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Hubble’s greatest galaxy images

Since its launch in 1990, the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope has taken thousands of images of astronomical bodies near and far.

Many of its targets have been galaxies or groups of galaxies. A galaxy is a collection of millions or billions of stars—many of which might have planets—plus clouds of gas and dust.

Galaxies come in range of different shapes and sizes. There are spiral galaxies like our Milky Way, plus elliptical galaxies, lenticular galaxies, dwarf galaxies and irregular galaxies.

Prominent galaxies have been given proper names; others are simply known by their catalogue number. One of the better-known catalogues of astronomical objects is the imaginatively named New General Catalogue, or NGC.

Here’s our selection of Hubble’s Top 15 galaxy images.

1. NGC 5866

NGC 5866 is around 50 million light-years away. Sometimes called the Spindle Galaxy, is either a spiral galaxy seen edge on, or a type known as lenticular—halfway between a spiral and an elliptical galaxy. A lane of dark dust clouds is prominent.

ACS Image of NGC 5866

Hubble Space Telescope view of galaxy NGC 5866.

2. The Cartwheel Galaxy

This amazing looking galaxy is located 500 million light-years from Earth. Its strange shape is thought to be the result of a collision between two galaxies. It has a nucleus in the centre, a ring of young stars around the outside, and wisps of material connecting the two. It is classed as a ring galaxy.

The Cartwheel Galaxy

Hubble Space Telescope view of the Cartwheel Galaxy.

3. NGC 7049

About 100 million light-years from Earth lies NGC 7049, a large (150 million light-year-wide) half-spiral, half-elliptical galaxy that has dramatic dust clouds ringing its nucleus. This is another example of a structure that might have arisen from a galactic collision.

NGC 7049

Hubble Space Telescope view of the galaxy NGC 7049.

4. NGC 1512

NGC 1512 is a barred-spiral galaxy about 30 million light-years from Earth. Barred spiral means that it has an elongated section of stars coming out of either side of the nucleus, from which the spiral arms extend and wrap themselves around the galaxy.

NGC 1512

A combined ultraviolet-visible-infrared image of NGC 1512.

5. AM 0644-741

Another ring galaxy, AM 0644-741 is about 300 million light-years from Earth and is a bit wider than our Milky Way galaxy. Again, thought to be the result of a collision between two galaxies, it has nucleus of old stars and a ring of younger stars, whose birth was prompted by the collision.

AM 0644-741

Hubble Space Telescope view of the ring galaxy AM 0644-741.

6. NGC 4921

This is a magnificent image of the face-on spiral galaxy NGC 4921, put together from 80 separate Hubble images. It is 320 million light-years from Earth.

NGC 4921

Hubble Space Telescope view of galaxy NGC 4921.

7. NGC 1316

Dark clouds of dust are spread throughout this galaxy, which is just over 60 million light-years from Earth. Classified as a lenticular (half-spiral, half-elliptical) galaxy, it’s yet a further example of a galaxy that is thought to have undergone a merger with another galaxy.

NGC 1316

Hubble Space Telescope view of galaxy NGC 1316.

8. Hoag’s Object

This amazing ring galaxy is similar to the Cartwheel and AM 0644-741, but is more perfectly formed. A ring of bright, young stars surrounds its nucleus of older stars. A background galaxy can be seen at about the one o’clock position. Hoag’s Object is about 600 million light-years from Earth.

Hoag's Object

Hubble Space Telescope view of Hoag's Object.

9. UGC 10214

Nicknamed the “Tadpole”, this remarkable galaxy has been distorted and “stretched” by the gravity of a passing galaxy (the small, blue galaxy in the top-left corner of the Tadpole). It is 420 million light-years from Earth.

UGC 10214

Hubble Space Telescope view of the "Tadpole" galaxy, UGC 10214.

