Too Close for Comfort

Video Credit: NASA

UPDATE—A personal note: I contributed to the design of components of the Burst Alert Telescope instrument on Swift. My contributions include the ultra-quiet power regulators for the detectors in the instrument, the variable high-voltage supply for the detectors, and the pulse-width-modulation regulator for the thermal control system of the BAT. The same PWM regulator was also used in other locations on the satellite.

NGC 1433

Composite_NGC_1433This detailed view shows the central parts of the nearby active galaxy NGC 1433. The dim blue background image, showing the central dust lanes of this galaxy, comes from the Hubble Space Telescope. The other colored structures near the middle of the image are from ALMA observations. ALMA is the Atacama Large Millimeter/sub-millimeter Array, an astronomical interferometer of radio telescopes in the Atacama desert of northern Chile.

Image Credit: ESO / NASA / ESA


KBOsThese two multiple-exposure images from the Hubble Space Telescope show Kuiper Belt objects or (KBOs) moving against a background of stars in the constellation Sagittarius. The two KBOs are roughly 4 billion miles from Earth. The Kuiper belt is a debris field of icy bodies left over from the solar system’s formation 4.6 billion years ago.

Hubble has been given the go-ahead to conduct an intensive search for a suitable outer solar system object that the New Horizons spacecraft could visit after the probe streaks though the Pluto system in July 2015.

Image Credit: NASA

A Day in a Life …

… of Jupiter. A collection of Hubble images taken in 2007 was used to assemble this full, even coverage of Jupiter. The resulting mosaic has been mapped onto a sphere, and one full rotation is presented in the visualization.

Video Credit: NASA


Hercules A

Hercules A is the brightest radio source in the constellation of Hercules. Astronomers found that the double-peaked radio emission was centered on a giant elliptical galaxy known as 3C 348. This galaxy is not found within a large cluster of hundreds of galaxies, but rather within a comparatively small group of dozens of galaxies. The active part of the galaxy is the supermassive black hole in its core, sending out strong jets of energetic particles that produce enormous lobes of radio emission. It’s been suggested that Hercules A may be the result of two galaxies merging together.

This video imagines a three-dimensional look at the combined visible light (Hubble Space Telescope) and radio emission (Very Large Array) from Hercules A. The radio lobes dwarf the large galaxy and extends throughout the volume of the surrounding galaxy group. This visualization is only a scientifically reasonable guess of the three-dimensional structures. For example, the galaxy distances within the group are based on a statistical model, and not measured values.

Video Credit: NASA

Moving Through The Monkey Head

The Monkey Head Nebula (aka NGC 2174) is a star-forming region where bright, newborn stars illuminate the surrounding gas with energetic radiation. The radiation wears away the lower density gas, but pockets of higher density gas resist the erosion, forming pillars and peaks along the inner edge of the roughly circular cloud.

This video showcases visible and infrared light views of a collection of pillars beginning with a view of the night sky near the constellation of Gemini and Orion. It zooms through observations from the Digitized Sky Survey 2 to reveal a Hubble Space Telescope visible light view the pillars. A cross-fade transitions from Hubble‘s visible and infrared light views to a simulated 3D model of the region. The “camera” then pulls back to reveal the landscape of evaporating peaks of gas and dust surrounded by stars. The visualization is intended to be a reasonable interpretation (not scientifically accurate). Distances within the model are significantly compressed.

Video Credit: NASA

An Eye in the Sky

NGC 3081This is a galaxy known as NGC 3081. It’s in the constellation of Hydra (The Sea Serpent) around 86 million light-years away. We see NGC 3081 nearly face-on, and the galaxy’s barred spiral center is surrounded by a bright loop known as a resonance ring. This ring is full of bright clusters and bursts of new star formation.

Rings like the one surrounding NGC 3081 form in particular locations known as resonances where gravitational effects in a galaxy cause gas to pile up and accumulate in certain positions. These can be caused by the presence of a “bar” within the galaxy, as with NGC 3081, or by interactions with other nearby objects.

Image Credit: NASA

In the Eagle Nebula

This video crossfades between the Hubble and European Southern Observatory’s Very Large Telescope infrared views of the head of Column 1 of the Pillars of Creation in Eagle Nebula. The bright complex reflection nebulosity and its young, massive energy source are completely unseen at visible wavelengths of the Hubble image.

Video Credit: ESO
Image Credits: NASA / ESO


m60The densest galaxy in the nearby Universe may be this galaxy known as M60-UCD1. It is located near a massive elliptical galaxy NGC 4649, also called M60, about 54 million light years from Earth. Packed with an extraordinary number of stars, M60-UCD1 is an “ultra-compact dwarf galaxy”. It was discovered with the Hubble Space Telescope and follow-up observations were done with the Chandra X-ray Observatory and ground-based optical telescopes. It is the most luminous known galaxy of its type and one of the most massive, weighing 200 million times more than our Sun.

This composite image shows the region near M60. Data from the Chandra X-ray Observatory are pink and data from the Hubble Space Telescope are red, green and blue. The Chandra image shows hot gas and double stars containing black holes and neutron stars and the Hubble image reveals stars in M60 at the right edge of the frame.

Image Credit: NASA

The Not-So-Giant Red Spot

HubbleJGRS_900The most prominent feature on Jupiter is a storm called the Giant Red Spot. The most recent Hubble observations measure the spot to be about 16,500 km across. That’s the smallest ever measured by Hubble and big decrease from the 23,300 km measured by the Voyager 1 and Voyager 2 flybys in 1979. Telescopic observations during the 19th-century indicated a width of about 41,000 lm on its long axis. Current indications are that the rate of shrinking is increasing for the long-lived storm.

