It’s possible that you’ve seen the Andromeda galaxy (M31) without even realizing it. The massive spiral galaxy appears as a grey, spindle-shaped blob in the night sky, visible with the naked eye in the right conditions. It’s the nearest major galaxy to ours, and astronomers have studied it a lot.
Now astronomers have used the Hubble Space Telescope to map out Andromeda’s enormous halo of hot gas.
What would we look for in a distant exoplanet in the hunt for Earth-like worlds, and perhaps life? A recent observation carried out by the Hubble Space Telescope found tell-tale signatures from our home planet by looking at a familiar source under extraordinary circumstances: Earth’s Moon, during a total lunar eclipse.
Once I accidentally took a photo of one of the most important stars in the Universe…
That star highlighted in the photo is called M31_V1 and resides in the Andromeda Galaxy. The Andromeda – AKA M31- is the closest galaxy to our own Milky Way. But before it was known as a galaxy, it was called the Andromeda Nebula. Before this particular star in Andromeda was studied by Edwin Hubble, namesake of the Hubble Space Telescope, we didn’t actually know if other galaxies even existed. Think about that! As recently as a hundred years ago, we thought the Milky Way might be the ENTIRE Universe. Even then…that’s pretty big. The Milky Way is on the order of 150,000 light years across. A light year is about 10 TRILLION kilometers so even at the speed of light it would take nearly the same length of time to cross the Milky Way as humans have existed on planet Earth. M31_V1 changed all that.
In the mid-2020s, NASA’s next-generation Wide Field Infrared Survey Telescope (WFIRST) will take to space. With unprecedented resolution and advanced instruments, it will build on the foundation established by the venerableHubble Space Telescope – which celebrated its 30th anniversary this year! In anticipation of all it will accomplish, NASA decided that the WFIRST needs a proper name, one that honors its connection to Hubble.
This week, NASA announced that henceforth, the WFIRST mission will be known as the Nancy Grace Roman Space Telescope (or Roman Space Telescope for short) in honor of Dr. Nancy Grace Roman (who passed away in 2018). In addition to being NASA’s first Chief Astronomer, she was also a tireless educator and advocate for women in STEMs whose work paved the way for space telescopes – leading to her nickname “the mother of Hubble.”
To put it simply, Dark Matter is not only believed to make up the bulk of the Universe’s mass but also acts as the scaffolding on which galaxies are built. But to find evidence of this mysterious, invisible mass, scientists are forced to rely on indirect methods similar to the ones used to study black holes. Essentially, they measure how the presence of Dark Matter affects stars and galaxies in its vicinity.
About 10,000 light years away, in the constellation Centaurus, is a planetary nebula called NGC 5307. A planetary nebula is the remnant of a star like our Sun, when it has reached what can be described as the end of its life. This Hubble image of NGC 5307 not only makes you wonder about the star’s past, it makes you ponder the future of our very own Sun.
Galaxy mergers are not particularly rare, but they are important events. Not only for the galaxies involved, but for scientists trying to piece together how galaxies evolve. Now, astronomers using ALMA have found the earliest example yet of merging galaxies.
Even after almost three decades of faithful service, the Hubble Space Telescope continues to operate and provide breathtaking images of the cosmos. As one of NASA’s Great Observatories, its observations of distant galaxies, exoplanets, and the expansion of the Universe have had a revolutionary impact on astronomy, astrophysics and cosmology.
Hubble’s latest contribution comes in the form of a deep-sky mosaic image that was constructed using 16 years’ worth of observations. Known as the “Hubble Legacy Field“, this mosaic is being described as the largest and most comprehensive “history book” of galaxies. All told, it contains roughly 265,000 galaxies that date back to just 500 million years after the Big Bang.