10. NGC 4622

A spiral galaxy that spins the wrong way? That’s the conclusion reached by astronomers studying NGC 4622. A normal spiral galaxy has arms that trail around behind as the galaxy slowly spins. But with NGC 4622, the tips of the spiral arms actually point in the direction of rotation. (This has now been established by two different types of observations). This galaxy is 111 million light-years away.

NGC 4622

Hubble Space Telescope view of galaxy NGC 4622.

11. NGC 3314

This odd looking galaxy is actually two galaxies, one in front of the other. Together, the two galaxies are known by the catalogue number NGC 3314. The pair are about 140 million light-years from Earth.

NGC 3314

Hubble Space Telescope view of galaxy pair NGC 3314.

12. Sombrero Galaxy

One of the most famous galaxies and a favourite target of recreational astronomers, the Sombrero Galaxy (also known by its catalogue number, M104) is a spiral galaxy seen edge on and encircled by thick dust lanes. M104 has a mass of 800 billion suns, is 50,000 light-years across and is located 28 million light-years from Earth.

Sombrero Galaxy

Hubble Space Telescope view of the Sombrero Galaxy, also known as M104.

13. NGC 7742

This pretty, face-on spiral galaxy hides a dark secret—at its core there probably lives a black hole. (Mind you, the same can probably be said of pretty much all galaxies.) The central part of the galaxy contains lots of older stars. Surrounding that is ring where stars are being born, followed by tightly wrapped spiral arms. On the outside is a dimmer region that was once probably the site of star formation.

NGC 7742

Hubble Space Telescope view of galaxy NGC 7742.

14. Stephan’s Quintet

A clash of cosmic proportions is underway in this grouping of galaxies. Although five major galaxies are visible (the galaxy to the right of middle is actually two galaxies interacting), the one in the top left is actually a ring in—known as NGC 7320, it is seven times closer to us than the others, and so is not involved. Three of the others are distorted and disturbed by coming close to each other. NGC 7320 is 40 million light-years from Earth, while the others are around 300 million light-years away.

Stephan's Quintet

Hubble Space Telescope view of the group of galaxies known as Stephan's Quintet.

15. Abell 1689

The huge cluster of galaxies known as Abell 1689 acts as a cosmic lens, distorting our view of other galaxies that lie beyond it. Those other galaxies show up as arcs of light. The gravitational lens effect was predicted by Einstein’s theory of gravity.

Abell 1689

Hubble Space Telescope view of galaxy cluster Abell 1689, which acts as a gravitational lens.

Image credits:

NGC 5866: NASA / ESA/ Hubble Heritage Team (STScI / AURA)

The Cartwheel Galaxy: Curt Struck, Philip Appleton (Iowa State University) / Kirk Borne (Hughes STX Corporation) / Ray Lucas (STScI) / NASA / ESA

NGC 7049: NASA / ESA / W. Harris (McMaster University, Canada)

NGC 1512: NASA / ESA / Dan Maoz (Tel-Aviv University, Israel, and Columbia University, USA)

AM 0644-741: NASA / ESA / Hubble Heritage Team (AURA / STScI)

NGC 4921: NASA / ESA / K. Cook (Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, USA)

NGC 1316: NASA / ESA/ Hubble Heritage Team (STScI / AURA)

Hoag’s Object: NASA / ESA/ Hubble Heritage Team (STScI / AURA)

UGC 10214: NASA / Holland Ford (JHU) / ACS Science Team / ESA

NGC 4622: NASA / ESA/ Hubble Heritage Team (STScI / AURA)

NGC 3314: NASA / ESA/ Hubble Heritage Team (STScI / AURA)

Sombrero Galaxy: NASA / ESA/ Hubble Heritage Team (STScI / AURA)

NGC 7742: NASA / ESA/ Hubble Heritage Team (STScI / AURA)

Stephan’s Quintet: NASA / ESA / Hubble SM4 ERO Team

Abell 1689: NASA / N. Benitez (JHU), T. Broadhurst (The Hebrew University), H. Ford (JHU), M. Clampin (STScI), G. Hartig (STScI), G. Illingworth (UCO/Lick Observatory) / ACS Science Team / ESA.

