Image: NGC 4666
ESO via AFP - Getty Images
An image from the European Southern Observatory highlights the galaxy NGC 4666, observed in visible light with the Wide Field Imager on the MPG/ESO 2.2-meter telescope at the La Silla Observatory in Chile.
updated 9/1/2010 1:53:23 PM ET 2010-09-01T17:53:23

A striking galaxy buzzing with energetic star formation takes center stage in a new photograph that showcases an unusual "superwind" of out-flowing gas, researchers say.

The starburst galaxy NGC 4666, located about 80 million light-years away from Earth, is a hotbed of intense star formation, which is thought to be caused by gravitational interactions between NGC 4666 and its neighboring galaxies, one of which is visible in the lower left of the new photo.

Gravitational interactions between galaxies often trigger the type of rigorous star formation seen in NGC 4666.

Strong winds from the massive stars inside NGC 4666, combined with supernova explosions, drive a robust flow of gas a so-called "superwind" from the galaxy into space, according to the European Southern Observatory where astronomers took the new photo.

The superwind originates in the bright central region of the galaxy and extends for tens of thousands of light-years. Astronomers think the cosmic wind could be blowing at speeds of up to a few thousands of kilometers every second, said astronomer Jg Dietrich of the University of Michigan. The new photo of the galaxy was part of follow-up observations for an earlier study by Dietrich and his colleagues.

"Observing superwinds directly is difficult because the gas in them is very tenuous," Dietrich told SPACE.com in an e-mail. "However, these winds push denser and colder gas out, which is easier to observe."

The gas is very hot and emits radiation mostly in the form of X-rays and in the radio part of the spectrum, which cannot be seen in visible light images.

This new image of NGC 4666 was made in visible light with the Wide Field Imager on the MPG/ESO 2.2-meter telescope at the La Silla Observatory in Chile, which is part of the European Southern Observatory.

The galaxy had previously been observed in X-rays by the European Space Agency's XMM-Newton space telescope, and this image was taken to allow further study of other objects that had been detected in the earlier X-ray observations.

One such object is a faint galaxy cluster that can be seen close to the bottom edge of the image, to the right of center. This cluster, serendipitously found from the XMM-Newton observations, is much farther away from Earth than NGC 4666, at a distance of about 3 billion light-years.

In studying astronomical objects, researchers must observe them at several wavelengths, as light at different wavelengths can show different physical processes that are taking place.

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Photos: Month in space: August 2010

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  1. Colorful clash

    NASA's Great Observatories combine forces to create this beautiful image of two colliding galaxies. The Antennae galaxies, located about 62 million light-years from Earth, are shown in a composite view from the Chandra X-ray Observatory (blue for X-rays), the Hubble Space Telescope (gold and brown for optical wavelengths), and the Spitzer Space Telescope (red for infrared wavelengths). The readings were taken in 1999, 2003, 2004 and 2005 - then blended together for this Aug. 5 image. The fuller spectrum helps scientists understand the tidal forces shaping the Antennae. (Chandra X-ray Observatory Center) Back to slideshow navigation
  2. Wonders of Earth and sky

    In this long-exposure photo, a meteor streaks through the sky over a nature reserve in the southern Spanish town of Antequera early on Aug. 13. The Perseid meteor shower is sparked every August when Earth passes through a stream of space debris left by Comet Swift-Tuttle. (Jon Nazca / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  3. Readying the Robonaut

    In the Space Station Processing Facility at NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Florida, the dexterous humanoid astronaut helper known as Robonaut 2, or R2, is secured to a base plate on Aug. 16. The plate is part of the robot's launch box, called SLEEPR, or Structural Launch Enclosure to Effectively Protect Robonaut. R2 will fly to the International Space Station aboard the space shuttle Discovery. Although it will initially only participate in operational tests, upgrades could eventually allow the robot to realize its true purpose -- helping spacewalking astronauts with tasks outside the space station. (Frankie Martin / NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  4. Live fast, die young

    A spectacular new image from the European Southern Observatory’s Wide Field Imager at the La Silla Observatory in Chile, released July 28, shows the brilliant and unusual star WR 22 and its colorful surroundings. WR 22 is a very hot and bright star that is shedding its atmosphere into space at a rate many millions of times faster than the sun. It lies in the outer part of the dramatic Carina Nebula. (ESO) Back to slideshow navigation
  5. Ice on the loose

    The ice island that calved off Petermann Glacier in northwestern Greenland on Aug. 5 continues its slow migration down the fjord 11 days later. An imager on NASA’s Earth Observing-1 satellite captured this natural-color image on Aug. 16. (NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  6. Tsunami on the sun

    Almost the full disk of the sun erupts in a tumult of activity on Aug. 1. This extreme ultraviolet image from NASA's Solar Dynamics Observatory shows a C3-class solar flare (the white area at upper left), a solar tsunami (the wavelike structure at upper right), multiple filaments of magnetism lifting off the stellar surface, large-scale shaking of the solar corona, radio bursts, a coronal mass ejection and more. Different colors in the image represent different gas temperatures. (AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  7. All dressed up

    Russian cosmonaut Dmitri Kondratyev is assisted by specialists during a training session in a pool at the Star City space center outside Moscow on July 28. Kondratyev is scheduled to lift off for the International Space Station later this year. (Sergei Remezov / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  8. A mudslide's mortal blow

    An image captured by DigitalGlobe's WorldView 2 satellite on Aug. 10 shows the devastation caused by a mudslide in Zhouqu, China. The catastrophe killed more than 1,200 people and left thousands more homeless. (DigitalGlobe) Back to slideshow navigation
  9. Land of the crescent

    The crescent moon is seen hanging in the sky over the mosques of old Cairo on Aug. 15, the fifth day of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan. (Asmaa Waguih / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  10. Rovers ready to roll

    Two rover prototypes are prepared in Building 9 at NASA's Johnson Space Center in Texas on July 27 for the annual Desert RATS exploration exercise. The Desert Research and Technology Studies, planned this year in Arizona, are aimed at testing vehicles and instruments that could be used by astronauts on future missions to other worlds. (Regan Geeseman / NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  11. Before and after the flood

    Two pictures from the Landsat 5 satellite illustrate the effects of flooding in Pakistan: The top image, captured Aug. 9, shows the region around the city of Khewali before the flood hit. The bottom image shows the same region on Aug. 12, after the flooding began. (AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  12. Fixing the space station

    NASA spacewalker Tracy Caldwell Dyson works outside the International Space Station to replace a failed ammonia coolant pump module on Aug. 11. Despite some initial setbacks, the crucial repair operation was successful. (NASA TV via Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  13. Glorious galaxy

    A Hubble Space Telescope image, released Aug. 10, shows a majestic face-on spiral galaxy located deep within the Coma Cluster of galaxies, 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 center. These are silhouetted against glowing newborn star clusters and iridescent pink clouds of hydrogen - a telltale sign of star formation. (NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  14. Great view

    NASA astronaut Doug Wheelock sent this picture of a section of Australia's Great Barrier Reef down to Earth from the International Space Station on Aug. 22. "I think even the great Impressionists would be awestruck with this natural display," Wheelock said. (Doug Wheelock / NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  15. Ghostly mystery

    This image from the Hubble Space Telescope, obtained on Aug. 19, shows a ghostlike nebula known as IRAS 05437+2502. The nebula is a small star-forming region filled with dark dust that was first noted in images taken by the IRAS satellite in infrared light in 1983. The new image shows many new details, but it has not uncovered a clear cause of the bright sharp arc. (NASA/ESA/HUBBLE/JLP via AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
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