Hubble Heritage's diamond gift

By Phil Plait | October 2, 2008 10:45 am

This month marks the tenth anniversary of one of the best ideas to come out of modern astronomy: the Hubble Heritage project. Astronomers at the Space Telescope Science Institute knew that Hubble was taking fantastic images that the public weren’t seeing, because Hubble was taking them faster than they could release to the press. So they decided that on the first Thursday of each month they would release a gorgeous picture online.

For their tenth anniversary*, they present this beautiful image of detail in the nebula NGC 3324:

Hubble’s view of the nebula NGC 3324

Cooool. But what is it?

It’s a cavity several light years across, carved out by the fierce light and intense stellar winds from a group of young, massive, hot stars that are out of the frame ("up", if you will). This whole part of the sky, in the direction of Carina, is lousy with dust and gas. There are star-forming regions all over the place. Stars of all masses are born, from dinky brown dwarfs with less than 1/10th the Sun’s mass, up to bruising monsters 80 times the mass of the Sun. The massive stars are incredibly hot, and blow off a dense and fast wind of material which pushes against their nursery cocoon.

Hubble detail in NGC 3324
The fingers of NGC 3324

The result is a sharp-edged bubble of material. Inside is thin hot gas (colored blue in this image), and outside is thicker dust and gas (reds and browns). See the little pseudopods sticking in around the edges? Those are formed where you get denser blobs just inside the cavity edge. Note that the winds and light are streaming "down" in this image. When that flows past the blobs you get those finger-like sandbars. When you zoom in on them, they look a lot like the trunks in the Pillars of Creation Hubble image or the Spitzer image of nebula W5. If you look carefully in that zoom above, you can see lots of these features scattered around the cavity’s edge.

NGC 3324 in context
The whole NGC 3324 complex. See? It’s a bubble!

Zooming out is useful, too. In the picture to the right you can see the overall bubble shape to the nebula, and the stars near the center that are sculpting this vast cavern. The Hubble image is of the section to the upper right of the cavity, from about 1:00 to 3:00 if the circle were a clock face. But you can see amazing features all around the edges.

Hubble is having its woes right now, and even if it gets fixed its own clock is ticking. It was launched in April 1990 — I still remember it well, as I had just signed up to use it for my PhD project — and nothing lasts forever. But Hubble has taken thousands upon thousands of observations, all of which have been stored away. And while Hubble may eventually be shut off, the images, spectra, and other data it’s taken will live on. Astronomers a century from now will be digging through the archives, looking for an elusive supernova, a feature of a nebula that’s changed in the intervening years, the positions of stars in globular clusters, and the colors of galaxies so far away that when the light Hubble detected left them, the Earth was still a cooling ball of molten rock.

Diamond anniversaries come and go, but the treasures Hubble has unveiled will still be around a long, long time. Congratulations to my friends at the Hubble Heritage Project. Thanks for bringing us these jewels in the sky.


*Technically and traditionally, the tenth anniversary gift should be tin, but in modern times it’s common to give diamonds.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Astronomy, Cool stuff, Pretty pictures

Comments (22)

Links to this Post

  1. Hubble: NGC 3324 « Medvetenskap | October 3, 2008
  1. !AstralProjectile

    “It’s a cavity several light years across…”, “See the little pseudopods sticking in around the edges?”

    I’ts a giant space-amoeba. Break out the antimatter!

    First!?

  2. madge

    Absolutely amazing! Thanks Phil and THANK YOU HUBBLE. Hang in there Hubble. Help is on the way. :)

  3. IVAN3MAN

    Every time I see these images of nebulae, I think of Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. Great pix, Phil. Thanks for the links.

  4. kuhnigget

    These are always my favorite sort of Hubble pix. The scale is what always gets me. That little pseudopod is…how big? Eep!

  5. Dyldo

    Beautiful.

    Question:
    If I where to, say, fly by this ‘space amoeba’ in my intergalactic cruiser would it appear to me as it is shown in this picture or has it been taken using other parts of the light spectrum (radiation, gamma, IR, etc) to make it look prettier? If so, how would it really look? Would it even be visible to the naked eye?