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Dive into the Lagoon Nebula

Close-up shot of the centre of the Lagoon Nebula

This close-up shot of the centre of the Lagoon Nebula clearly shows the delicate structures formed when the powerful radiation of young stars interacts with the hydrogen cloud from which they formed.

  • Lagoon Nebula, a famous “starbirth” region
  • Located 4,000 to 5,000 light-years away
  • Evidence that stars and planets are forming within

The Advanced Camera for Surveys (ACS) on Hubble Space Telescope has captured a dramatic view of gas and dust sculpted by intense radiation from hot young stars deep in the heart of the Lagoon Nebula (also known as Messier 8).

This spectacular object is named after the wide, lagoon-shaped dust lane that crosses the glowing gas of the nebula.

This dust lane structure is prominent in wide-field images, but cannot be seen in this close-up. However the strange billowing shapes and sandy texture visible in this image make the Lagoon Nebula’s watery name eerily appropriate from this viewpoint too.

Here’s a video pan across the new Hubble image:

Located 4,000 to 5,000 light-years away, Messier 8 is a huge region of star birth that stretches across 100 light-years. Clouds of hydrogen gas are slowly collapsing to form new stars, whose bright ultraviolet rays then light up the surrounding gas in a distinctive shade of red.

See the full-size, high-resolution version of the image here.

Wide-field image of the Lagoon Nebula

A wide-field image shows the entirety of the Lagoon Nebula. The Hubble image focuses on a tiny portion in the heart of the Nebula, just below and to the right of centre.

The wispy tendrils and beach-like features of the nebula are not caused by the ebb and flow of tides, but rather by ultraviolet radiation’s ability to erode and disperse the gas and dust into the distinctive shapes that we see.

In recent years astronomers probing the secrets of the Lagoon Nebula have found the first unambiguous evidence that star formation by accumulation of matter from the gas cloud is ongoing in this region.

Young stars that are still surrounded by a swirling cloud of gas and dust occasionally shoot out long tendrils of matter from their poles. Several examples of these jets, known as Herbig-Haro objects, have been found in this nebula in the last five years, providing strong support for astronomers’ theories about star formation in such hydrogen-rich regions.

Watch this impressive zoom-in video, which takes us from the outer reaches of the Milky Way and into the Lagoon:

The Lagoon Nebula is faintly visible to the naked eye on dark nights as a small patch of grey in the heart of the Milky Way. Without a telescope, the nebula looks underwhelming because human eyes are unable to distinguish clearly between colours at low light levels.

Charles Messier, the 18th century French astronomer, studied the nebula and included it in his famous astronomical catalogue, from which the nebula’s alternative name comes. But his relatively small refracting telescope would only have hinted at the dramatic structures and colours now visible thanks to Hubble.

Adapted from information issued by Spacetelescope.org / NASA / A. Caulet (ST-ECF, ESA) / Hunter Wilson.

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Giant galaxy hides its secrets

Galaxy NGC 4696

A supermassive black hole beats at the heart of huge elliptical galaxy NGC 4696.

This picture, taken by Hubble’s Advanced Camera for Surveys, shows NGC 4696, the largest galaxy in the Centaurus Cluster (also known as galaxy cluster Abell 3526).

NGC 4696 is an elliptical-shaped galaxy with a difference. Lacking the complex structure and active star formation of their spiral galaxy cousins, elliptical galaxies are usually little more than shapeless, albeit huge, collections of ageing stars.

Most likely formed by collisions between spiral galaxies, elliptical galaxies experience a brief burst of star formation triggered as interstellar dust and gas clouds crash into each other.

But this burst of star formation activity quickly leaves young elliptical galaxies exhausted. With no more gas to form new stars from, the galaxies grow older and fainter.

