years STScI has provided Hubble data to the astronomical community, and publicized Hubble's revolutionary discoveries and inspirational images to the world. As it celebrates its 40th anniversary STScI is looking forward to the future, including the October 2021 launch of NASA's next flagship mission, the James Webb Space Telescope, as well as other endeavors.
Figure 19: The STScI (Space Telescope Science Institute) is headquartered in the Muller building on the Johns Hopkins University's Homewood campus. This photo shows the original building shortly after its completion in 1983 (image credit: STScI)
- “For the past 40 years, STScI has partnered with NASA and the astronomical community to advance scientific discovery,” said STScI director Kenneth Sembach. “Much has changed in the field of astronomy over that time as Hubble has revolutionized our understanding of astrophysical phenomena. We’ve grown and changed as well to meet the needs of the astronomical community, create new avenues for exploration, and engage the public in the wonders of the universe. I can hardly wait to see what the future holds as we look ahead to many more years of Hubble operations, the launch of Webb, and the upcoming Nancy Grace Roman Space Telescope.”
- STScI is best known for its role in the Hubble mission. As science operations center, the institute enables scientists around the world to make maximum use of Hubble’s unique capabilities to conduct cutting-edge science. STScI personnel strive not only to maintain but also continuously improve Hubble operations, ensuring that the telescope will provide quality data for years into the future. Members of the institute's scientific staff also conduct their own research, producing hundreds of peer-reviewed articles each year, and help lead initiatives guiding the future of astrophysics research.
- "In 1976, a committee of the National Academy of Sciences proposed a radical idea that STScI should run Hubble. Working in partnership with the scientific community and NASA, the new organization’s sole job was to advocate for the science," commented Matt Mountain, President of the Association of Universities for Research in Astronomy (AURA), which runs STScI. "Today, no one doubts the value of that prescient decision by NASA to create STScI to run the science program for the Hubble Space Telescope. Driven by the science of the astronomical community, Hubble has become the scientific ‘gold standard’ and a global brand, precisely because STScI has retained the scientific independence and integrity entrusted to AURA and its partner Johns Hopkins University."
- In planning for Hubble’s launch and science operations, STScI was instrumental in making a transformative change to how astronomy is conducted. Unlike previous space missions, Hubble was opened to observers around the world. Accordingly, the institute fostered the growth of astronomer teams, which provided opportunities to more researchers. Under the guidance of its first director, Riccardo Giacconi, STScI made a pioneering effort by taking a novel approach to opening up astronomy to general users. The world’s first digitized sky catalog was created for aiming the telescope, and complex automation was developed for planning, scheduling, and archiving observations. This became the guide for future NASA space astrophysics missions.
- In 2001 STScI was selected to oversee the science and mission operations of NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope, planned to launch later this year. Webb will be the largest, most powerful and complex space telescope ever built and launched into space. It will complement and extend the discoveries of Hubble, with infrared detectors that will allow it to observe the first galaxies, as well as look inside dust clouds where stars and planetary systems are forming today.
- STScI will also play a key role in the science operations for NASA’s Nancy Grace Roman Space Telescope, which is planned to launch in the mid-2020s. The Roman Space Telescope will provide a panoramic field of view that is 100 times greater than Hubble's, leading to the first wide-field maps of the universe at space-based resolution.
- A key element of the institute's work is the Barbara A. Mikulski Archive for Space Telescopes (MAST). Established at the outset of the Hubble mission in 1990, it was expanded in 1997 to include data from other ultraviolet and optical space astronomy missions. Today, MAST provides astronomers access to data from more than 20 space missions and ground-based observatories.
- STScI also plays a vital role in the development of technologies for future observatories. The institute’s Russell B. Makidon Optics Laboratory, created in 2013, conducts research focused on enabling direct images of exoplanets using large segmented telescopes in space, including high-contrast coronagraphy, optical mirror alignments, applications of deformable mirrors for wavefront sensing and control, and digital micromirror devices for multi-object spectroscopy.
- In addition to its scientific leadership, STScI strives to be a leader in diversity, equity and inclusion (DE&I). The Institute pioneered the use of a dual-anonymous review process, in which scientists reviewing requests for Hubble observing time do not know the names or locations of the proposers. The process proved so successful in achieving gender parity that NASA is mandating it for all its astrophysics missions in the future. The review process is only one element of a broad commitment to DE&I as STScI strives to model the workplace of the future, while also broadening participation in the exploration of the universe.
- STScI is a leader in the field of astronomy communications and outreach. The institute’s public outreach team leverages unique access to scientific discoveries, data, and mission experts to produce a broad variety of materials ranging from awe-inspiring images and press releases to videos and in-depth articles. Additional products and learning experiences, grounded in evidence-based learning strategies and externally evaluated, are used by museums, libraries, and other organizations nationwide, as well as the general public. STScI’s outreach team maintains a web presence for core science missions, provides support for the Space Astronomy Summer Program (SASP) for undergraduates, and leverages new technologies to create virtual reality (VR) and other interactive experiences. STScI also leads the multi-institutional NASA’s Universe of Learning project.
• April 6, 2021: NASA's Hubble Space Telescope is "seeing double." Peering back 10 billion years into the universe's past, Hubble astronomers found a pair of quasars that are so close to each other they look like a single object in ground-based telescopic photos, but not in Hubble’s crisp view. 20)
- The researchers believe the quasars are very close to each other because they reside in the cores of two merging galaxies. The team went on to win the "daily double" by finding yet another quasar pair in another colliding galaxy duo.
- A quasar is a brilliant beacon of intense light from the center of a distant galaxy that can outshine the entire galaxy. It is powered by a supermassive black hole voraciously feeding on inflating matter, unleashing a torrent of radiation.
- "We estimate that in the distant universe, for every 1,000 quasars, there is one double quasar. So finding these double quasars is like finding a needle in a haystack," said lead researcher Yue Shen of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.
- The discovery of these four quasars offers a new way to probe collisions among galaxies and the merging of supermassive black holes in the early universe, researchers say.
- Quasars are scattered all across the sky and were most abundant 10 billion years ago. There were a lot of galaxy mergers back then feeding the black holes. Therefore, astronomers theorize there should have been many dual quasars during that time.
- "This truly is the first sample of dual quasars at the peak epoch of galaxy formation with which we can use to probe ideas about how supermassive black holes come together to eventually form a binary," said research team member Nadia Zakamska of Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Maryland.
- The team's results appeared in the April 1 online issue of the journal Nature Astronomy. 21)
- Shen and Zakamska are members of a team that is using Hubble, the European Space Agency's Gaia space observatory, and the Sloan Digital Sky Survey, as well as several ground-based telescopes, to compile a robust census of quasar pairs in the early universe.
- The observations are important because a quasar's role in galactic encounters plays a critical part in galaxy formation, the researchers say. As two close galaxies begin to distort each other gravitationally, their interaction funnels material into their respective black holes, igniting their quasars.
- Over time, radiation from these high-intensity "light bulbs" launch powerful galactic winds, which sweep out most of the gas from the merging galaxies. Deprived of gas, star formation ceases, and the galaxies evolve into elliptical galaxies.
- "Quasars make a profound impact on galaxy formation in the universe," Zakamska said. "Finding dual quasars at this early epoch is important because we can now test our long-standing ideas of how black holes and their host galaxies evolve together."
- Astronomers have discovered more than 100 double quasars in merging galaxies so far. However, none of them is as old as the two double quasars in this study.
Figure 20: This artist's conception shows the brilliant light of two quasars residing in the cores of two galaxies that are in the chaotic process of merging. The gravitational tug-of-war between the two galaxies stretches them, forming long tidal tails and igniting a firestorm of starbirth. - Quasars are brilliant beacons of intense light from the centers of distant galaxies. They are powered by supermassive black holes voraciously feeding on infalling matter. This feeding frenzy unleashes a torrent of radiation that can outshine the collective light of billions of stars in the host galaxy. - In a few tens of millions of years, the black holes and their galaxies will merge, and so will the quasar pair, forming an even more massive black hole. A similar sequence of events will happen a few billion years from now when our Milky Way galaxy merges with the neighboring Andromeda galaxy [image credit: NASA/ESA and J. Olmsted (STScI)]
- The Hubble images show that quasars within each pair are only about 10,000 light-years apart. By comparison, our Sun is 26,000 light-years from the supermassive black hole in the center of our galaxy.
- The pairs of host galaxies will eventually merge, and then the quasars also will coalesce, resulting in an even more massive, single solitary black hole.
- Finding them wasn't easy. Hubble is the only telescope with vision sharp enough to peer back to the early universe and distinguish two close quasars that are so far away from Earth. However, Hubble's sharp resolution alone isn't good enough to find these dual light beacons.
- Astronomers first needed to figure out where to point Hubble to study them. The challenge is that the sky is blanketed with a tapestry of ancient quasars that flared to life 10 billion years ago, only a tiny fraction of which are dual. It took an imaginative and innovative technique that required the help of the European Space Agency's Gaia satellite and the ground-based Sloan Digital Sky Survey to compile a group of potential candidates for Hubble to observe.