  6. IVAN3MAN

    *Technically and traditionally, the tenth anniversary gift should be tin, but in modern times it’s common to give diamonds.

    A cheap husband would give you an argument. :-)

  7. NoAstronomer

    APOD for today (10/2) is also a fantastic Hubble picture.

  8. Thomas Siefert

    Every time I see these images of nebulae, I think of Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan.

    Every time I read or hear the name Khan, I get an urge to let out a prolonged: “KHAAAAAAAAN!”.
    It drives my wife nuts but the diamond she got on our tenth anniversary comforted her somewhat. :-)

  9. What a beautiful legacy to have!

  10. Logan

    Those images are amazing. Makes me want to master space/time travel.

  11. Daniel

    If this is Hubbles gift…ill take 10 :D

  12. Bigfoot

    Stunning. Humbling.

  13. Anne

    It’s also neat to realize why it’s not just round. It’s not just because there are variations in the density of the interstellar medium – there’s a fluid-dynamical process (the “Rayleigh-Taylor instability”) that you can demonstrate at home that ensures that small irregularities balloon into the wonderful exotic shapes we see.

  14. Brian

    To all the men and women who worked on Hubble: Cheers. Your contribution to the human race is unforgettable.

  15. my hat’s off to the amazemeent of the sky, what mystical thing are found out the Great wonder of the universe, Hubble, you will be forever my eyesite to the wonderments of the universe.

  16. Nigel Depledge

    Dylo said:

    Question:
    If I where to, say, fly by this ’space amoeba’ in my intergalactic cruiser would it appear to me as it is shown in this picture or has it been taken using other parts of the light spectrum (radiation, gamma, IR, etc) to make it look prettier? If so, how would it really look? Would it even be visible to the naked eye?

    Although you might see it as a fuzzy cloud, it is unlikely for the fine detail we see in this image to be visible to the unaided eye. This is because the gas, while relatively dense, is still very, very rarefied. Some nebulae have a lower gas density than what would be considered a fairly hard vacuum in a lab on Earth. Hubble images almost all result from quite long exposures – this one was probably at least several minutes, if not over an hour.

    Celestial objects such as this nebula are faint. Even through a medium-sized telescope, most nebulae appear to the human eye as no more than a little faint fuzzy patch.

  17. Nigel Depledge

    So, Phil, what is now “commonly” given to commemorate a 75th anniversary, hmmm?

  18. Michael

    Wait a second! Isn’t this McCain’s silhouette in the last picture? What the…!

  19. A very big thankyou to the folks who designed, built and are using the Hubble Space telscope, a big thankyou to the people at NASA and their astronauts for fixing and updating it (several times over) and thankyou Dr Phil Plait for telling us about it so clearly and so well.

    I love your work! :-D

    Its awesome, and marvellous and please keep it coming! 8) :-D

    Thankyou. :-)

  20. Michael said on October 3rd, 2008 at 6:00 am :

    “Wait a second! Isn’t this McCain’s silhouette in the last picture? What the…!”

    Yeck! EEEEUUUGH!! Ewww. :-(

    Oh yegods I hope not!

    If there’s one thing, I *don’t* want to see in the stars – or anywhere else – its that ugly old man. Its clear that you’re watching wa-aay too much political news. ;-)

    But couldn’t you at least see Barack Obama in it given its a star birth region? ;-)

    Eww .. bleck! You’re starting togoive paradoila (or whateveuh) a bad name .. ;-)

  21. Michael said on October 3rd, 2008 at 6:00 am :

    “Wait a second! Isn’t this McCain’s silhouette in the last picture? What the…!”

    Yeck! EEEEUUUGH!! Ewww. :-(

    Oh yegods I hope not!

    If there’s one thing, I *don’t* want to see in the stars – or anywhere else – its that ugly old man. Its clear that you’re watching wa-aay too much political news. ;-)

    But couldn’t you at least see Barack Obama in it given its a star birth region? ;-)

    Eww .. bleck! You’re starting to give paradoila (or whateveuh) a bad name .. ;-)

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