But NGC 4696 is more interesting than most elliptical galaxies.

A huge dust lane, around 30,000 light-years across, sweeping across the face of the galaxy is one way in which it looks different from most other elliptical galaxies. Viewed at certain wavelengths, strange thin filaments of ionised hydrogen gas are visible within it.

Looking at NGC 4696 at the optical and near-infrared wavelengths seen by Hubble gives a beautiful and dramatic view of the galaxy. But in fact, much of its inner turmoil is still hidden from view in this picture.

At the heart of the galaxy, a supermassive black hole is blowing out jets of matter at nearly the speed of light. When looked at in X-ray wavelengths, such as those visible from NASA’s Chandra X-ray Observatory, huge voids within the galaxy become visible, telltale signs of these jets’ enormous power to “clear out” large volumes of space of their gas and dust.

Adapted from information issued by ESA / Hubble and NASA.

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Face to face with a galactic giant

NGC 4911

A Hubble Space Telescope image of spiral galaxy NGC 4911. Thousands of other galaxies of varying sizes and brightnesses also can be seen.

A long-exposure Hubble Space Telescope image shows a majestic face-on spiral galaxy located deep within the Coma Cluster of galaxies, which lies 320 million light-years away in the northern constellation Coma Berenices.

The galaxy, known as NGC 4911, contains rich lanes of dust and gas near its centre. These are silhouetted against glowing newborn star clusters and iridescent pink clouds of hydrogen, the existence of which indicates ongoing star formation.

Hubble has also captured the outer spiral arms of NGC 4911, along with thousands of other galaxies of varying sizes.

The high resolution of Hubble’s cameras, paired with considerably long exposures, made it possible to observe these faint details.

NGC 4911 and other spirals near the centre of the cluster are being transformed by the gravitational tug of their neighbours. In the case of NGC 4911, wispy arcs of the galaxy’s outer spiral arms are being pulled and distorted by forces from a companion galaxy (NGC 4911A), to the upper right.

See the full-size, high-resolution image here (0.7M, new window).

The resultant stripped material will eventually be dispersed throughout the core of the Coma Cluster, where it will fuel the intergalactic populations of stars and star clusters.

The Coma Cluster is home to almost 1,000 galaxies, making it one of the densest collections of galaxies in the nearby universe. It continues to transform galaxies at the present epoch, due to the interactions of close-proximity galaxy systems within the dense cluster. Vigorous star formation is triggered in such collisions.

Galaxies in this cluster are so densely packed that they undergo frequent interactions and collisions. When galaxies of nearly equal masses merge, they form elliptical galaxies. Merging is more likely to occur in the centre of the cluster where the density of galaxies is higher, giving rise to more elliptical galaxies.

This natural-colour Hubble image, which combines data obtained in 2006, 2007, and 2009 from the Wide Field Planetary Camera 2 and the Advanced Camera for Surveys, required 28 hours of exposure time.

Adapted from information issued by NASA / ESA / Hubble Heritage Team (STScI/AURA) / K. Cook (LLNL).

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Coming soon: Hubble’s successor

The Webb Telescope will be the premier observatory of the next decade, serving thousands of astronomers worldwide. It will study every phase in the history of our Universe, ranging from the first luminous glows after the Big Bang, to the formation of planetary systems capable of supporting life on planets like Earth, to the evolution of our own Solar System.

Comparison of Hubble and Webb primary mirrors

The Webb Telescope's segmented mirror system will be almost three times as big as Hubble's mirror.

Originally known as the “Next Generation Space Telescope” (NGST) and considered the successor to the Hubble Space Telescope, the telescope was renamed in September 2002 after former NASA administrator, James Webb.

More information about the Webb Telescope

Adapted from information issued by NASA.