Figure 21: Hubble Resolves Two Pairs of Quasars. These two Hubble Space Telescope images reveal two pairs of quasars that existed 10 billion years ago and reside at the hearts of merging galaxies. Each of the four quasars resides in a host galaxy. These galaxies, however, cannot be seen because they are too faint, even for Hubble. The quasars within each pair are only about 10,000 light-years apart—the closest ever seen at this cosmic epoch. -Quasars are brilliant beacons of intense light from the centers of distant galaxies that can outshine their entire galaxies. They are powered by supermassive black holes voraciously feeding on infalling matter, unleashing a torrent of radiation. - The quasar pair in the left-hand image is catalogued as J0749+2255; the pair on the right, as J0841+4825. The two pairs of host galaxies inhabited by each double quasar will eventually merge. The quasars will then tightly orbit each other until they eventually spiral together and coalesce, resulting in an even more massive, but solitary black hole. - The image for J0749+2255 was taken Jan. 5, 2020. The J0841+4825 snapshot was taken Nov. 30, 2019. Both images were taken in visible light with Wide Field Camera 3 [NASA/ESA, H. Hwang and N. Zakamska (Johns Hopkins University), and Y. Shen (University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign)]
- Located at Apache Point Observatory in New Mexico, the Sloan telescope produces three-dimensional maps of objects throughout the sky. The team poured through the Sloan survey to identify the quasars to study more closely.
- The researchers then enlisted the Gaia observatory to help pinpoint potential double-quasar candidates. Gaia measures the positions, distances, and motions of nearby celestial objects very precisely. But the team devised a new, innovative application for Gaia that could be used for exploring the distant universe. They used the observatory's database to search for quasars that mimic the apparent motion of nearby stars. The quasars appear as single objects in the Gaia data. However, Gaia can pick up a subtle, unexpected "jiggle" in the apparent position of some of the quasars it observes.
- The quasars aren't moving through space in any measurable way, but instead their jiggle could be evidence of random fluctuations of light as each member of the quasar pair varies in brightness. Quasars flicker in brightness on timescales of days to months, depending on their black hole's feeding schedule.
- This alternating brightness between the quasar pair is similar to seeing a railroad crossing signal from a distance. As the lights on both sides of the stationary signal alternately flash, the sign gives the illusion of "jiggling."
- When the first four targets were observed with Hubble, its crisp vision revealed that two of the targets are two close pairs of quasars. The researchers said it was a "light bulb moment" that verified their plan of using Sloan, Gaia, and Hubble to hunt for the ancient, elusive double powerhouses.
- Team member Xin Liu of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign called the Hubble confirmation a "happy surprise." She has long hunted for double quasars closer to Earth using different techniques with ground-based telescopes. "The new technique can not only discover dual quasars much further away, but it is much more efficient than the methods we’ve used before," she said.
- Their Nature Astronomy article is a "proof of concept that really demonstrates that our targeted search for dual quasars is very efficient," said team member Hsiang-Chih Hwang, a graduate student at Johns Hopkins University and the principal investigator of the Hubble program. "It opens a new direction where we can accumulate a lot more interesting systems to follow up, which astronomers weren’t able to do with previous techniques or datasets."
- The team also obtained follow-up observations with the National Science Foundation NOIRLab's Gemini telescopes. "Gemini’s spatially-resolved spectroscopy can unambiguously reject interlopers due to chance superpositions from unassociated star-quasar systems, where the foreground star is coincidentally aligned with the background quasar," said team member Yu-Ching Chen, a graduate student at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.
- Although the team is convinced of their result, they say there is a slight chance that the Hubble snapshots captured double images of the same quasar, an illusion caused by gravitational lensing. This phenomenon occurs when the gravity of a massive foreground galaxy splits and amplifies the light from the background quasar into two mirror images. However, the researchers think this scenario is highly unlikely because Hubble did not detect any foreground galaxies near the two quasar pairs.
- Galactic mergers were more plentiful billions of years ago, but a few are still happening today. One example is NGC 6240, a nearby system of merging galaxies that has two and possibly even three supermassive black holes. An even closer galactic merger will occur in a few billion years when our Milky Way galaxy collides with neighboring Andromeda galaxy. The galactic tussle would likely feed the supermassive black holes in the core of each galaxy, igniting them as quasars.
- Future telescopes may offer more insight into these merging systems. NASA's James Webb Space Telescope, an infrared observatory scheduled to launch later this year, will probe the quasars' host galaxies. Webb will show the signatures of galactic mergers, such as the distribution of starlight and the long streamers of gas pulled from the interacting galaxies.
- 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.
• April 2, 2021: The Veil Nebula lies around 2,100 light-years from Earth in the constellation of Cygnus (the Swan), making it a relatively close neighbor in astronomical terms. Only a small portion of the nebula was captured in this image. 22)
- The Veil Nebula is the visible portion of the nearby Cygnus Loop, a supernova remnant formed roughly 10,000 years ago by the death of a massive star. That star – which was 20 times the mass of the Sun – lived fast and died young, ending its life in a cataclysmic release of energy. Despite this stellar violence, the shockwaves and debris from the supernova sculpted the Veil Nebula’s delicate tracery of ionized gas – creating a scene of surprising astronomical beauty.
- To create this colorful image, observations were taken by Hubble's Wide Field Camera 3 instrument using five different filters. The new post-processing methods have further enhanced details of emissions from doubly ionized oxygen (seen here in blues), ionized hydrogen, and ionized nitrogen (seen here in reds).
Figure 22: This image taken by the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope revisits the Veil Nebula, which was featured in a previous Hubble image release. In this image, new processing techniques have been applied, bringing out fine details of the nebula’s delicate threads and filaments of ionized gas (image credit: ESA/Hubble & NASA, Z. Levay)
• March 31, 2021: The NHFP (NASA Hubble Fellowship Program) is one of the highlights of NASA's pursuit of excellence in astrophysics. The program enables outstanding postdoctoral scientists to pursue independent research in any area of NASA Astrophysics, using theory, observation, experimentation, or instrument development. Over 400 applicants vied for the fellowships. Each fellowship provides the awardee up to three years of support. 23)
- NASA has selected 24 new Fellows for its prestigious NASA Hubble Fellowship Program (NHFP). The NHFP is one of the highlights of NASA's pursuit of excellence in astrophysics. The program enables outstanding postdoctoral scientists to pursue independent research in any area of NASA Astrophysics, using theory, observation, experimentation, or instrument development. Over 400 applicants vied for the fellowships. Each fellowship provides the awardee up to three years of support.
- Once selected, Fellows are named to one of three sub-categories corresponding to three broad scientific questions NASA seeks to answer about the universe:
a) How does the universe work? – Einstein Fellows
b) How did we get here? – Hubble Fellows
c) Are we alone? – Sagan Fellows
- “The annual selection of NASA Hubble Fellows always fills me with hope,” said Paul Hertz, Director of Astrophysics at NASA Headquarters in Washington. “These outstanding young scientists are the future of astrophysics, and their impact on our understanding of the cosmos will be felt for decades to come.”
- The newly selected NHFP Fellows will begin their programs in the fall of 2021 at a university or research center of their choosing in the United States. The list below provides the names of the 2021 awardees, their fellowship host institutions, and their proposed research topics.
An important part of the NHFP are the Symposia, which allow Fellows the opportunity to present results of their research, and to meet each other and the scientific and administrative staff who manage the program. A lively and very successful virtual symposium was held in the fall of 2020, and organizers are waiting to make a decision on whether the 2021 symposium will be virtual or in-person.
The Space Telescope Science Institute administers the NHFP on behalf of NASA, in collaboration with the Chandra X-ray Center at the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and the NASA Exoplanet Science Institute at Caltech/IPAC in Pasadena, California.
Table 1: How does the universe work? – Einstein Fellows
Table 2: How did we get here? – Hubble Fellows
Table 3: Are we alone? – Sagan Fellows
• March 26, 2021: This week’s Hubble/ESA Picture of the Week features NGC 7678 — a galaxy located approximately 164 million light-years away in the constellation of Pegasus (The Winged Horse). With a diameter of around 115,000 light-years, this bright spiral galaxy is a similar size to our own galaxy (the Milky Way), and was discovered in 1784 by the German-British astronomer William Herschel. 24)
Figure 23: The Atlas of Peculiar Galaxies is a catalogue which was produced in 1966 by the American astronomer Halton Arp. NGC 7678 is among the 338 galaxies presented in this catalogue, which organizes peculiar galaxies according to their unusual features. Catalogued here as Arp 28, this galaxy is listed together with six others in the group “spiral galaxies with one heavy arm” (image credit: ESA/Hubble & NASA, A. Riess et al.; CC BY 4.0)
This week’s Hubble/ESA Picture of the Week features NGC 7678 — a galaxy located approximately 164 million light-years away in the constellation of Pegasus (The Winged Horse). With a diameter of around 115 000 light-years, this bright spiral galaxy is a similar size to our own galaxy (the Milky Way), and was discovered in 1784 by the German-British astronomer William Herschel
• March 19, 2021: Located around 5000 light-years away in the constellation of Cygnus (The Swan), Abell 78 is an unusual type of planetary nebula. 25)
- After exhausting the nuclear fuel in their cores, stars with a mass of around 0.8 to 8 times the mass of our Sun collapse to form dense and hot white dwarf stars. As this process occurs, the dying star will throw off its outer layers of material, forming an elaborate cloud of gas and dust known as a planetary nebula. This phenomenon is not uncommon, and planetary nebulae are a popular focus for astrophotographers because of their often beautiful and complex shapes. However, a few like Abell 78 are the result of a so-called “born again” star.
