Two Hubble STUNNERS!

By Phil Plait | September 30, 2009 7:01 am

If you thought the Lagoon yesterday was pretty, then reset your awe-meter. Check. This. Out.


D’ya like that? Huh? Do ya? Had enough? No? Then check THIS out!


Jeebus. Click either to brobdingnangate. In fact, you can get massively huge versions here and here. We’re talking 30 and 40 Mb each, so be ye fairly warned, says I.

Those magnificent images are of the galaxies NGC 4402 and NGC 4522, respectively, as seen by the Hubble Space Telescope’s Advanced Camera for Surveys (from before the recent repair mission). They’re both spiral galaxies in the Virgo Cluster, the nearest large collection of galaxies to us, roughly 60 million light years from Earth.

If they look funny to you, then good! The Virgo Cluster is massive, and has a lot of gravity. The galaxies bound to it are moving like bees surrounding a hive, each in its own orbit going every which way. These galaxies are screaming through the cluster at speeds of 10 million kilometers per hour, a truly terrifying velocity.

There is an ethereal gas distributed between the galaxies called the intercluster medium. It’s incredibly thin, but over the size of a galaxy — especially when said galaxy is barreling through it at such tremendous speed — the gas can exert significant pressure, called ram pressure. The pressure is actually blowing the galaxies’ internal gas clouds out into the cluster itself, making them look a little bit like pickup trucks driving down a highway with dirt copiously pouring out the beds*. This is especially obvious in NGC 4522 (the lower one), where you can see bright blue splotches, which are regions of intense star formation, along with dark lanes of dust actually above the galactic plane.

In NGC 4022, you can see how the ram pressure is roiling up the dust in the galaxy, and also blowing it back, though apparently not as briskly as in the other galaxy.

These pictures are incredible. Poke around them; you can see amazing detail in the galaxies themselves, as well as hundreds, maybe thousands of background galaxies.

It’s been a while since we’ve seen deep, glorious pictures of spiral galaxies from Hubble. Now that ACS is working again, and it’s being joined by the equally powerful Wide Field Camera 3, we’ll be seeing lots more of these. Get used to it.

Image credits: NASA and ESA.

*Or possibly more like wacky waving inflatable arm flailing tube men.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Astronomy, Pretty pictures

Comments (74)

  1. The bottom one especially looks like a cream pie hitting the floor…

  2. Gina

    There’s nothing quite like the feeling of “Holy crap, the universe is gigantic and amazing” to make you feel tiny and insignificant. It’s a feeling we should experience daily to keep us in check. I look forward to more such images!

  3. I say bring on the more pictures! I am NOT afraid…. ūüėČ

  4. Wow. And this is from *before* the repair mission?! I can’t believe they were even considering not repairing it.

  5. Awe-meter is pegged! Thanks! :)

  6. MarkW

    I was going to say that NGC4522 looks like a droplet of milk splashing into some dark fluid, but I think Dennis Rockwell’s image is more memorable :)

  7. Patrick

    I have to say, sure the subjects are awe inspiring, but to me, nothing beats the distant galaxies in the background for a true sense of scale.

    Now, are the deep red colors a product of the image processing, or is their redshift so high it easily transmits into the visual spectrum?

  8. Ace

    Now are these galaxies just super massive or is it just the closeness of it relative the the surrounding galaxies? Wasn’t sure if you meant those smaller looking galaxies were literally orbiting NGC 4402 and NGC 4522 or just popping in and it from behind it’s awesomeness.

  9. Minos

    Is the galaxy’s gravitational pull on the new stars stronger than the ram pressure, or is it leaving a trail of orphaned stars behind it?

  10. Great. I get my awe-meter fixed and recalibrated and then you go and blow it up again with these photos. Do you know how expensive awe-meters are?!!! ūüėČ

  11. Torbjörn Larsson, OM

    Ah, so maybe these oddball thingies are a good way to test star formation rate theories on?

    I tweet caught “The physics driving the cosmic star formation history” by Schaye et al, and their (also awesome) OverWhelmingly Large Simulations ends up very insensitive to models and initial mass functions.

    “Our systematic tests of the subgrid physics revealed that SF [Star Formation] in intermediate mass galaxies is highly self-regulated by feedback from massive stars. This explains our remarkable finding that the predicted SFH [Star Formation History] is nearly completely independent of the treatment of the unresolved ISM [InterStellar Medium], including the assumed SF law.

    If the SF efficiency is increased, then the galaxies simply reduce their gas fractions so as to keep the SFR [Star Formation Rate], and thus the rate at which stars inject energy into the ISM, constant. Similarly, if the efficiency of SN [SuperNova] feedback is changed by injecting a different fraction of the SN energy, then, to first order, the galaxies simply adjust their SFRs so as to keep the rate of energy injection constant.