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Incredible Hubble video

This Hubblecast features a spectacular new NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope image—one of the largest ever released of a star-forming region. It highlights N11, part of a complex network of gas clouds and star clusters within our neighbouring galaxy, the Large Magellanic Cloud. This region of energetic star formation is one of the most active in the nearby Universe.

Download an amazing screen wallpaper image of N11:

Adapted from information issued by NASA / ESA / Jesús Maíz Apellániz (Instituto de Astrofísica de Andalucía, Spain).

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Hypervelocity star leaves home

Illustration of a star being ejected from the Milky Way

In this illustration, the hot, blue star HE 0437-5439 has been tossed out of the centre of our Milky Way galaxy with enough speed—2.5 million kilometres per hour—to escape the galaxy's gravitational clutches.

  • Star is moving at 2.5 million kilometres per hour
  • Hubble shows that it originated in the core of the Milky Way
  • Now on the Milky Way’s outskirts and heading outward

Using the Hubble Space Telescope, astronomers have studied a “super-hot blue star” leaving our Milky Way galaxy three times faster than the speed of the Sun.

The “hypervelocity” star—known as HE 0437-5439—is presently 200,000 light-years from the galactic centre, and shooting outward at around 2.5 million kilometres per hour.

It also appears to be bafflingly youthful.

So what’s a nice young star doing in a place like that?

The astronomers say the most likely scenario is that it was once part of a triple-star system that lived in the inner parts of our galaxy, and which one day came too close the Milky Way’s central black hole.

They think one of the stars was captured by the black hole, but that the other two were boosted onto a trajectory that sent them zooming up and out of the Milky Way.

Illustration of a triple-star system being split up by coming too close to a black hole

This illustration shows how a triple-star system could be split up by coming too close to a black hole. One star gets captured, the other two head off together with extra speed. Those two stars then merged to become a single "blue straggler" star.

Somewhere along the way, the two stars merged to form one, much bigger and hotter star.

All of the 16 known hypervelocity stars seem to have come from the Galaxy’s inner region, but HE 0437-5439 is the first to have been pinned down as coming from the galactic core.

“Using Hubble, we can for the first time trace back to where the star came from by measuring the star’s direction of motion on the sky,” said astronomer Warren Brown of the Harvard-Smithsonian Centre for Astrophysics in Cambridge, Massachusetts. “Our measurements point directly to the Milky Way centre.”

An age-old problem

The star’s apparent youth is another puzzle. In 2008, a different team of astronomers found a chemical match between the light spectrum of HE 0437-5439 and stars that live in the Large Magellanic Cloud (LMC), a neighbouring galaxy only 65,000 light-years from HE 0437-5439’s present position.

Hubble image of HE 0437-5439

HE 0437-5439 is 200,000 light-years from the Milky Way's core, heading outward at 2.5 million kilometres per hour.

This implied that HE 0437-5439 might have been travelling in the opposite direction, having come from the LMC.

But using Hubble to measure the star’s movement through space—by comparing images taken 3.5 years apart—it’s now clear that it originated in the inner Milky Way.

At its speed, the star should have taken around 100 million years to reach its current location. But stars this big and hot tend to “burn out” quickly, in perhaps just 20 million years.

So how did it go so far without burning out?

This is where the triple-star origin comes in. With one star captured by the black hole, the other two headed off together at a great rate of knots into the wild black yonder. One of them aged a little quicker, which in stellar terms means it puffed up and became a red giant, engulfing and merging with its sibling.

The result was what astronomers call a “blue straggler“, a “re-born” young star that comes from a stellar merger.

The astronomers are now working on finding the origin of four other lone stars on the far outskirts of the Milky Way.

Story by Jonathan Nally, Editor, SpaceInfo.com.au

Image credits: illustrations, NASA / ESA / G. Bacon, A. Field and Z. Levay (STScI); science, NASA / ESA / O. Gnedin (University of Michigan, Ann Arbor), and W. Brown (Harvard-Smithsonian Centre for Astrophysics, Cambridge, Mass.)

