February 28, 2018

Dwarf Galaxy IC 4710

Dwarf Galaxy IC 4710

Discovered in 1900 by astronomer DeLisle Stewart and here imaged by the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope, IC 4710 is an undeniably spectacular sight. The galaxy is a busy cloud of bright stars, with bright pockets — marking bursts of new star formation — scattered around its edges.

IC 4710 is a dwarf irregular galaxy. As the name suggests, such galaxies are irregular and chaotic in appearance, lacking central bulges and spiral arms — they are distinctly different from spirals or ellipticals. It is thought that irregular galaxies may once have been spirals or ellipticals, but became distorted over time through external gravitational forces during interactions or mergers with other galaxies. Dwarf irregulars in particular are important to our overall understanding of galactic evolution, as they are thought to be similar to the first galaxies that formed in the Universe.

IC 4710 lies roughly 25 million light-years away in the southern constellation of Pavo (The Peacock). This constellation is located in the southern skies and also contains the third-brightest globular cluster in the sky, NGC 6752, the spiral galaxy NGC 6744, and six known planetary systems (including HD 181433 which is host to a super-Earth).

The data used to create this image were gathered by Hubble’s Advanced Camera for Surveys (ACS).

Image Credit: ESA/Hubble, NASA, Judy Schmidt
Explanation from: https://www.spacetelescope.org/images/potw1809a/

February 27, 2018

Hawaii seen from the International Space Station

Hawaii seen from the International Space Station

Crews aboard the International Space Station oriented the camera specifically to capture this panorama of Hawaii's Kilauea volcano (image left) with the long swirls of volcanic gases (top half of the image) wafting west from the volcano. Astronauts are trained to take oblique images of hard-to-see atmospheric haze by shooting obliquely to enhance visibility. The gas haze--termed vog, a combination of fog, smog and volcanic--is well known in Hawai'i, and is defined as "a form of air pollution that results when sulfur dioxide and other gases ... emitted by an erupting volcano react with oxygen and moisture in the presence of sunlight".

Here the vog haze is transported hundreds of km downwind of the volcano (for scale the Big Island is 137 km, 85 miles, long). In this unusual view the vog forms a series of subtle but distinct alternating swirls (arrows) known as von Karman vortices, a favorite topic for crew photography. Swirls form under specific conditions of high atmospheric pressure and relatively slow wind speeds. They usually develop in clouds downwind of islands, as shown in many astronaut images of cloud patterns. Images of vog haze are captured often by astronauts, but few show the swirl phenomenon.

Image Credit: NASA
Explanation from: https://eol.jsc.nasa.gov/SearchPhotos/photo.pl?mission=ISS042&roll=E&frame=281151

February 26, 2018

Protoplanetary Disk AS 209

Protoplanetary Disk AS 209

Nestled in the young Ophiuchus star-forming region, 410 light-years from the Sun, a fascinating protoplanetary disc named AS 209 is slowly being carved into shape. This wonderful image was captured using the high-resolution ALMA telescope, revealing a curious pattern of rings and gaps in the dust surrounding a young star.

Protoplanetary discs are dense, rotating planes of gas and dust that surround newly formed stars; providing the matter that one day becomes orbiting planets, moons and other minor bodies. At less than one million years old, this system is very young, but already two clear gaps are being sculpted from the disc.

The outer gap is deep, wide, and largely a dust-free zone, leading astronomers to believe that a giant planet almost the mass of Saturn is orbiting here — around 800 light-minutes from the central star, and more than three times the distance between Neptune and the Sun! As the planet carves out its path, dust piles up at the outer edge of its orbit, creating ever more defined rings in the disc. The thinner, inner dust gap could have been formed by a smaller planet, but astronomers have raised the intriguing possibility that the large and distant circling planet in fact created both paths.

This inferred Saturn-like planet so far from its central star raises fascinating questions about planet formation at the edges of protoplanetary discs on particularly short timescales.

Image Credit: ALMA (ESO/NAOJ/NRAO)/ D. Fedele et al.
Explanation from: https://www.eso.org/public/images/potw1809a/