May 16, 2015

Hubble Spots the Layers of NGC 3923

NGC 3923

The glowing object in this Hubble Space Telescope image is an elliptical galaxy called NGC 3923. It is located over 90 million light-years away in the constellation of Hydra.

NGC 3923 is an example of a shell galaxy where the stars in its halo are arranged in layers.

Finding concentric shells of stars enclosing a galaxy is quite common and is observed in many elliptical galaxies. In fact, every tenth elliptical galaxy exhibits this onion-like structure, which has never been observed in spiral galaxies. The shell-like structures are thought to develop as a consequence of galactic cannibalism, when a larger galaxy ingests a smaller companion. As the two centers approach, they initially oscillate about a common center, and this oscillation ripples outwards forming the shells of stars just as ripples on a pond spread when the surface is disturbed.

NGC 3923 has over twenty shells, with only a few of the outer ones visible in this image, and its shells are much more subtle than those of other shell galaxies. The shells of this galaxy are also interestingly symmetrical, while other shell galaxies are more skewed.

Image Credit: ESA/Hubble & NASA
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May 13, 2015

Supernova SN 1987A

Supernova SN 1987A

Supernova SN 1987A, one of the brightest stellar explosions since the invention of the telescope more than 400 years ago, is no stranger to the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope. The observatory has been on the frontline of studies into this brilliant dying star since its launch in 1990, three years after the supernova exploded on 23 February 1987. This image of Hubble’s old friend, retreived from the telescope’s data archive, may be the best ever of this object, and reminds us of the many mysteries still surrounding it.

Dominating this picture are two glowing loops of stellar material and a very bright ring surrounding the dying star at the centre of the frame. Although Hubble has provided important clues on the nature of these structures, their origin is still largely unknown.

Another mystery is that of the missing neutron star. The violent death of a high-mass star, such as SN 1987A, leaves behind a stellar remnant — a neutron star or a black hole. Astronomers expect to find a neutron star in the remnants of this supernova, but they have not yet been able to peer through the dense dust to confirm it is there.

The supernova belongs to the Large Magellanic Cloud, a nearby galaxy about 168 000 light-years away. Even though the stellar explosion took place around 166 000 BC, its light arrived here less than 25 years ago.

This picture is based on observations done with the High Resolution Channel of Hubble’s Advanced Camera for Surveys. The field of view is approximately 25 by 25 arcseconds.

Image Credit: ESA/Hubble & NASA
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May 11, 2015

Ceres Animation Showcases Bright Spots

Ceres Bright Spots

The mysterious bright spots on the dwarf planet Ceres are better resolved in a new sequence of images taken by NASA's Dawn spacecraft on May 3 and 4, 2015. The images were taken from a distance of 8,400 miles (13,600 kilometers).

In this closest-yet view, the brightest spots within a crater in the northern hemisphere are revealed to be composed of many smaller spots. However, their exact nature remains unknown.

"Dawn scientists can now conclude that the intense brightness of these spots is due to the reflection of sunlight by highly reflective material on the surface, possibly ice," said Christopher Russell, principal investigator for the Dawn mission from the University of California, Los Angeles.

These images offer scientists new insights into crater shapes and sizes, and a host of other intriguing geological features on the surface. The image resolution is 0.8 mile (1.3 kilometers) per pixel.

Dawn has now concluded its first mapping orbit, in which it completed one 15-day full circle around Ceres while making a host of new observations with its scientific instruments. On May 9, the spacecraft powered on its ion engine to begin the month-long descent toward its second mapping orbit, which it will enter on June 6. In this next phase, Dawn will circle Ceres about every three days at an altitude of 2,700 miles (4,400 kilometers) -- three times closer than the previous orbit. During this phase, referred to as Dawn's survey orbit, the spacecraft will comprehensively map the surface to begin unraveling Ceres' geologic history and assess whether the dwarf planet is active. The spacecraft will pause twice to take images of Ceres as it spirals down into this new orbit.

Dawn is the first mission to visit a dwarf planet, and the first to orbit two distinct solar system targets. It studied giant asteroid Vesta for 14 months in 2011 and 2012, and arrived at Ceres on March 6, 2015.

Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA/MPS/DLR/IDA
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