Astronomy Picture Of The Day | Melotte 15 in the Heart

Melotte 15 in the Heart Image Credit & Copyright: Derek Santiago

Explanation: Cosmic clouds seem to form fantastic shapes in the central regions of emission nebula IC 1805. Of course, the clouds are sculpted by stellar winds and radiation from massive hot stars in the nebula‘s newborn star cluster, Melotte 15. About 1.5 million years young, the cluster stars are near the center in this colorful skyscape, along with dark dust clouds silhouetted against glowing atomic gas. A composite of narrow and broad band telescopic images, the view spans about 40 light-years and includes emission from hydrogen in green, sulfur in red, and oxygen in blue hues. Wider field images reveal that IC 1805’s simpler, overall outline suggests its popular name – The Heart Nebula. IC 1805 is located about 7,500 light years away toward the constellation Cassiopeia.


Astronomy Picture of the Day | NASA's Hubble Harvests Distant Solar System Objects

Beyond the orbit of Neptune reside countless icy rocks known as trans-Neptunian objects (TNOs). One of the biggest, Pluto, is classified as a dwarf planet. The region also supplies us with comets such as famous Comet Halley. Most TNOs are small and receive little sunlight, making them faint and difficult to spot.

This is an artist’s concept of a craggy piece of Solar System debris that belongs to a class of bodies called trans-Neptunian objects (TNOs). Credit: NASA, ESA, and G. Bacon (STScI)

Now, astronomers using clever techniques to cull the data archives of NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope have added 14 new TNOs to the catalog. Their method promises to turn up hundreds more.

“Trans-Neptunian objects interest us because they are building blocks left over from the formation of the solar system,” explained lead author Cesar Fuentes, formerly with the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics and now at Northern Arizona University.

As TNOs slowly orbit the sun, they move against the starry background, appearing as streaks of light in time exposure photographs. The team developed software to analyze hundreds of Hubble images hunting for such streaks. After promising candidates were flagged, the images were visually examined to confirm or refute each discovery.

Most TNOs are located near the ecliptic — a line in the sky marking the plane of the solar system (since the solar system formed from a disk of material). Therefore, the team searched within 5 degrees of the ecliptic to increase their chance of success.

They found 14 objects, including one binary (two TNOs orbiting each other like a miniature Pluto-Charon system). All were very faint, with most measuring magnitude 25-27 (more than 100 million times fainter than objects visible to the unaided eye).

By measuring their motion across the sky, astronomers calculated an orbit and distance for each object. Combining the distance and brightness (plus an assumed albedo or reflectivity), they then estimated the size. The newfound TNOs range from 25 to 60 miles (40-100 km) across.

Unlike planets, which tend to have very flat orbits (known as low inclination), some TNOs have orbits significantly tilted from the ecliptic (high inclination). The team examined the size distribution of TNOs with low- versus high-inclination orbits to gain clues about how the population has evolved over the past 4.5 billion years.

Generally, smaller trans-Neptunian objects are the shattered remains of bigger TNOs. Over billions of years, these objects smack together, grinding each other down. The team found that the size distribution of TNOs with low- versus high-inclination orbits is about the same as objects get fainter and smaller. Therefore, both populations (low and high inclination) have similar collisional histories.

This initial study examined only one-third of a square degree of the sky, meaning that there is much more area to survey. Hundreds of additional TNOs may lurk in the Hubble archives at higher ecliptic latitudes. Fuentes and his colleagues intend to continue their search.

“We have proven our ability to detect and characterize TNOs even with data intended for completely different purposes,” Fuentes said.

The Hubble Space Telescope is a project of international cooperation between NASA and the European Space Agency. NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center manages the telescope. The Space Telescope Science Institute (STScI) conducts Hubble science operations.

Headquartered in Cambridge, Mass., the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics (CfA) is a joint collaboration between the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory and the Harvard College Observatory. CfA scientists, organized into six research divisions, study the origin, evolution and ultimate fate of the universe.