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Today’s recipe: Roasted planet

Artist's illustration of the gas giant planet HD 209458b

Artist's illustration of the gas giant planet HD 209458b, as seen from a hypothetical nearby planet. The planet orbits so close to its star that its heated atmosphere is escaping into space in a comet-like tail.

  • Super-hot planet probably has a comet-like tail
  • 100 times closer to its star than Jupiter is to the Sun
  • Hubble has studied the planet’s atmosphere

As if the debate over what is and what is not a planet hasn’t gotten confusing enough, Hubble Space Telescope astronomers have now confirmed the existence of a tortured, baked object that could be called a “cometary planet.”

The gas giant planet, dubbed HD 209458b, is orbiting so close to its star that its heated atmosphere is escaping into space.

Now, observations by the new Cosmic Origins Spectrograph (COS) aboard Hubble suggest that powerful “winds” from the star are sweeping the cast-off material behind the scorched planet and shaping it into a comet-like tail.

“Since 2003 scientists have theorised that the lost mass is being pushed back into a tail and have even calculated what the tail looks like,” says astronomer Jeffrey Linsky of the University of Colorado in Boulder, leader of the COS study.

“We think we have the best observational evidence to support that theory. We have measured gas coming off the planet at specific speeds, some coming toward Earth.”

“The most likely interpretation is that we have measured the velocity of material in a tail.”

Hubble's Cosmic Origins Spectrograph

Hubble's Cosmic Origins Spectrograph can split starlight into its spectrum, enabling astronomers to detect the signatures of chemical elements.

Atmosphere escaping into space

HD 209458b has a mass slightly less than that of Jupiter, but it orbits 100 times closer to its star than Jupiter does. This means the roasted planet zips around in a mere 3.5 days. (In contrast, our Solar System’s speedster, Mercury, orbits the Sun in a leisurely 88 days.)

The planet is one of the most intensely scrutinised exoplanets (ones in other star systems) because it is one of the few known alien worlds that can be seen passing in front of, or transiting, its star. The transit causes the star’s light to dim slightly.

In fact, the gas giant is the first alien world discovered to transit its parent star. It orbits the star HD 209458, located 153 light-years from Earth.

Linsky and his team used COS to analyse the planet’s atmosphere during transiting events. During a transit, astronomers can study the structure and chemical makeup of a planet’s atmosphere by sampling the starlight that passes through it.

The dip in starlight due to the planet’s passage, excluding the planet’s atmosphere, is very small, only 1.5 percent. When the atmosphere is added, the dip jumps to 8 percent, indicating a bloated atmosphere.

COS detected the heavy elements carbon and silicon in the planet’s super-hot (1,100-degree-Celsius) atmosphere. This detection reveals that the parent star is heating the entire atmosphere, dredging up the heavier elements and allowing them to escape the planet.

The COS data also showed that the material leaving the planet was not all travelling at the same velocity.

“We found gas escaping at high velocities, with a large amount of this gas flowing toward us at [35,000 kilometres per hour],” Linsky explains.

“This large gas flow is likely gas swept up by the stellar wind to form the comet-like tail trailing the planet.”

Artist's illustration of the gas giant planet WASP-12b

Artist's illustration of the gas giant planet WASP-12b, whose atmosphere is spilling onto its parent star.

The power of Hubble

Hubble’s newest spectrograph, with its ability to probe a planet’s chemistry at ultraviolet wavelengths that are not accessible to ground-based telescopes, is proving to be an important instrument for probing the atmospheres of “hot Jupiters” like HD 209458b.

Astronomers have also used COS to sample the atmosphere of another baked planet, WASP-12b, whose puffy atmosphere is spilling onto its star.

Another Hubble instrument, the Space Telescope Imaging Spectrograph (STIS), studied HD 209458b in 2003. The STIS data showed an active, evaporating atmosphere, and a comet-tail-like structure was suggested as a possibility.