- Although the core of the star has stopped burning hydrogen and helium, a thermonuclear runaway at its surface ejects material at high speeds. This ejecta shocks and sweeps up the material of the old nebula, producing the filaments and irregular shell around the central star seen in this Picture of the Week, which features data from Hubble’s Wide Field Camera 3 and Pan-STARSS.
Figure 24: Planetary nebula Abell 78 captured by the Hubble Space Telescopes’s Wide Field Camera 3 and PANSTARSS (image credit: ESA/Hubble & NASA, M. Guerrero, CC BY 40, Acknowledgement: Judy Schmidt)
• March 18, 2021: NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope is giving astronomers a view of changes in Saturn’s vast and turbulent atmosphere as the planet’s northern hemisphere summer transitions to fall as shown in this series of images taken in 2018, 2019, and 2020 (left to right). 26)
- “These small year-to-year changes in Saturn’s color bands are fascinating,” said Amy Simon, planetary scientist at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland. “As Saturn moves towards fall in its northern hemisphere, we see the polar and equatorial regions changing, but we are also seeing that the atmosphere varies on much shorter timescales.” Simon is lead author of a paper on these observations published March 11 in Planetary Science Journal.
Figure 25: “What we found was a slight change from year-to-year in color, possibly cloud height, and winds - not surprising that the changes aren't huge, as we’re only looking at a small fraction of a Saturn year,” added Simon. “We expect big changes on a seasonal timescale, so this is showing the progression towards the next season.” (image credit: NASA/ESA/STScI, text credit: Bill Steigerwald)
Figure 26: Hubble Space Telescope images of Saturn taken in 2018, 2019, and 2020 as the planet’s northern hemisphere summer transitions to fall (image credits: NASA/ESA/STScI, A. Simon, R. Roth)
- The Hubble data show that from 2018 to 2020 the equator got 5 to 10 percent brighter, and the winds changed slightly. In 2018, winds measured near the equator were about 1,000 miles per hour (roughly 1,600 kilometers per hour), higher than those measured by NASA’s Cassini spacecraft during 2004-2009, when they were about 800 miles per hour (roughly 1,300 kilometers per hour). In 2019 and 2020 they decreased back to the Cassini speeds. Saturn’s winds also vary with altitude, so the change in measured speeds could possibly mean the clouds in 2018 were around 37 miles (~ 60 km) deeper than those measured during the Cassini mission. Further observations are needed to tell which is happening.
- Saturn is the sixth planet from our Sun and orbits at a distance of about 886 million miles (1.4 billion kilometers) from the Sun. It takes around 29 Earth years to orbit the Sun, making each season on Saturn more than seven Earth years long. Earth is tilted with respect to the Sun, which alters the amount of sunlight each hemisphere receives as our planet moves in its orbit. This variation in solar energy is what drives our seasonal changes. Saturn is tilted also, so as the seasons change on that distant world, the change in sunlight could be causing some of the observed atmospheric changes.
- Like Jupiter, the solar system’s largest planet, Saturn is a “gas giant” made mostly of hydrogen and helium, although there may be a rocky core deep inside. Enormous storms, some almost as large as Earth, occasionally erupt from deep within the atmosphere. Since many of the planets discovered around other stars are gas giants as well, astronomers are eager to learn more about how gas giant atmospheres work.
- Saturn is the second largest planet in the solar system, over 9 times wider than Earth, with more than 50 moons and a spectacular system of rings made primarily of water ice. Two of these moons, Titan and Enceladus, appear to have oceans beneath their icy crusts that might support life. Titan, Saturn’s largest moon, is the only moon in our solar system with a thick atmosphere, including clouds that rain liquid methane and other hydrocarbons on to the surface, forming rivers, lakes, and seas. This mix of chemicals is thought to be similar to that on Earth billions of years ago when life first emerged. NASA’s Dragonfly mission will fly over the surface of Titan, touching down in various locations to search for the primal building blocks of life.
- The Saturn observations are part of Hubble’s Outer Planets Atmospheres Legacy (OPAL) program. “The OPAL program allows us to observe each of the outer planets with Hubble every year, enabling new discoveries and watching how each planet is changing over time,” said Simon, principal investigator for OPAL.
- 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.
• March 18, 2021: Though our galaxy is an immense city of at least 200 billion stars, the details of how they formed remain largely cloaked in mystery. 27)
- Scientists know that stars form from the collapse of huge hydrogen clouds that are squeezed under gravity to the point where nuclear fusion ignites. But only about 30 percent of the cloud's initial mass winds up as a newborn star. Where does the rest of the hydrogen go during such a terribly inefficient process?
Figure 27: These four images taken by NASA's Hubble Space Telescope reveal the chaotic birth of stars in the Orion complex, the nearest major star-forming region to Earth. The snapshots show fledgling stars buried in dusty gaseous cocoons announcing their births by unleashing powerful winds and pairs of spinning, lawn-sprinkler-style jets shooting off in opposite directions. Near-infrared light pierces the dusty region to unveil details of the birthing process. The stellar outflows are carving out cavities within the hydrogen gas cloud. This relatively brief birthing stage lasts about 500,000 years. Although the stars themselves are shrouded in dust, they emit powerful radiation, which strikes the cavity walls and scatters off dust grains, illuminating in infrared light the gaps in the gaseous envelopes. Astronomers found that the cavities in the surrounding gas cloud sculpted by a forming star's outflow did not grow regularly as they matured, as theories propose. The protostars were photographed in near-infrared light by Hubble's Wide Field Camera 3. The images were taken Nov. 14, 2009, and Jan. 25, Feb. 11, and Aug. 11, 2010 [image credits: NASA, ESA, STScI, N. Habel and S. T. Megeath (University of Toledo)]
- It has been assumed that a newly forming star blows off a lot of hot gas through lightsaber-shaped outflowing jets and hurricane-like winds launched from the encircling disk by powerful magnetic fields. These fireworks should squelch further growth of the central star. But a new, comprehensive Hubble survey shows that this most common explanation doesn't seem to work, leaving astronomers puzzled.
- Researchers used data previously collected from NASA's Hubble and Spitzer space telescopes and the European Space Agency's Herschel Space Telescope to analyze 304 developing stars, called protostars, in the Orion Complex, the nearest major star-forming region to Earth. (Spitzer and Herschel are no longer operational).
- In this largest-ever survey of nascent stars to date, researchers are finding that gas-clearing by a star's outflow may not be as important in determining its final mass as conventional theories suggest. The researchers' goal was to determine whether stellar outflows halt the infall of gas onto a star and stop it from growing.
- Instead, they found that the cavities in the surrounding gas cloud sculpted by a forming star's outflow did not grow regularly as they matured, as theories propose.
- "In one stellar formation model, if you start out with a small cavity, as the protostar rapidly becomes more evolved, its outflow creates an ever-larger cavity until the surrounding gas is eventually blown away, leaving an isolated star," explained lead researcher Nolan Habel of the University of Toledo in Ohio, USA.
- "Our observations indicate there is no progressive growth that we can find, so the cavities are not growing until they push out all of the mass in the cloud. So, there must be some other process going on that gets rid of the gas that doesn't end up in the star."
- The team's results will appear in an upcoming issue of The Astrophysical Journal. 28)
Figure 28: This ground-based image offers a wide view of the entire Orion cloud complex, the closest major star-forming region to Earth. The red material is hydrogen gas ionized and heated by ultraviolet radiation from massive stars in Orion. The stars are forming in clouds of cold hydrogen gas that are either invisible or appear as dark regions in this image. The crescent shape is called Barnard's Loop and partly wraps around the winter constellation figure of Orion the Hunter. The hunter's belt is the diagonal chain of three stars at image center. His feet are the bright stars Saiph (bottom left) and Rigel (bottom right). This landscape encompasses tens of thousands of newly forming stars bursting to life. Many are still encased in their natal cocoons of gas and dust and only seen in infrared light. The undulating line of yellow dots, beginning at lower left, is a superimposed image of 304 nascent stars taken by NASA's Hubble Space Telescope. This landscape encompasses tens of thousands of newly forming stars bursting to life. Many are still encased in their natal cocoons of gas and dust and only seen in infrared light. Researchers used NASA's Hubble and Spitzer space telescopes and the European Space Agency's Herschel Space Telescope to analyze how young stars' powerful outflows carve out cavities in the vast gas clouds. The study is the largest-ever survey of developing stars [image credits: Image courtesy of R. B. Andreo, DeepSkyColors.com; Data Overlay: NASA, ESA, STScI, N. Habel and S. T. Megeath (University of Toledo)]
A Star is Born
- During a star's relatively brief birthing stage, lasting only about 500,000 years, the star quickly bulks up on mass. What gets messy is that, as the star grows, it launches a wind, as well as a pair of spinning, lawn-sprinkler-style jets shooting off in opposite directions. These outflows begin to eat away at the surrounding cloud, creating cavities in the gas.
