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Hubble sees a southern wonder

Close-up image of the central region of NGC 5128

Resembling looming rain clouds on a stormy day, dark lanes of dust crisscross the heart of the giant elliptical galaxy NGC 5128. Hubble's reveals the vibrant glow of young, blue star clusters and a glimpse into regions normally obscured by the dust.

THE GALAXY KNOWN AS NGC 5128 is a favourite of amateur astronomers in the Southern Hemisphere. Easily visible through a small telescope, it has a rounded shape with a prominent “dark lanes” running through its centre.

Those lanes are composed of interstellar “rivers” of dust encircling the galaxy.

Astronomers have now used the Hubble Space Telescope’s Wide Field Camera 3 to zoom in on this region of NGC 5128 in multi-wavelength observations, resulting in the most detailed view ever of this galaxy.

As well as features in the visible spectrum, the composite shows ultraviolet light from young stars, and near-infrared light, which lets us glimpse some of the detail otherwise obscured by the dust.

The dark dust lane that crosses Centaurus A does not show an absence of stars, but rather a relative lack of starlight, as the opaque clouds block the light of background stars from reaching us.

Hubble’s Wide Field Camera 3 has focused on these dusty regions, which span from corner to corner in this image.

It is thought that at some point in the past, NGC 5128 collided and merged with another galaxy. The shockwaves of this event caused hydrogen gas clouds to coalesce and sparked intense areas of star formation, as seen in its outlying regions and in red patches visible in this Hubble close-up.

Wide-field image of NGC 5128

This wide-field image shows the full extent of galaxy NGC 5128 and its dark, central dust lanes. NGC 5128 is more than 11 million light-years from Earth.

The galaxy’s compact core contains a very active giant black hole. Powerful jets emanating from the vicinity of the black hole are emitting vast amounts of radio and X-ray radiation (although these are invisible here as Hubble’s instruments).

At just over 11 million light-years distant, NGC 5128is relatively nearby in astronomical terms. However, it is not only close, it is also bright. This makes it a very attractive target for amateur astronomers in the Southern Hemisphere, where it is visible. Stargazers can see the galaxy through binoculars, while larger amateur telescopes begin to unveil the distinctive dusty lanes.

Editor’s note: You’ll often see this galaxy called Centaurus A, but this is not strictly correct. Centaurus A is the name given to a region within the galaxy that is emitting large amounts of radio waves. The overall galaxy is called NGC 5128.

Adapted from information issued by NASA, ESA, and the Hubble Heritage (STScI/AURA)-ESA/Hubble Collaboration. Acknowledgment: R. O’Connell (University of Virginia) and the WFC3 Scientific Oversight Committee. Wide-angle NGC 5128 image courtesy ESO.

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