Friday, October 27, 2006

Light Echo from Star V838 Monocerotis

Credit: NASA, ESA, and H. Bond (STScI)

These are the most recent NASA Hubble Space Telescope views of an unusual phenomenon in space called a light echo. Light from a star that erupted nearly five years ago continues propagating outward through a cloud of dust surrounding the star. The light reflects or "echoes" off the dust and then travels to Earth.

Because of the extra distance the scattered light travels, it reaches the Earth long after the light from the stellar outburst itself. Therefore, a light echo is an analog of a sound echo produced, for example, when sound from an Alpine yodeler echoes off of the surrounding mountainsides.

The echo comes from the unusual variable star V838 Monocerotis (V838 Mon), located 20,000 light-years away on the periphery of our Galaxy. In early 2002, V838 Mon increased in brightness temporarily to become 600,000 times brighter than our Sun. The reason for the eruption is still unclear.

Hubble has been observing the V838 Mon light echo since 2002. Each new observation of the light echo reveals a new and unique "thin-section" through the interstellar dust around the star. The new images of the light echo were taken with Hubble's Advanced Camera for Surveys in November 2005 (left) and September 2006 (right). Particularly noticeable in the images are numerous whorls and eddies in the interstellar dust, which are possibly produced by effects of magnetic fields.

Monday, October 16, 2006

In the Shadow of Saturn

In the shadow of Saturn, unexpected wonders appear. The robotic Cassini spacecraft now orbiting Saturn recently drifted in giant planet's shadow for about 12 hours and looked back toward the eclipsed Sun. Cassini saw a view unlike any other. First, the night side of Saturn is seen to be partly lit by light reflected from its own majestic ring system. Next, the rings themselves appear dark when silhouetted against Saturn, but quite bright when viewed away from Saturn and slightly scattering sunlight, in the above exaggerated color image. Saturn's rings light up so much that new rings were discovered, although they are hard to see in the above image. Visible in spectacular detail, however, is Saturn's E ring, the ring created by the newly discovered ice-fountains of the moon Enceladus, and the outermost ring visible above. Far in the distance, visible on the image left just above the bright main rings, is the almost ignorable pale blue dot of Earth.

Wednesday, October 11, 2006

Markarian's Chain of Galaxies

Across the heart of the Virgo Cluster of Galaxies lies a striking string of galaxies known as Markarian's Chain. The chain, pictured above, is highlighted on the lower right with two large but featureless lenticular galaxies, M84 and M86, and connects through several large spiral to the upper left, including M88. The home Virgo Cluster is the nearest cluster of galaxies, contains over 2,000 galaxies, and has a noticeable gravitational pull on the galaxies of the Local Group of Galaxies surrounding our Milky Way Galaxy. The center of the Virgo Cluster is located about 70 million light years away toward the constellation of Virgo. At least seven galaxies in the chain appear to move coherently, although others appear to be superposed by chance. The above image is just a small part of a mosaic dubbed the Big Picture taken by the Samuel Oschin Telescope at Palomar Observatory, in California, USA. A mural of the Big Picture will be displayed at the newly renovated Griffith Observatory near Los Angeles, California.

Credit & Copyright: The Palomar-Quest Survey Team, CalTech

Wednesday, October 04, 2006

Hubble Exoplanet Search Field in Sagittarius

This is an image of one-half of the Hubble Space Telescope field of view in the Sagittarius Window Eclipsing Extrasolar Planet Search (SWEEPS). The field contains approximately 150,000 stars, down to 30th magnitude. The stars in the Galactic disk and bulge have a mixture of colors and masses. The field is so crowded with stars because Hubble was looking across 26,000 light-years of space in the direction of the center of our galaxy.

Half of these stars are bright enough for Hubble to monitor for any small, brief and periodic dips in brightness caused by the passage of an exoplanet passing in front of the star, an event called a transit. Hubble took approximately 520 pictures of this field, at red and blue wavelengths, from Feb. 22-29, 2004. The green circles identify 9 stars that are orbited by planets with periods of a few days. Planets so close to their stars with such short orbital periods are called "hot Jupiters."

These are considered "candidate" exoplanets because most of them are too faint to allow for spectroscopic observations that would allow for a precise measure of the planet's mass. The Hubble observations allow for a robust statistical estimate of the possible "false positives," which suggests that at least 45 percent of the candidates must be genuine planets.

The bottom frame identifies one of two stars in the field where astronomers were able to spectroscopically measure the star's back-and-forth wobble due to the pull of the planet. The planet turns out to be less than 3.8 Jupiter masses.

The members of the SWEEPS science team are Kailash C. Sahu, Stefano Casertano, Howard E. Bond, Jeff Valenti, T. Ed Smith, Mario Livio, Nino Panagia, Thomas M. Brown, Will Clarkson and Stephen Lubow (Space Telescope Science Institute), Dante Minniti and Manuela Zoccali (Universidad Catolica de Chile), Nikolai Piskunov (Uppsala University), Timothy Brown (High Altitude Observatory), Alvio Renzini (INAF-Osservatorio Astronomico di Padova), and R. Michael Rich (University of California at Los Angeles).

Credit: NASA, ESA, K. Sahu (STScI) and the SWEEPS Science Team