- Popular theories predict that as the young star evolves and the outflows continue, the cavities grow wider until the entire gas cloud around the star is completely pushed away. With its gas tank empty, the star stops accreting mass – in other words, it stops growing.
- To look for cavity growth, the researchers first sorted the protostars by age by analyzing Herschel and Spitzer data of each star's light output. The protostars in the Hubble observations were also observed as part of the Herschel telescope's Herschel Orion Protostar Survey.
- Then the astronomers observed the cavities in near-infrared light with Hubble's Near-infrared Camera and Multi-object Spectrometer and Wide Field Camera 3. The observations were taken between 2008 and 2017. Although the stars themselves are shrouded in dust, they emit powerful radiation which strikes the cavity walls and scatters off dust grains, illuminating the gaps in the gaseous envelopes in infrared light.
- The Hubble images reveal the details of the cavities produced by protostars at various stages of evolution. Habel's team used the images to measure the structures' shapes and estimate the volumes of gas cleared out to form the cavities. From this analysis, they could estimate the amount of mass that had been cleared out by the stars' outbursts.
Figure 29: Though our galaxy is an immense city of at least 200 billion stars, the details of how they formed remain largely cloaked in mystery. Scientists know that stars form from the collapse of huge hydrogen clouds that are squeezed under gravity to the point where nuclear fusion ignites. But only about 30 percent of the cloud’s initial mass winds up as a newborn star. Where does the rest of the hydrogen go during such a terribly inefficient process? (video credit: NASA Goddard Space Flight Center)
- "We find that at the end of the protostellar phase, where most of the gas has fallen from the surrounding cloud onto the star, a number of young stars still have fairly narrow cavities," said team member Tom Megeath of the University of Toledo. "So, this picture that is still commonly held of what determines the mass of a star and what halts the infall of gas is that this growing outflow cavity scoops up all of the gas. This has been pretty fundamental to our idea of how star formation proceeds, but it just doesn't seem to fit the data here."
- Future telescopes such as NASA's upcoming James Webb Space Telescope will probe deeper into a protostar's formation process. Webb spectroscopic observations will observe the inner regions of disks surrounding protostars in infrared light, looking for jets in the youngest sources. Webb also will help astronomers measure the accretion rate of material from the disk onto the star, and study how the inner disk is interacting with the outflow.
• March 12, 2021: NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope resumed observations March 11 after a software error placed it in a protective safe mode several days earlier, but the incident is a reminder of the telescope’s mortality. 29)
- NASA said Hubble resumed observations at 8 p.m. Eastern March 11, more than four and a half days after a software error caused the spacecraft to go into a safe mode, suspending normal operations of the nearly 31-year-old space telescope. 30)
- The software error was traced to what an agency statement called an “enhancement” recently uploaded to the spacecraft. That enhancement was intended to compensate for fluctuations from one of the telescope’s gyroscopes, but a glitch in the software caused a broader problem with Hubble’s main computer, triggering the safe mode early March 7.
- Controllers resolved the problem for now by disabling that software enhancement, and plan to correct the flaw and test the new software further before uploading it again.
- That safe mode, though, caused two other problems with Hubble. The telescope’s aperture door, a cover on top of the telescope, is designed to automatically close when the spacecraft enters safe mode to prevent stray sunlight from entering, which could damage instruments and optics. During this safe mode, though, the door did not swing shut, a problem never before seen with Hubble.
- Engineers troubleshooting the problem found that the door did close once they switched to a backup motor. They have now set that motor as the primary one as they continue to study the problem with the other motor.
- One of Hubble’s instruments, the Wide Field Camera 3, “experienced an unexpected error” during the recovery from safe mode. NASA did not elaborate on the error but said that observations using that instrument will remain on hold as engineers study the problem. The spacecraft’s other instruments, including a camera and two spectrographs, are functioning.
- The safe mode, and related issues, is a reminder of Hubble’s age. The spacecraft was launched in April 1990 and serviced by the space shuttle five times, most recently in May 2009. With the shuttle long since retired, astronomers know that, at some point, Hubble will suffer an unrecoverable failure that will end its historic mission.
- “Right now we’re in the middle of what I think is a very good news story about Hubble,” Jennifer Wiseman, an astronomer at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, said at a conference last year about the space telescope. She and others believe that the telescope can remain operational through much of this decade, based on trends in the performance of key components, such as its gyroscopes and batteries.
- Some have argued for a new servicing mission to Hubble using either a robotic or crewed spacecraft. John Grunsfeld, a former NASA astronaut who flew on three Hubble servicing missions and later served as the agency’s associate administrator for science, presented a concept last year for a crewed servicing mission using an Orion spacecraft and a module equipped with a robotic arm and airlock. That spacecraft would dock with Hubble, with astronauts then performing repairs much as they did on past servicing missions.
- “We have the technology to go back to Hubble,” he said in a presentation last June to the Space Transportation Association, noting that a commercial crew vehicle, like Crew Dragon, could be used in place of Orion. “We could keep Hubble going for another few decades.”
- NASA, though, has shown no public interest in such a servicing mission, whose expense would run in the hundreds of millions to billions of dollars. “It’s not currently on the books. Nobody is really talking about it a lot, at least publicly,” Grunsfeld acknowledged.
- Without a servicing mission, Hubble could last for many years, or fail tomorrow, astronomers like Wiseman acknowledge. “We don’t know how long Hubble’s going to last,” she said.
• March 11, 2021: For the first time, scientists using the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope have found evidence of volcanic activity reforming the atmosphere on a rocky planet around a distant star. The planet, GJ 1132 b, has a similar density, size, and age to those of Earth. 31) 32)
- The planet GJ 1132 b appears to have begun life as a gaseous world with a thick blanket of atmosphere. Starting out at several times the radius of Earth, this so-called “sub-Neptune” quickly lost its primordial hydrogen and helium atmosphere, which was stripped away by the intense radiation from its hot, young star. In a short period of time, it was reduced to a bare core about the size of Earth.
- To the surprise of astronomers, new observations from Hubble have uncovered a secondary atmosphere that has replaced the planet’s first atmosphere. It is rich in hydrogen, hydrogen cyanide, methane and ammonia, and also has a hydrocarbon haze. Astronomers theorize that hydrogen from the original atmosphere was absorbed into the planet’s molten magma mantle and is now being slowly released by volcanism to form a new atmosphere. This second atmosphere, which continues to leak away into space, is continually being replenished from the reservoir of hydrogen in the mantle’s magma.
- “This second atmosphere comes from the surface and interior of the planet, and so it is a window onto the geology of another world,” explained team member Paul Rimmer of the University of Cambridge, UK. “A lot more work needs to be done to properly look through it, but the discovery of this window is of great importance.”
- “We first thought that these highly radiated planets would be pretty boring because we believed that they lost their atmospheres,” said team member Raissa Estrela of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, California, USA. But we looked at existing observations of this planet with Hubble and realized that there is an atmosphere there.”
- “How many terrestrial planets don’t begin as terrestrials? Some may start as sub-Neptunes, and they become terrestrials through a mechanism whereby light evaporates the primordial atmosphere. This process works early in a planet’s life, when the star is hotter,” said team leader Mark Swain of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory. “Then the star cools down and the planet’s just sitting there. So you’ve got this mechanism that can cook off the atmosphere in the first 100 million years, and then things settle down. And if you can regenerate the atmosphere, maybe you can keep it.”
- In some ways, GJ 1132 b has various parallels to Earth, but in some ways it is also very different. Both have similar densities, similar sizes, and similar ages, being about 4.5 billion years old. Both started with a hydrogen-dominated atmosphere, and both were hot before they cooled down. The team’s work even suggests that GJ 1132 b and Earth have similar atmospheric pressure at the surface.
- However, the planets’ formation histories are profoundly different. Earth is not believed to be the surviving core of a sub-Neptune. And Earth orbits at a comfortable distance from our yellow dwarf Sun. GJ 1132 b is so close to its host red dwarf star that it completes an orbit the star once every day and a half. This extremely close proximity keeps GJ 1132 b tidally locked, showing the same face to its star at all times — just as our moon keeps one hemisphere permanently facing Earth.
- “The question is, what is keeping the mantle hot enough to remain liquid and power volcanism?” asked Swain. “This system is special because it has the opportunity for quite a lot of tidal heating.”
Figure 30: This image is an artist’s impression of the exoplanet GJ 1132 b. To the surprise of astronomers, new observations from Hubble have uncovered a second atmosphere that has replaced the planet’s first atmosphere. It is rich in hydrogen, hydrogen cyanide, methane and ammonia, and also has a hydrocarbon haze. Astronomers theorize that hydrogen from the original atmosphere was absorbed into the planet’s molten magma mantle and is now being slowly released by volcanism to form a new atmosphere. This second atmosphere, which continues to leak away into space, is continually being replenished from the reservoir of hydrogen in the mantle’s magma [image credit: NASA, ESA, and R. Hurt (IPAC/Caltech)]
- The phenomenon of tidal heating occurs through friction, when energy from a planet’s orbit and rotation is dispersed as heat inside the planet. GJ 1132 b is in an elliptical orbit, and the tidal forces acting on it are strongest when it is closest to or farthest from its host star. At least one other planet in the host star’s system also exerts a gravitational pull on the planet. The consequences are that the planet is squeezed or stretched by this gravitational “pumping.” That tidal heating keeps the mantle liquid for a long time. A nearby example in our own Solar System is the Jovian moon, Io, which has continuous volcanism as a result of a tidal tug-of-war between Jupiter and the neighboring Jovian moons.
