Feb. 10, 2011 at 8:12 PM ET
Here's a piece of eye candy to share with your honey this Valentine's Day: a colorful ring of stars encrusted with black holes that cast a pink glow, thanks to a little creative image processing.
So what are we actually seeing? This is a pair of interacting galaxies known as Arp 147, located about 430 million light-years from Earth in the constellation Cetus. The unusual arrangement was formed when the remnant spiral galaxy (right) collided with the elliptical galaxy on the left. The collision produced an expanding wave of star formation that shows up here as a blue ring containing an abundance of massive young stars. These stars race through their evolution in a few million years and explode as supernovae, leaving behind neutron stars and black holes, as explained in a Chandra image advisory.
Some of these neutron stars and black holes have companion stars and can become bright X-ray sources as they pull in matter from these companions. The nine X-ray sources scattered around the ring in Arp 147 are so bright that they must be black holes, with masses likely 10 to 20 times that of the sun.
The image also shows an X-ray source in what astronomers believe is a poorly fed supermassive black hole in the center of the red galaxy. Other objects in the image include a foreground star (visible at lower left) and a background quasar (seen as the pink source above and to the left of the reddish galaxy).
Infrared observations of Arp 147 with NASA's Spitzer Space Telescope and ultraviolet observations with NASA's Galaxy Evolution Explorer allowed astronomers to estimate the rate of star formation in the ring. According to their calculations, the most intense star formation ended about 15 million years ago in Earth's time frame.
The findings appeared in the Oct. 1 issue of The Astrophysical Journal.
John Roach is a contributing writer for msnbc.com. Connect with the Cosmic Log community by hitting the "like" button on the Cosmic Log Facebook page or following msnbc.com's science editor, Alan Boyle, on Twitter (@b0yle).