Astronomy Picture Of The Day | GRO J1655-40: Evidence for a Spinning Black Hole

GRO J1655-40: Evidence for a Spinning Black Hole
Credit: April Hobart, CXC

Explanation: In the center of a swirling whirlpool of hot gas is likely a beast that has never been seen directly: a black hole. Studies of the bright light emitted by the swirling gas frequently indicate not only that a black hole is present, but also likely attributes. The gas surrounding GRO J1655-40, for example, has been found to display an unusual flickering at a rate of 450 times a second. Given a previous mass estimate for the central object of seven times the mass of our Sun, the rate of the fast flickering can be explained by a black hole that is rotating very rapidly. What physical mechanisms actually cause the flickering — and a slower quasi-periodic oscillation (QPO) — in accretion disks surrounding black holes and neutron stars remains a topic of much research.

Astronomy Picture Of The Day | Hoags Object: A Strange Ring Galaxy

Hoag’s Object: A Strange Ring Galaxy
Credit: R. Lucas (STScI/AURA), Hubble Heritage Team, NASA

Explanation: Is this one galaxy or two? This question came to light in 1950 when astronomer Art Hoag chanced upon this unusual extragalactic object. On the outside is a ring dominated by bright blue stars, while near the center lies a ball of much redder stars that are likely much older. Between the two is a gap that appears almost completely dark. How Hoag’s Object formed remains unknown, although similar objects have now been identified and collectively labeled as a form of ring galaxy. Genesis hypotheses include a“>galaxy collision billions of years ago and the gravitational effect of a central bar that has since vanished. The above photo taken by the Hubble Space Telescope in July 2001 reveals unprecedented details of Hoag’s Object and may yield a“>better understanding. Hoag’s Object spans about 100,000 light years and lies about 600 million light years away toward the constellation of the Snake (Serpens). Coincidentally, visible in the gap (at about one o’clock) is yet another ring galaxy that likely lies far in the distance.

Astronomy Picture of the Day | M27: Not a Comet

M27: Not a Comet
Credit & Copyright: Matthew T. Russell

Explanation: While hunting for comets in the skies above 18th century France, astronomer Charles Messier diligently kept a list of the things he encountered that were definitely not comets. This is number 27 on his now famous not-a-comet list. In fact, 21st century astronomers would identify it as a planetary nebula, but it’s not a planet either, even though it may appear round and planet-like in a small telescope. Messier 27 (M27) is an excellent example of a gaseous emission nebula created as a sun-like star runs out of nuclear fuel in its core. The nebula forms as the star’s outer layers are expelled into space, with a visible glow generated by atoms excited by the dying star’s intense but invisible ultraviolet light. Known by the popular name of the Dumbbell Nebula, the beautifully symmetric interstellar gas cloud is over 2.5 light-years across and about 1,200 light-years away in the constellation Vulpecula. This impressive color composite highlights details within the well-studied central region and fainter, seldom imaged features in the nebula’s outer halo. It includes narrowband images recorded using filters sensitive to emission from oxygen atoms, shown in blue-green hues, and hydrogen atoms in red.

Astronomy Picture of the Day | Hole in the Sun

Hole in the Sun
Credit: NASA / Goddard / SDO AIA Team

Explanation: This ominous, dark shape sprawling across the face of the Sun is a coronal hole — a low density region extending above the surface where the solar magnetic field opens freely into interplanetary space. Studied extensively from space since the 1960s in ultraviolet and x-ray light, coronal holes are known to be the source of the high-speed solar wind, atoms and electrons which flow outward along the open magnetic field lines. During periods of low activity, coronal holes typically cover regions just above the Sun’s poles. But this extensive coronal hole dominated the Sun’s northern hemisphere earlier this week, captured here in extreme ultraviolet light by cameras onboard the Solar Dynamics Observatory. The solar wind streaming from this coronal hole triggered auroral displays on planet Earth.


Astronomy Picture of the Day | Pelican Nebula Close-up

Pelican Nebula Close-up
Credit & Copyright: Tony Hallas

Explanation: The prominent ridge of emission featured in this intensely colorful skyscape is designated IC 5067. Part of a larger emission nebula with a distinctive shape, popularly called The Pelican Nebula, the ridge spans about 10 light-years and follows the curve of the cosmic pelican’s head and neck. Fantastic, dark shapes inhabiting the view are clouds of cool gas and dust sculpted by energetic radiation from hot, massive stars. But stars are also forming within the dark shapes. In fact, twin jets emerging from the tip of the central, dark tendril are the telltale signs of an embedded protostar cataloged as Herbig-Haro 555. The Pelican Nebula itself, also known as IC 5070, is about 2,000 light-years away. To find it, look northeast of bright star Deneb in the high flying constellation Cygnus.