- The team believes the crust of GJ 1132 b is extremely thin, perhaps only hundreds of feet thick. That’s much too feeble to support anything resembling volcanic mountains. Its flat terrain may also be cracked like an eggshell by tidal flexing. Hydrogen and other gases could be released through such cracks.
- “This atmosphere, if it’s thin — meaning if it has a surface pressure similar to Earth — probably means you can see right down to the ground at infrared wavelengths. That means that if astronomers use the James Webb Space Telescope to observe this planet, there’s a possibility that they will see not the spectrum of the atmosphere, but rather the spectrum of the surface,” explained Swain. “And if there are magma pools or volcanism going on, those areas will be hotter. That will generate more emission, and so they’ll potentially be looking at the actual geological activity — which is exciting!”
Figure 31: This plot shows the spectrum of the atmosphere of an Earth sized rocky exoplanet, GJ 1132 b, which is overlaid on an artist's impression of the planet. The orange line represents the model spectrum. In comparison, the observed spectrum is shown as blue dots representing averaged data points, along with their error bars. - This analysis is consistent with GJ 1132 b being predominantly a hydrogen atmosphere with a mix of methane and hydrogen cyanide. The planet also has aerosols which cause scattering of light. - This is the first time a so-called “secondary atmosphere,” which was replenished after the planet lost its primordial atmosphere, has been detected on a world outside of our solar system [image credit: NASA, ESA, and P. Jeffries (STScI)]
• March 5, 2021: Hubble Space Telescope image of the week of the NGC2336 galaxy. Its spiral arms are glittered with young stars, visible in their bright blue light. In contrast, the redder central part of the galaxy is dominated by older stars. 33) 34)
Figure 32: NGC 2336 is the quintessential galaxy — big, beautiful and blue — and it is captured here by the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope. The barred spiral galaxy stretches an immense 200,000 light-years across and is located approximately 100 million light years away in the northern constellation of Camelopardalis (The Giraffe), image credit: ESA/Hubble & NASA, V. Antoniou; CC BY 4.0 – Acknowledgement: Judy Schmidt
- NGC 2336 was discovered in 1876 by German astronomer Wilhelm Tempel, using a 28-centimeter telescope. This Hubble image is so much better than the view Tempel would have had — Hubble’s main mirror is 2.4 meters across, nearly ten times the size of the telescope Tempel used. In 1987, NGC 2336 experienced a Type-Ia supernova, the only observed supernova in the galaxy since its discovery 111 years earlier.
• March 4, 2021: The red hypergiant VY Canis Majoris is enshrouded in huge clouds of dust. Stars come in an extraordinary range of sizes. One of the most colossal is VY Canis Majoris. If placed in the middle of our solar system it would engulf all the planets out to Saturn's orbit. This monster, appropriately called a red hypergiant, is as bright as 300,000 Suns. Yet it is so far away that, 200 years ago, it could be seen only as a faint star in the winter constellation of the Great Dog. Since then, it has faded and is no longer visible to the naked eye. Astronomers used Hubble to get a close-up look at the star and discovered the reason for the dimming. The star is expelling huge clouds of dust in the final stages of its life. Eventually, the bloated star may explode as a supernova, or may simply collapse and form a black hole. 35)
Figure 33: This zoom into VY Canis Majoris is a combination of Hubble imaging and an artist's impression. The left panel is a multicolor Hubble image of the huge nebula of material cast off by the hypergiant star. This nebula is approximately a trillion miles across. The middle panel is a close-up Hubble view of the region around the star. This image reveals close-in knots, arcs, and filaments of material ejected from the star as it goes through its violent process of casting off material into space. VY Canis Majoris is not seen in this view, but the tiny red square marks the location of the hypergiant, and represents the diameter of the solar system out to the orbit of Neptune, which is 5.5 billion miles across. The final panel is an artist's impression of the hypergiant star with vast convection cells and undergoing violent ejections. VY Canis Majoris is so large that if it replaced the Sun, the star would extend for hundreds of millions of miles, to between the orbits of Jupiter and Saturn [image credit: NASA, ESA, and R. Humphreys (University of Minnesota), and J. Olmsted (STScI)]
- Last year, astronomers were puzzled when Betelgeuse, the bright red supergiant star in the constellation Orion, dramatically faded, but then recovered. The dimming lasted for weeks. Now, astronomers have turned their sights toward a monster star in the adjoining constellation Canis Major, the Great Dog.
- The red hypergiant VY Canis Majoris—which is far larger, more massive, and more violent than Betelgeuse—experiences much longer, dimmer periods that last for years. New findings from NASA's Hubble Space Telescope suggest the same processes that occurred on Betelgeuse are happening in this hypergiant, but on a much grander scale.
- "VY Canis Majoris is behaving a lot like Betelgeuse on steroids," explained the study's leader, astrophysicist Roberta Humphreys of the University of Minnesota, Minneapolis.
- As with Betelgeuse, Hubble data suggest the answer for why this bigger star is dimming. For Betelgeuse, the dimming corresponded to a gaseous outflow that may have formed dust, which briefly obstructed some of Betelgeuse's light from our view, creating the dimming effect.
- "In VY Canis Majoris we see something similar, but on a much larger scale. Massive ejections of material which correspond to its very deep fading, which is probably due to dust that temporarily blocks light from the star," said Humphreys.
- The enormous red hypergiant is 300,000 times brighter than our Sun. If it replaced the Sun in our own solar system, the bloated monster would extend out for hundreds of millions of miles, between the orbits of Jupiter and Saturn.
- "This star is absolutely amazing. It's one of the largest stars that we know of—a very evolved, red supergiant. It has had multiple, giant eruptions," explained Humphreys.
- Giant arcs of plasma surround the star at distances from it that are thousands of times farther away than the Earth is from the Sun. These arcs look like the solar prominences from our own Sun, only on a much grander scale. Also, they're not physically connected to the star, but rather, appear to have been thrown out and are moving away. Some of the other structures close to the star are still relatively compact, looking like little knots and nebulous features.
- In previous Hubble work, Humphreys and her team were able to determine when these large structures were ejected from the star. They found dates ranging over the past several hundred years, some as recently as the past 100 to 200 years.
- Now, in new work with Hubble, researchers resolved features much closer to the star that may be less than a century old. By using Hubble to determine the velocities and motions of the close-in knots of hot gas and other features, Humphreys and her team were able to date these eruptions more accurately. What they found was remarkable: many of these knots link to multiple episodes in the 19th and 20th centuries when VY Canis Majoris faded to one-sixth its usual brightness.
- Unlike Betelgeuse, VY Canis Majoris is now too faint to be seen by the naked eye. The star was once visible but has dimmed so much that it can now only be seen with telescopes.
- The hypergiant sheds 100 times as much mass as Betelgeuse. The mass in some of the knots is more than twice the mass of Jupiter. "It's amazing the star can do it," Humphreys said. "The origin of these high mass-loss episodes in both VY Canis Majoris and Betelgeuse is probably caused by large-scale surface activity, large convective cells like on the Sun. But on VY Canis Majoris, the cells may be as large as the whole Sun or larger."
- "This is probably more common in red supergiants than scientists thought and VY Canis Majoris is an extreme example," Humphreys continued. "It may even be the main mechanism that's driving the mass loss, which has always been a bit of a mystery for red supergiants."
- Though other red supergiants are comparably bright and eject a lot of dust, none of them is as complex as VY Canis Majoris. "So what's special about it? VY Canis Majoris may be in a unique evolutionary state that separates it from the other stars. It's probably this active over a very short period, maybe only a few thousand years. We're not going to see many of those around," said Humphreys.
- The star began life as a super-hot, brilliant, blue supergiant star perhaps as much as 35 to 40 times our Sun's mass. After a few million years, as the hydrogen fusion burning rate in its core changed, the star swelled up to a red supergiant. Humphreys suspects that the star may have briefly returned to a hotter state and then swelled back up to a red supergiant stage.
- "Maybe what makes VY Canis Majoris so special, so extreme, with this very complex ejecta, might be that it's a second-stage red supergiant," explained Humphreys. VY Canis Majoris may have already shed half of its mass. Rather than exploding as a supernova, it might simply collapse directly to a black hole.
- The team's findings appear in the February 4, 2021 edition of The Astronomical Journal. 36)
- 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.
• February 26, 2021: This NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope Picture of the Week features NGC4826 — a spiral galaxy located 17 million light-years away in the constellation of Coma Berenices (Berenice’s Hair). This galaxy is often referred to as the “Black Eye”, or “Evil Eye”, galaxy because of the dark band of dust that sweeps across one side of its bright nucleus. 37) 38)
- NGC4826 is known by astronomers for its strange internal motion. The gas in the outer regions of this galaxy and the gas in its inner regions are rotating in opposite directions, which might be related to a recent merger. New stars are forming in the region where the counter rotating gases collide.
