Nov. 5, 2009 at 10:05 PM ET
NASA / ESA / U. of Va. / STScI / ANU
Click for video: Hubble's new Wide Field Camera 3 captures a detailed view of
starbirth in the spiral galaxy M83. Click on the image to watch a zoom-in video.
The Hubble Space Telescope's new wide-field cameraŠhas sent down a picture showing how the "assembly line" of starbirth works in a nearby spiral galaxy.
The galaxy is a stunner in its own right: M83, also known as the Southern Pinwheel, is 15 million light-years from EarthŠlies in the constellation Hydra. TheŠgalaxy can just barely be made out with the naked eye under optimal conditions, but the telescopeŠview reveals a spectacular face-on spiral ... hence the "Pinwheel" label.
Hubble'sŠWide Field Camera 3, which was installed in May during the space shuttle Atlantis' final visit to the orbiting observatory,Šfocuses on one of the pinwheel's spiral arms. Image data from five different filters, ranging from ultraviolet to near-infrared, were combined to create the big picture released today, said Ray Villard, a spokesman for the Baltimore-based Space Telescope Science Institute (and author of the Cosmic Ray blog).
"This is wonderful for really sorting out the details of what's happening in the picture," he told me.
You could regard the picture as a kind of time machine. Toward the right side of the image, near the dense core, newborn star clusters are being squeezed into existence amid the murk. The stars are swathed in cocoons of dust and reddish-glowing hydrogen gas.
When you turnŠyour eyes toŠtheŠleft side of the image, the star-formation process has advanced further along the timeline: Radiation from the hot, young, blue stars has blown away the surrounding gas and dust,Šcreating bubbles of open space that lets the light shine bright. In today's advisory, the Hubble team describes this as a "colorful 'Swiss cheese' appearance."
"You're really seeing an assembly line in wonderful detail," Villard said. "This is a prime target for getting a God's-eye view of star formation."
Astronomers have also spotted the remains of about 60 supernova blasts, about five times as many as had been seen in previous images of the region. Those blast sites are harder to point out in the image, but the scientists can analyze the chemical signatures of the remnants to figure out what the exploded stars were made of.
TheŠstudy can shed new light on the process by which heavier chemicalŠelements are created by one generation of stars and passed on to the next generation. Without thatŠprocess, the elements essential to lifeŠas weŠknow it (such as carbon and oxygen) would not exist.
Villard said Wide Field Camera 3 and Hubble's other instruments are primed to take on a new batch of scientific challenges, thanks to May's extreme makeover. "The instruments are all working fine," he said. "Hubble isŠin full science mode."
One of theŠgoals in Hubble's sights is to identify objects on the very edge of the observable universe. This year, NASA's Swift satellite spotted a gamma-ray burst that is thought to have occurred when the cosmos was only 630 million years old, settingŠa distance recordŠwith aŠredshift of 8.2. (An object's spectral redshift serves asŠa cosmic yardstick: The bigger the redshift, the farther away the object is.)
"We hope eventually to say we've found something beyond 9," Villard said.ŠThat would mean the light from the object began its journey when the universe wasŠaŠ mereŠ550 million years old.
Nailing down the evidence for an object that far away isn't easy. "You're into the very dim and mysterious early formative years, so how you interpret what you have and how you convince yourself that it's real is tricky," Villard said. But I have a feeling that the Hubble Space TelescopeŠandŠthe astronomers who use it are up to the challenge.
For a closer look at the Southern Pinwheel, check out the Hubble team's zoomable view. And to see more of the Hubble team's feats, check out these slideshows:
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