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Galaxies & Nebulae

Most pics courtesy of NASA

Star Forming Region S106

Credit & Copyright:  CISCO, Subaru 8.3-m Telescope, NAOJ

          Explanation:  Massive star IRS4 is beginning to spread its wings.  Born only about 100,000 years ago, material streaming out from this newborn star has formed the nebula dubbed Sharpless 106 Nebula (S106), pictured above.  A large disk of dust and gas orbiting Infrared Source 4 (IRS4), visible in dark red near the image center, gives the nebula an hourglass shape.  S106 gas near IRS4 acts as an emission nebula as it emits light after being ionized, while dust far from IRS4 reflects light from the central star and so acts as a reflection nebula.  Detailed inspection of this representative color infrared image has revealed hundreds of low-mass brown dwarf stars lurking in the nebula's gas.  S106 spans about 2 light-years and lies about 2000 light-years away toward the constellation of Cygnus.

The Witch Head Nebula

Credit:  Gary Stevens

          Explanation:  Double, double toil and trouble; Fire burn, and cauldron bubble -- maybe Macbeth should have consulted the Witch Head Nebula.  This suggestively shaped reflection nebula is associated with the bright star Rigel in the constellation Orion.  More formally known as IC 2118, the Witch Head Nebula glows primarily by light reflected from Rigel, located just outside the top right corner of the above image.  Fine dust in the nebula reflects the light.  The blue color is caused not only by Rigel's blue color but because the dust grains reflect blue light more efficiently than red.  The same physical process causes Earth's daytime sky to appear blue, although the scatterers in Earth's atmosphere are molecules of nitrogen and oxygen.  The nebula lies about 1000 light-years away.

M27:  The Dumbbell Nebula

Credit & Copyright:  Michael Pierce (Indiana U.) et al., WIYN, AURA, NOAO, NSF

          Explanation:  The first hint of what will become of our Sun was discovered inadvertently in 1764.  At that time, Charles Messier was compiling a list of "annoying" diffuse objects not to be confused with "interesting" comets.  The 27th object on Messier's list, now known as M27 or the Dumbbell Nebula, is a planetary nebula, the type of nebula our Sun will produce when nuclear fusion stops in its core.  M27 is one of the brightest planetary nebulae on the sky, and can be seen in the constellation Vulpecula with binoculars.  It takes light about 1000 years to reach us from M27, shown above in representative colors.  Understanding the physics and significance of M27 was well beyond 18th century science.  Even today, many things remain mysterious about bipolar planetary nebula like M27, including the physical mechanism that expels a low-mass star's gaseous outer-envelope, leaving an X-ray hot white dwarf.

X-Rays From HCG 62

Credit:  J. Vrtilek et al., CfA, NASA

          Explanation:  Scanning the skies for galaxies, Canadian astronomer Paul Hickson and colleagues identified some 100 compact groups of galaxies, now appropriately called Hickson Compact Groups (HCGs).  With only a few member galaxies per group, HCGs are much smaller than the immense clusters of galaxies which lurk in the cosmos, but like the large galaxy clusters, some HCGs seem to be filled with hot, x-ray emitting gas.  In fact, groups of galaxies like HCGs may be the building blocks of the large clusters.  This false-color x-ray image from the orbiting Chandra Observatory reveals x-ray emission from the gas in one such group, HCG 62, in startling detail.  In the image, black and green colors represent low intensities while red and purple hues indicate high x-ray intensities.  Striking features of the x-ray image are the low brightness blobs at the upper left and lower right which symmetrically flank the intense central x-ray region.  HCG 62 lies in Virgo, and near the group's center resides elliptical galaxy NGC 4761.  At optical wavelengths, some HCGs make for rewarding viewing, even with modest sized telescopes.

The Crab Nebula from VLT

Credit:  FORS Team, 8.2-meter VLT, ESO

          Explanation:  The Crab Nebula, filled with mysterious filaments, is the result of a star that was seen to explode in 1054 AD.  This spectacular supernova explosion was recorded by Chinese and (quite probably) Anasazi Indian astronomers.  The filaments are mysterious because they appear to have less mass than expelled in the original supernova and higher speed than expected from a free explosion.  In the above picture taken recently from a Very Large Telescope, the color indicates what is happening to the electrons in different parts of the Crab Nebula.  Red indicates the electrons are recombining with protons to form neutral hydrogen, while blue indicates the electrons are whirling around the magnetic field of the inner nebula. In the nebula's very center lies a pulsar: a neutron star rotating, in this case, 30 times a second.

The Hydra Cluster of Galaxies

Credit & Copyright:  David Malin (AAO), AATB

          Explanation:  The Hydra Cluster of Galaxies contains well over 100 bright galaxies - but perhaps fewer galaxies than might be expected from its mass.  Clusters of galaxies are the largest gravitationally bound objects in the universe.  Most of a cluster's mass, however, appears to be in a form too dark to see, as analyses of the distribution of X-ray light, gravitational lensing, and internal motions indicate.  Abell 1060, as the above cluster is also known, appears to have an even higher fraction of dark matter than seen in a similar cluster, a situation astronomers cannot easily reconcile with both clusters forming solely from gravitational attraction.  The Hydra Cluster of Galaxies, named for its home constellation, spans about ten million light years.

Spirals On Edge

Credit & Copyright:  Robert Gendler

          Explanation:  Spiral galaxies viewed face-on display a grand design, with graceful spiral arms traced by bright star clusters and glowing stellar nurseries.  When seen edge-on, their appearance is very different but no less striking as their central regions bulge and dark cosmic dust lanes appear silhouetted against starlight from flattened galactic disks.  This masterful mosaic of digital images shows nine prominent edge-on spirals arranged as follows:  top:  NGC2683, M104, NGC4565; middle:  NGC891, NGC4631, NGC3628; and bottom:  NGC5746, NGC5907, and NGC4217.  Perhaps the best known of these is M104 (NGC4594), whose more descriptive moniker is the Sombrero Galaxy.  Notably, the edge-on perspective of these galaxies allows a measurement of their galactic rotation speed using the Doppler effect.  Plotting rotation speed versus distance from the center determines a galaxy's gravitational mass and historically led to premier evidence of the mysterious dark matter.

NGC 1512:  A Panchromatic View

Credit:  D. Maoz (Tel-Aviv Univ./Columbia Univ.) et al., ESA, NASA

          Explanation:  This spectacular color picture of the core of barred spiral galaxy NGC 1512 (bottom panel) is a composite of the seven Hubble Space Telescope images arrayed along the top.  Each top panel image was made with a filter and camera sensitive to a different wavelength band in the electromagnetic spectrum.  Arranged by increasing wavelength, at the far left are two ultraviolet images from Hubble's Faint Object Camera.  Next are two visible light images from its Wide Field Planetary Camera 2, followed on the right by three infrared images from the Near Infrared Camera and Multi-Object Spectrograph.  To make a pleasing composite color image, blue tones were assigned to the invisible ultraviolet, greenish colors were used for the visible bands, and yellow/red for the invisible infrared band images.  These images show that the center of NGC 1512 appears dramatically altered when viewed in different wavelength bands.  In particular, the ultraviolet images highlight clusters of young, hot stars in a ring 2,400 light-years wide surrounding the core. What caused this cosmic starburst ring?

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