- This galaxy was first discovered in 1779 by the English astronomer Edward Pigott.
Figure 34: NGC4826 — a spiral galaxy located 17 million light-years away in the constellation of Coma Berenices (Berenice’s Hair) — captured by the Hubble Space Telescope (image credit: ESA/Hubble & NASA, J. Lee and the PHANGS-HST Team, Acknowledgement: Judy Schmidt)
• February 25, 2021: For the first time, a wayward comet-like object has been spotted near the family of ancient asteroids. 39)
- After traveling several billion miles toward the Sun, a wayward young comet-like object orbiting among the giant planets has found a temporary parking place along the way. The object has settled near a family of captured ancient asteroids, called Trojans, that are orbiting the Sun alongside Jupiter. This is the first time a comet-like object has been spotted near the Trojan population.
- The unexpected visitor belongs to a class of icy bodies found in space between Jupiter and Neptune. Called Centaurs, they become active for the first time when heated as they approach the Sun, and dynamically transition into becoming more comet-like.
- Visible-light snapshots by NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope reveal that the vagabond object shows signs of comet activity, such as a tail, outgassing in the form of jets, and an enshrouding coma of dust and gas. Earlier observations by NASA’s Spitzer Space Telescope gave clues to the composition of the comet-like object and the gasses driving its activity.
- “Only Hubble could detect active comet-like features this far away at such high detail, and the images clearly show these features, such as a roughly 400,000-mile-long broad tail and high-resolution features near the nucleus due to a coma and jets,” said lead Hubble researcher Bryce Bolin of Caltech in Pasadena, California.
- Describing the Centaur’s capture as a rare event, Bolin added, “The visitor had to have come into the orbit of Jupiter at just the right trajectory to have this kind of configuration that gives it the appearance of sharing its orbit with the planet. We’re investigating how it was captured by Jupiter and landed among the Trojans. But we think it could be related to the fact that it had a somewhat close encounter with Jupiter.”
- The team’s paper appears in Feb. 11 issue of The Astronomical Journal. 40)
- The research team’s computer simulations show that the icy object, called P/2019 LD2 (LD2), probably swung close to Jupiter about two years ago. The planet then gravitationally punted the wayward visitor to the Trojan asteroid group’s co-orbital location, leading Jupiter by about 437 million miles.
Figure 35: Hubble Trojan comet. NASA's Hubble Space Telescope snapped this image of the young comet P/2019 LD2 as it orbits near Jupiter’s captured ancient asteroids, which are called Trojans. The Hubble view reveals a 400,000-mile-long tail of dust and gas flowing from the wayward comet's bright solid nucleus. This Hubble visible-light image is a combination of exposures taken April 1 and May 8, 2020, with the Wide Field Camera 3 (image credit: NASA/ESA/J. Olmsted/STScI)
- The nomadic object was discovered in early June 2019 by the University of Hawaii’s Asteroid Terrestrial-impact Last Alert System (ATLAS) telescopes located on the extinct volcanoes, one on Mauna Kea and one on Haleakala. Japanese amateur astronomer Seiichi Yoshida tipped off the Hubble team to possible comet activity. The astronomers then scanned archival data from the Zwicky Transient Facility, a wide-field survey conducted at Palomar Observatory in California, and realized that the object was clearly active in images from April 2019.
Figure 36: The main asteroid belt lies between Mars and Jupiter, whereas Trojan asteroids both lead and follow Jupiter. Scientists now know that asteroids in the early solar system (4.6 billion years ago) adhered together and eventually formed the inner planets, including Earth (image credit: NASA/ESA/J. Olmsted/STScI)
- They followed up with observations from the Apache Point Observatory in New Mexico, which also hinted at the activity. The team observed the comet using Spitzer just days before the observatory’s retirement in January 2020, and identified gas and dust around the comet nucleus. These observations convinced the team to use Hubble to take a closer look. Aided by Hubble’s sharp vision, the researchers identified the tail, coma structure, the size of the dust particles, and their ejection velocity. These images helped them confirm that the features are due to relatively new comet-like activity.
- Although LD2’s location is surprising, Bolin wonders whether this pit stop could be a common pull-off for some sunward-bound comets. “This could be part of the pathway from our solar system through the Jupiter Trojans to the inner solar system,” he said.
- The unexpected guest probably will not stay among the asteroids for very long. Computer simulations show that it will have another close encounter with Jupiter in about another two years. The hefty planet will boot the comet from the system, and it will continue its journey to the inner solar system.
- “The cool thing is that you’re actually catching Jupiter flinging this object around and changing its orbital behavior and bringing it into the inner system,” said team member Carey Lisse of the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory (APL) in Laurel, Maryland. “Jupiter controls what’s going on with comets once they get into the inner system by altering their orbits.”
- The icy interloper is most likely one of the latest members of the so-called “bucket brigade” of comets to get kicked out of its frigid home in the Kuiper Belt and into the giant planet region through interactions with another Kuiper Belt object. Located beyond Neptune’s orbit, the Kuiper Belt is a haven of icy, leftover debris from our planets’ construction 4.6 billion years ago, containing millions of objects, and occasionally these objects have near misses or collisions that drastically alter their orbits from the Kuiper Belt inward into the giant planet region.
- The bucket brigade of icy relics endure a bumpy ride during their journey sunward. They bounce gravitationally from one outer planet to the next in a game of celestial pinball before reaching the inner solar system, warming up as they come closer to the Sun. The researchers say the objects spend as much or even more time around the giant planets, which are gravitationally pulling on them – about 5 million years – than they do crossing into the inner system where we live.
- “Inner-system, ‘short-period’ comets break up about once a century,” Lisse explained. “So, in order to maintain the number of local comets we see today, we think the bucket brigade has to deliver a new short-period comet about once every 100 years.”
An Early Bloomer
- Seeing outgassing activity on a comet 465 million miles away from the Sun (where the intensity of sunlight is 1/25th as strong as on Earth) surprised the researchers. “We were intrigued to see that the comet had just started to become active for the first time so far away from the Sun at distances where water ice is barely starting to sublimate,” said Bolin.
- Water remains frozen on a comet until it reaches about 200 million miles from the Sun, where heat from sunlight converts water ice to gas that escapes from the nucleus in the form of jets. So the activity signals that the tail might not be made of water. In fact, observations by Spitzer indicated the presence of carbon monoxide and carbon dioxide gas, which could be driving the creation of the tail and jets seen on the Jupiter-orbiting comet. These volatiles do not need much sunlight to heat their frozen form and convert them to gas.
- Once the comet gets kicked out of Jupiter’s orbit and continues its journey, it may meet up with the giant planet again. “Short-period comets like LD2 meet their fate by being thrown into the Sun and totally disintegrating, hitting a planet, or venturing too close to Jupiter once again and getting thrown out of the solar system, which is the usual fate,” Lisse said. “Simulations show that in about 500,000 years, there’s a 90% probability that this object will be ejected from the solar system and become an interstellar comet.”
- 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. NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, a division of Caltech in Pasadena, California, managed the Spitzer mission for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate in Washington, D.C. Science operations were conducted at the Spitzer Science Center at IPAC at Caltech. Spitzer’s entire science catalogue is available via the Spitzer data archive, housed at the Infrared Science Archive at IPAC. Spacecraft operations were based at Lockheed Martin Space in Littleton, Colorado.
• February 19, 2021: Tantrums of a baby star - a Milky War star with circumstellar material outflow at a distance of 1400 light years.. Week in images. 41)
Figure 37: Herbig-Haro objects are some of the rarer sights in the night sky, taking the form of thin spindly jets of matter floating amongst the surrounding gas and stars. The two Herbig-Haro objects catalogued as HH46 and HH47, seen in this image taken with the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope, were spotted in the constellation of Vela (The Sails), at a distance of over 1400 light-years from Earth. Prior to its discovery in 1977 by the American astronomer R. D. Schwartz, the exact mechanism by which these multi-colored objects formed was unknown (image credit: ESA/Hubble & NASA, B. Nisini)
- Before 1997 it was theorized by Schwartz and others that the objects could be a type of reflection nebula, or a type of shock wave formed from the gas emitted from a star interacting with the surrounding matter. The mystery was finally solved when a protostar, unseen in this image, was discovered at the centre of the long jets of matter. The outflows of matter, some 10 light-years across, were ejected from the newly born star and violently propelled outwards at speeds of over 150 kilometers per second. Upon reaching the surrounding gas, the collision created the bright shock waves seen here.
• February 12, 2021: This week’s NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope Picture of the Week features an impressive portrait of M1-63, a beautifully captured example of a bipolar planetary nebula located in the constellation of Scutum (the Shield). A nebula like this one is formed when the star at its center sheds huge quantities of material from its outer layers, leaving behind a spectacular cloud of gas and dust. 42)
- It is believed that a binary system of stars at the center of the bipolar nebula is capable of creating hourglass or butterfly-like shapes like the one in this image. This is because the material from the shedding star is funneled towards its poles, with the help of the companion, creating the distinctive double-lobed structure seen in nebulae such as M1-63.