Image Credit: NASA


M61Messier 61 is a type of galaxy known as a starburst galaxy. Starburst galaxies have an abnormally high rate of star formation, hungrily using up their reservoir of gas in a very short period of time (in astronomical terms). However, that’s not the only activity we believe is going on within M61; deep at its heart there is thought to be a supermassive black hole that is violently spewing out radiation.

Despite its inclusion in the Messier Catalogue, Messier 61 was actually discovered by Italian astronomer Barnabus Oriani in 1779. Charles Messier also noticed this galaxy on the very same day as Oriani, but mistook it for a comet.

Image Credit: NASA


m5hst950Messier 5 (M5) is  a globular star cluster of 100,000 or more stars bound by gravity into a region around 165 light-years in diameter. It’s about 25,000 light-years away.  M5 is one of the oldest globulars in our galaxy, with stars estimated to be nearly 13 billion years old. The beautiful star cluster is a popular target for Earthbound telescopes. This closeup  that spans about 20 light-years near the central region of M5 was taken by the Hubble Space Telescope. The cluster’s aging red and blue giant stars and rejuvenated blue stragglers stand out in yellow and blue hues.

Image Credit: NASA

Arp 81

ARP81This distorted pair of galaxies is called Arp 81. About 100 million years ago, they had a close encounter, and the havoc wreaked by their mutual gravitational interaction resulted ing twisted streams of gas and dust, a chaos of massive star formation, and a tidal tail of debris stretching for a couple of hundred thousand light-years. NGC 6622 (left) and NGC 6621(right) are more of less equal in size. They are destined to merge into one larger galaxy in the distant future, after a mating dance of repeated approaches. The galaxies are 280,000,000 light-years away in the constellation Draco.

Image Credit: NASA

The Tadpole

The_TadpoleWhen I was a kid, one of the pleasures of spring was going to the creek and catching tadpoles. This bright blue tadpole seems to swim through the inky blackness of space. Catalogued as IRAS 20324+4057, “The Tadpole” is a clump of gas and dust giving birth to a bright protostar, one of the earliest steps in building a star.

There are multiple protostars in the tadpole’s head; the glowing yellow one in this image is the most luminous and massive. When this protostar has gathered together enough mass from its surroundings, it will become a fully-fledged young star.

The intense blue glow is caused by intense ultraviolet radiation from nearby stars. Pressure from that UV sculpts the tail into a long, wiggly shape. The Tadpole spans roughly a light-year from head to tail-tip, and contains gas with about four times the mass of the Sun.

Image Credit: NASA / ESA

A Horsehead of a Different Color

This video presents a visualization of the Horsehead Nebula as seen in infrared light. The central Hubble image has been augmented by ground-based observations from the European Southern Observatory’s Visible and Infrared Survey Telescope for Astronomy (VISTA). The stars distributed in the three-dimensional environment in an approximate and statistical manner. While it’s no 100%-accurate, the computer graphics are intended to be scientifically reasonable.

The Horsehead Nebula is a dark cloud of dense gas and dust located just below Orion’s belt. Visible light shows a strong silhouette resembling a horse’s head as used for a knight in chess. As seen at left with infrared light we can see more deeply into the clouds, revealing a more complex scene. The warm parts of the clouds glow in infrared light, and a dark and relatively featureless scene is revealed as a glowing gaseous landscape.

Video Credit: NASA

Breaking Up is Hard to Do

asteroid-disintegrationThis series of Hubble Space Telescope images shows the breakup of an asteroid over a period of several months beginning in late 2013. The largest fragments are up to 180 m in radius. The crumbling asteroid, designated P/2013 R3, was first noticed as an unusual, fuzzy-looking object by the Catalina and Pan STARRS sky surveys last September.

Image Credit: NASA

Confused Hubble

Confused HubbleHubble uses what is called its Fine Guidance System (FGS) in order to maintain stability while performing observations. A set of gyroscopes measures the attitude of the telescope, which is then corrected by a set of reaction wheels. In order to compensate for gyroscopic drift, the FGS locks onto a guide star as a fixed reference in space.

In this case, Hubble locked onto a bad guide star, probably a double star or binary, causing an error in the tracking system. The result was this remarkable picture of brightly colored stellar streaks. The prominent red streaks are from stars in the globular cluster NGC 288.

Image Credit: NASA / ESA

A Seyfert Galaxy

NGC 5793Carl Seyfert was an interesting fellow. Back in the ’50s when I was a kid growing up in Nashville, he was Director of the Dyer Observatory at Vanderbilt University. I met him through the local astronomy club associated with the Nashville Children’s Museum. He was well known around town because he moonlighted as the weatherman for WSM-TV. He was known in astronomical circles for his research on a class of galaxies.

Those galaxies have incredibly luminous centers that we believe are caused by supermassive black holes—black holes that can be billions of times the size of the sun—pulling in and swallowing gas and dust from their surroundings. NGC 5793 is a Seyfert galaxy over 150 million light-years away in the constellation of Libra.

This Hubble image is centered on NGC 5793. This galaxy is of great interest to astronomers for many reasons. For one, it appears to house objects known as masers. Whereas lasers emit visible light, masers emit microwave radiation. The term “maser” is an acronym of Microwave Amplification by Stimulated Emission of Radiation. Lasers emit visible light; masers emit microwave radiation. Maser emission occurs when particles absorb energy from their surroundings re-emit the energy in the microwave part of the spectrum. Naturally occurring masers such as are found in NGC 5793 can tell us a lot about their environment; we see some types of masers in areas where stars are forming. In NGC 5793 there are also intense mega-masers, thousands of times more luminous than the sun.

Image Credit: NASA