But STIS wasn’t able to obtain the spectroscopic detail necessary to show an earthward-moving component of the gas during transits.

Because of COS’s unique combination of very high ultraviolet sensitivity and good spectral resolution, the earthward moving component of the gas—the tail—could be directly detected for the first time.

Although this “extreme” planet is getting roasted by its star, it won’t be destroyed anytime soon. “It will take about a trillion years for the planet to evaporate,” Linsky says.

Adapted from information issued by the Space Telescope Science Institute / NASA, ESA, and G. Bacon (STScI).

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Hubble sees stellar incubator

Hubble image of NGC 2467

A newly-released Hubble Space Telescope image of the colourful star-forming region NGC 2467, where huge clouds of gas and dust are sprinkled with bright blue, hot young stars.

Strangely shaped dust clouds, resembling spilled liquids, are silhouetted against a colourful background of glowing gas in this newly released Hubble image.

The star-forming region NGC 2467 is a vast cloud of gas—mostly hydrogen—that serves as an incubator for new stars. Some of these youthful stars have emerged from the dense clouds where they were born and now shine brightly, hot and blue in this picture, but many others remain hidden.

Hints of the astrophysical processes at work are revealed within the image.

Hot young stars that recently formed from the cloud are emitting fierce ultraviolet radiation that is causing the whole scene to glow while also sculpting the environment and gradually eroding the gas clouds.

Studies have shown that most of the radiation comes from the single hot and brilliant massive star just above the centre of the image. Its fierce radiation has emptied the surrounding region and some of the next generation of stars are forming in the denser regions around the edge.

NGC 2467 is a similar but more distant cousin to the Orion Nebula, a famous “star-forming” region.

Such stellar nurseries can be seen out to considerable distances in the Universe, and their study is important in determining the distance and chemical composition of other galaxies.

Some galaxies contain huge star-forming regions, containing tens of thousands of stars.

NGC 2467 was discovered in the 19th century and lies in the southern constellation Puppis, which represents the poop deck of Jason’s fabled ship Argo from Greek mythology. NGC 2467 is thought to lie about 13,000 light-years from Earth.

Adapted from information issued by NASA / ESA / Orsola De Marco (Macquarie University).

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Stellar fireworks

A Hubble image of NGC 3603

NGC 3603 is a collection of stars surrounded by gas and dust, 20,000 light-years from Earth.

Looking like a  fireworks display, this young, glittering collection of stars  is surrounded by clouds of interstellar gas and dust—a nebula—the raw material for new stars.

The nebula is located 20,000 light-years away in the constellation Carina; the central cluster of huge, hot stars is called NGC 3603.

This environment is not as peaceful as it looks. Ultraviolet radiation and violent stellar winds have blown out an enormous cavity in the gas and dust enveloping the cluster, providing an unobstructed view of the cluster.

Most of the stars in the cluster were born around the same time but differ in size, mass, temperature, and colour. The course of a star’s life is determined by its mass, so a cluster of a given age will contain stars in various stages of their lives, giving an opportunity for detailed analyses of stellar life cycles.

NGC 3603 also contains some of the most massive stars known. These huge stars live fast and die young, burning through their hydrogen fuel quickly and ultimately ending their lives in supernova explosions.

Star clusters like NGC 3603 provide important clues to understanding the origin of massive star formation in the early, distant universe.

Astronomers also use massive clusters to study distant starbursts that occur when galaxies collide, igniting a flurry of star formation.

The proximity of NGC 3603 makes it an excellent lab for studying such distant and momentous events.

See the full-size image here (new window).

Adapted from information issued by STScI. Image credit: NASA, ESA, R. O’Connell (University of Virginia), F. Paresce (National Institute for Astrophysics, Bologna, Italy), E. Young (Universities Space Research Association/Ames Research Center), the WFC3 Science Oversight Committee, and the Hubble Heritage Team (STScI/AURA).

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