Figure 38: Portrait of M1-63, a beautiful example of a bipolar planetary nebula located in the constellation of Scutum, captured by the Hubble Space Telescope (image credit: ESA/Hubble & NASA, L. Stanghellini)
• February 11, 2021: Scientists were expecting to find an intermediate-mass black hole at the heart of the globular cluster NGC 6397, but instead they found evidence of a concentration of smaller black holes lurking there. New data from the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope have led to the first measurement of the extent of a collection of black holes in a core-collapsed globular cluster. 43) 44)
- Globular clusters are extremely dense stellar systems, in which stars are packed closely together. They are also typically very old — the globular cluster that is the focus of this study, NGC 6397, is almost as old as the Universe itself. It resides 7800 light-years away, making it one of the closest globular clusters to Earth. Because of its very dense nucleus, it is known as a core-collapsed cluster.
- When Eduardo Vitral and Gary A. Mamon of the Institut d’Astrophysique de Paris set out to study the core of NGC 6397, they expected to find evidence for an “intermediate-mass” black hole (IMBH). These are smaller than the supermassive black holes that lie at the cores of large galaxies, but larger than stellar-mass black holes formed by the collapse of massive stars. IMBH are the long-sought “missing link” in black hole evolution and their mere existence is hotly debated, although a few candidates have been found (see Notes ).
- To look for the IMBH, Vitral and Mamon analyzed the positions and velocities of the cluster’s stars. They did this using previous estimates of the stars’ proper motions  from Hubble images of the cluster spanning several years , in addition to proper motions provided by ESA’s Gaia space observatory, which precisely measures the positions, distances and motions of stars. Knowing the distance to the cluster allowed the astronomers to translate the proper motions of these stars into velocities.
- “Our analysis indicated that the orbits of the stars are close to random throughout the globular cluster, rather than systematically circular or very elongated,” explained Mamon.
- “We found very strong evidence for invisible mass in the dense central regions of the cluster, but we were surprised to find that this extra mass is not point-like but extended to a few percent of the size of the cluster,” added Vitral.
- This invisible component could only be made up of the remnants (white dwarfs, neutron stars, and black holes) of massive stars whose inner regions collapsed under their own gravity once their nuclear fuel was exhausted. The stars progressively sank to the cluster’s centre after gravitational interactions with nearby less massive stars, leading to the small extent of the invisible mass concentration. Using the theory of stellar evolution, the scientists concluded that the bulk of the unseen concentration is made of stellar-mass black holes, rather than white dwarfs or neutron stars that are too faint to observe.
- Two recent studies had also proposed that stellar remnants and in particular, stellar-mass black holes, could populate the inner regions of globular clusters.
- “Our study is the first finding to provide both the mass and the extent of what appears to be a collection of mostly black holes in a core-collapsed globular cluster,” said Vitral.
- “Our analysis would not have been possible without having both the Hubble data to constrain the inner regions of the cluster and the Gaia data to constrain the orbital shapes of the outer stars, which in turn indirectly constrain the velocities of foreground and background stars in the inner regions,” added Mamon, attesting to an exemplary international collaboration.
- The astronomers also note that this discovery raises the question of whether mergers of these tightly packed black holes in core-collapsed globular clusters may be an important source of gravitational waves recently detected by the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (LIGO) experiment.
 In 2020, new data from the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope provided the strongest evidence to date for a mid-sized black hole. Read the full press release on this result here.
 Proper motion describes how fast objects move in the sky.
 The Hubble data for this study were provided by A. Bellini, who measured the proper motions for over 1.3 million stars in 22 globular clusters, including NGC 6397.
Figure 39: This ancient stellar jewelry box, a globular cluster called NGC 6397, glitters with the light from hundreds of thousands of stars. Astronomers used the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope to gauge the cluster’s distance at 7800 light-years away. NGC 6397 is one of the closest globular clusters to Earth. The cluster’s blue stars are near the end of their lives. These stars have used up their hydrogen fuel that makes them shine. Now they are converting helium to energy in their cores, which fuses at a higher temperature and appears blue. - The reddish glow is from red giant stars that have consumed their hydrogen fuel and have expanded in size. The myriad small white objects include stars like our Sun. This image is composed of a series of observations taken from July 2004 to June 2005 with Hubble’s Advanced Camera for Surveys. The research team used Hubble’s Wide Field Camera 3 to measure the distance to the cluster [image credit: NASA, ESA, and T. Brown and S. Casertano (STScI), Acknowledgement: NASA, ESA, and J. Anderson (STScI)]
• February 5, 2021: Picture of the Week: The Modest Galaxy (Astronomy). 45)
- Many young blue stars are sprinkled throughout the circular patterns of UGC 3885’s arms, contrasted and complemented by dark lanes of dust also following the spiral structure. A glancing look at UGC 3885 (Uppsala General Catalogue) of Galaxies may only leave you with an impression of the galaxy, but spare a moment longer and the intricacies of the galaxy begin to emerge. Located in the constellation of Lynx, a spiral galaxy some 180 million light-years away. UGC 3885 is a cosmic beauty to behold.
Figure 40: A bright foreground star isn’t enough to distract from the grandeur of the galaxy UGC 3885, captured here by the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope. While this foreground star is incredibly bright to Hubble’s eye, it does not outshine the details of the background galaxy (image credit: ESA/Hubble & NASA, J. Walsh; CC BY 4.0)
• January 29, 2021: The lives of planetary nebulae are often chaotic, from the death of their parent star to the scattering of its contents far out into space. Captured here by the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope, ESO 455-10 is one such planetary nebula, located in the constellation of Scorpius (The Scorpion). 46)
- The oblate shells of ESO 455-10, previously held tightly together as layers of its central star, not only give this planetary nebula its unique appearance, but also offer information about the nebula. Seen in a field of stars, the distinct asymmetrical arc of material over the north side of the nebula is a clear sign of interactions between ESO 455-10 and the interstellar medium.
Figure 41: Image of the week. The interstellar medium is the material — consisting of matter and radiation — between star systems and galaxies. The star at the centre of ESO 455-10 allows Hubble to see the interaction with the gas and dust of the nebula, the surrounding interstellar medium, and the light from the star itself. Planetary nebulae are thought to be crucial in galactic enrichment as they distribute their elements, particularly the heavier metal elements produced inside a star, into the interstellar medium which will in time form the next generation of stars (image credit: ESA/Hubble & NASA, L. Stanghellini; CC BY 4.0)
• January 22, 2021: Located in the constellation of Virgo (The Virgin), around 50 million light-years from Earth, NGC 4535 is truly a stunning sight to behold. Despite the incredible quality of this image, taken from the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope, NGC 4535 has a hazy, somewhat ghostly, appearance when viewed from a smaller telescope. This led amateur astronomer Leland S. Copeland to nickname NGC 4535 the “Lost Galaxy” in the 1950s. 47) 48)
- This galaxy was studied as part of the PHANGS (Physics at High Angular resolution in Nearby GalaxieS) survey, which aims to clarify many of the links between cold gas clouds, star formation, and the overall shape and other properties of galaxies. On 11 January 2021 the first release of the PHANGS-HST Collection was made publicly available. 49)
Figure 42: The bright colors in this image aren’t just beautiful to look at, as they actually tell us about the population of stars within this barred spiral galaxy. The bright blue-ish colors, seen nestled amongst NGC 4535’s long, spiral arms, indicate the presence of a greater number of younger and hotter stars. In contrast, the yellower tones of this galaxy’s bulge suggest that this central area is home to stars which are older and cooler (image credit: ESA/Hubble & NASA, J. Lee and the PHANGS-HST Team; CC BY 4.0)
• January 15, 2021: Images of two iconic planetary nebulae taken by the Hubble Space Telescope are revealing new information about how they develop their dramatic features. Researchers from Rochester Institute of Technology (RIT) and Green Bank Observatory presented new findings about the Butterfly Nebula (NGC 6302) and the Jewel Bug Nebula (NGC 7027) at the 237th meeting of the American Astronomical Society on Friday, Jan. 15. 50)
Figure 43: On the left is an image of the Jewel Bug Nebula (NGC 7027) captured by the Hubble Space Telescope in 2019 and released in 2020. Further analysis by researchers produced the RGB image on the right, which shows extinction due to dust, as inferred from the relative strength of two hydrogen emission lines, as red; emission from sulfur, relative to hydrogen, as green; and emission from iron as blue (image credit: STScI, Alyssa Pagan; P. Moraga (RIT) et al.)
- Hubble’s Wide Field Camera 3 observed the nebulae in 2019 and early 2020 using its full, panchromatic capabilities, and the astronomers involved in the project have been using emission line images from near-ultraviolet to near-infrared light to learn more about their properties. The studies were first-of-their-kind panchromatic imaging surveys designed to understand the formation process and test models of binary-star-driven planetary nebula shaping.
- “We’re dissecting them,” said Joel Kastner, a professor in RIT’s Chester F. Carlson Center for Imaging Science and School of Physics and Astronomy. “We’re able to see the effect of the dying central star in how it’s shedding and shredding its ejected material. We’re now seeing where material that the central star has tossed away is being dominated by ionized gas, where it’s dominated by cooler dust, and even how the hot gas is being ionized, whether by the star’s UV or by collisions caused by its present, fast winds.”
- Kastner said analysis of the new HST images of the Butterfly Nebula is confirming that the nebula was ejected only about 2,000 years ago—an eyeblink by the standards of astronomy – and established that the S-shaped iron emission that helps give it the “wings” of gas is even younger. Surprisingly, they found that while astronomers previously believed they had located the nebula’s central star, that previously-identified star is actually not associated with the nebula and is instead much closer to Earth than the Butterfly Nebula. Kastner said he hopes that future studies with the James Webb Space Telescope could help locate the real dying star at the heart of the nebula.
Figure 44: On top is an image of the Butterfly Nebula (NGC 6302) captured by the Hubble Space Telescope in 2019 and released in 2020. Further analysis by researchers produced the RGB image on the bottom, which shows extinction due to dust, as inferred from the relative strength of two hydrogen emission lines, as red; emission from nitrogen, relative to hydrogen, as green; and emission from iron as blue (image credit: STScI, APOD/J. Schmidt; J. Kastner (RIT) et al.)
• January 15, 2021: First discovered in 1798 by German-English astronomer William Hershel, NGC 613 is a galaxy which lies in the southern constellation of Sculptor 67 million light-years away. 51)
- Recent studies have shown that bars are more common in galaxies now than they were in the past, which gives us important clues about galaxy formation and evolution.
Figure 45: Featured here in a new image from the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope, NGC 613 is a lovely example of a barred spiral galaxy. It is easily distinguishable as such because of its well defined central bar and long arms, which spiral loosely around its nucleus. As revealed by surveys, about two thirds of spiral galaxies, including our own Milky Way galaxy, contain a bar (image credit: ESA/Hubble & NASA, G. Folatelli; CC BY 4.0)
• January 14, 2021: Astronomers are winding back the clock on the expanding remains of a nearby, exploded star. By using NASA's Hubble Space Telescope, they retraced the speedy shrapnel from the blast to calculate a more accurate estimate of the location and time of the stellar detonation. 52) 53)
- The victim is a star that exploded long ago in the Small Magellanic Cloud, a satellite galaxy to our Milky Way. The doomed star left behind an expanding, gaseous corpse, a supernova remnant named 1E 0102.2-7219, which NASA's Einstein Observatory first discovered in X-rays. Like detectives, researchers sifted through archival images taken by Hubble, analyzing visible-light observations made 10 years apart.
- The research team, led by John Banovetz and Danny Milisavljevic of Purdue University in West Lafayette, Indiana, measured the velocities of 45 tadpole-shaped, oxygen-rich clumps of ejecta flung by the supernova blast. Ionized oxygen is an excellent tracer because it glows brightest in visible light.
- To calculate an accurate explosion age, the astronomers picked the 22 fastest moving ejecta clumps, or knots. The researchers determined that these targets were the least likely to have been slowed down by passage through interstellar material. They then traced the knots' motion backward until the ejecta coalesced at one point, identifying the explosion site. Once that was known, they could calculate how long it took the speedy knots to travel from the explosion center to their current location.
- According to their estimate, light from the blast arrived at Earth 1,700 years ago, during the decline of the Roman Empire. However, the supernova would only have been visible to inhabitants of Earth's southern hemisphere. Unfortunately, there are no known records of this titanic event.
- The researchers' results differ from previous observations of the supernova's blast site and age. Earlier studies, for example, arrived at explosion ages of 2,000 and 1,000 years ago. However, Banovetz and Milisavljevic say their analysis is more robust.
- "A prior study compared images taken years apart with two different cameras on Hubble, the Wide Field Planetary Camera 2 and the Advanced Camera for Surveys (ACS)," Milisavljevic said. "But our study compares data taken with the same camera, the ACS, making the comparison much more robust; the knots were much easier to track using the same instrument. It's a testament to the longevity of Hubble that we could do such a clean comparison of images taken 10 years apart."
- The astronomers also took advantage of the sharp ACS images in selecting which ejecta clumps to analyze. In prior studies, researchers averaged the speed of all of the gaseous debris to calculate an explosion age. However, the ACS data revealed regions where the ejecta slowed down because it was slamming into denser material shed by the star before it exploded as a supernova. Researchers didn't include those knots in the sample. They needed the ejecta that best reflected their original velocities from the explosion, using them to determine an accurate age estimate of the supernova blast.
- Hubble also clocked the speed of a suspected neutron star—the crushed core of the doomed star—that was ejected from the blast. Based on their estimates, the neutron star must be moving at more than 2 million miles per hour from the center of the explosion to have arrived at its current position. The suspected neutron star was identified in observations with the European Southern Observatory's VLT (Very Large Telescope) in Chile, in combination with data from NASA's Chandra X-ray Observatory.
Figure 46: Hubble Captures the Supernova Remnant 1E 0102.2-7219. This Hubble Space Telescope portrait reveals the gaseous remains of an exploded massive star that erupted approximately 1,700 years ago. The stellar corpse, a supernova remnant named 1E 0102.2-7219, met its demise in the Small Magellanic Cloud, a satellite galaxy of our Milky Way [image credits: NASA, ESA, and J. Banovetz and D. Milisavljevic (Purdue University)]
- "That is pretty fast and at the extreme end of how fast we think a neutron star can be moving, even if it got a kick from the supernova explosion," Banovetz said. "More recent investigations call into question whether the object is actually the surviving neutron star of the supernova explosion. It is potentially just a compact clump of supernova ejecta that has been lit up, and our results generally support this conclusion."
- So the hunt may still be on for the neutron star. "Our study doesn't solve the mystery, but it gives an estimate of the velocity for the candidate neutron star," Banovetz said.
• January 8, 2021: The galaxy NGC 6946 is nothing short of spectacular. In the last century alone, NGC 6946 has experienced 10 observed supernovae, earning its nickname as the Fireworks Galaxy. In comparison, our Milky Way averages just one to two supernova events per century. This NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope image shows the stars, spiral arms, and various stellar environments of NGC 6946 in phenomenal detail. 54)
- We are able to marvel at NGC 6946 as it is a face-on galaxy, which means that we see the galaxy “facing” us, rather than seeing it from the side (known as edge-on). The Fireworks Galaxy is further classified as an intermediate spiral galaxy and as a starburst galaxy. The former means the structure of NGC 6946 sits between a full spiral and a barred spiral galaxy, with only a slight bar in its center, and the latter means it has an exceptionally high rate of star formation.
Figure 47: The NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope image of galaxy NGC 6946. The ”Fireworks Galaxy” resides 25.2 million light-years away, along the border of the northern constellations of Cepheus and Cygnus (The Swan), image credit: ESA/Hubble & NASA, A. Leroy, K. S. Long
• January 7, 2021: It is during rare merging events that galaxies undergo dramatic changes in their appearance and in their stellar content. These systems are excellent laboratories to trace the formation of star clusters under extreme physical conditions. 55) 56)
Figure 48: To celebrate a new year, the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope has published a montage of six beautiful galaxy mergers. Each of these merging systems was studied as part of the recent HiPEEC survey to investigate the rate of new star formation within such systems. These interactions are a key aspect of galaxy evolution and are among the most spectacular events in the lifetime of a galaxy (image credits: ESA/Hubble & NASA, A. Adamo, et al.)
- The Milky Way typically forms star clusters with masses that are 10 thousand times the mass of our Sun. This doesn’t compare to the masses of the star clusters forming in colliding galaxies, which can reach millions of times the mass of our Sun.
- These dense stellar systems are also very luminous. Even after the collision, when the resulting galactic system begins to fade into a more quiescent phase, these very massive star clusters will shine throughout their host galaxy, as long-lasting witnesses of past merging events.
- By studying the six galaxy mergers shown here, the Hubble imaging Probe of Extreme Environments and Clusters (HiPEEC) survey has investigated how star clusters are affected during collisions by the rapid changes that drastically increase the rate at which new stars are formed in these galaxies. Hubble’s capabilities have made it possible to resolve large star-forming “knots” into numerous compact young star clusters. Hubble’s ultraviolet and near-infrared observations of these systems have been used to derive star cluster ages, masses, and extinctions and to analyze the star formation rate within these six merging galaxies. The HiPEEC study reveals that the star cluster populations undergo large and rapid variations in their properties, with the most massive clusters formed towards the end of the merger phase.
- Each of the merging systems shown here has been previously published by Hubble, as early as 2008 and as recently as October 2020. To celebrate it’s 18th anniversary in 2008, the Hubble Space Telescope released a collection of 59 images of merging galaxies, which can be explored here.
Table 4: Hubble Showcases 6 Galaxy Mergers in Figure 48
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The information compiled and edited in this article was provided by Herbert J. Kramer from his documentation of: ”Observation of the Earth and Its Environment: Survey of Missions and Sensors” (Springer Verlag) as well as many other sources after the publication of the 4th edition in 2002. - Comments and corrections to this article are always welcome for further updates (firstname.lastname@example.org).