    The critical rate of energy injection that results from self-regulation is presumably the rate required to balance gas infall resulting from accretion onto haloes and radiative cooling and will therefore depend on the halo mass and redshift [age].”

    Seems galaxies are far more interesting and robustly structured self-regulating systems than their messy exteriors let on.

    It’s an awe-awe situation. ūüėÄ

  12. Josh

    I’m not sure if I like the term “embiggen” or “brobdingnangate” better. I’m leaning towards the latter, though.

  13. JoeSmithCA

    *Jaw hitting floor*

  14. XMark

    Are there too many things in space to give nice names to? It seems that most pretty telescope images are of NGC something-or-other, or M something-or-other.

  15. Matt

    On the pic of NGC 4402, in the lower left quadrant, below the pillar of dust sticking out from the galaxy, right at the edge of the halo, there’s a little pink smudge.

    If you zoom in on that, you’ll see a bright green point.

    Is that an artifact of some kind? or is that really there, and if so, could it be another one of those green thingies they found in the galaxy zoo? (or for that matter is it the same one?)

  16. Phillip M

    Amazing pictures!!! Does anyone know if the Webb Space telescope is still on schedule and still budgeted?

  17. Zucchi

    Flat-out unbelievable. So an entire galaxy is moving at almost 1% of lightspeed?

    Wish I could get the pictures to work.

    What does it look like inside one of those galaxies?

  18. Beautiful!!! More inspiration for art now that Hubble is back in action! :-)

  19. Blashy

    Billions of Suns in this picture… which means trillions of planets.

    Chances of us being alone = slim to none.

    We’re just all so far from each other to say hi :-( .

  20. Tom

    Holy frakking CRAP! That’s all I can say. wooooo…..


  21. Larry

    Matt, must be a Green Giant. ūüėČ

  22. Michelle

    Speaking of cool pictures, did you all see the Astronomy Picture of the Day today? I gasped, it’s just so gorgeous.

  23. dhtroy

    Holy Space Pictures Batman! Those are A-M-A-Z-I-N-G!

  24. Beelzebud

    If you were to look at this spot in the sky, with the naked eye, what percentage of the sky are we talking about here? I know it won’t be much, but I’m curious as to what exactly it would be, just to make it more awe inspiring. :)

  25. Stargazer

    Oh wow. Those pictures are just amazing!

    “They should have sent a poet.”

  26. Gavin Flower

    10 million kilometres per hour is about 1% the speed of light!!!!

  27. Jo

    Looks like a big splash, with galaxies spraying everywhere! Very, very cool.

  28. One thing that’s quite interesting about these images is the backgrounds. Take a close look. I’m pretty sure that just about every item in that background image is a galaxy. Each of those galaxies has hundreds of billions of stars and encompasses hundreds of thousands of light years. The sheer size of what is in the photo (both foreground and background) is so huge that we can’t honestly wrap our minds around it.

  29. Matt

    @ Beelzebud: I like to use Google Sky to give me a since of location and scale when I see pics like this. you can zoom out until you start to see things that look familiar, and get a good idea where these things are, and how big they really appear on the ground.

  30. Jenny Hanson

    I feel like everytime I look at these photos, I’m looking at billions of different life forms. There has to be other living things out there.

  31. Random

    The angular size of the full moon is 30 arcminutes (half a degree.) The listed angular size of NGC 4522 on the long axis is 5 arcminutes, or 1/10 a full moon (From Bernham’s Celestial Handbook, 1978 edition). This is probably for the brightest part of the main galaxy in the image. I estimate that the bottom image is 5 or 6 arcminutes across.

  32. Folks,it hasn’t yet gotten good!I remember getting this excited over the lowly iras in ’79.I KNEW we were in for a treat with this tech.Now,can we please get to the Moon and Mars?

  33. Space pictures don’t usually impress me, because they’re quite often just white dots on a black background, but these did. They really show the three dimensions of the main galaxy there, as while as highlighting all the other galaxies in the background.

    I just wish NASA (and other government agencies, like the Patent Office) would pick an image format other than TIFF for the super-high-resolution stuff.

  34. jackd

    I’ve been doing the Galaxy Zoo project* for a few months now, and sure enough, these two objects are in there. The GZ images are from the Sloan Digital Sky Survey (SDSS), and are *much* lower resolution. NGC 4402 and 4522 are much larger and more detailed in the SDSS image than most galaxies, but the tiny background galaxies? The SDSS images have about six or eight little blobs around each of them. Just knowing that Hubble could produce incredibly detailed images of each of those blobs – and even more that SDSS just couldn’t see! – is indeed awe-inspiring.

    *What, you haven’t?

  35. Alex

    “These galaxies are screaming through the cluster at speeds of 10 million kilometers per hour.”

    My brain hurts – in a good way, a finding-new-room-for-ideas way – just thinking about it.

  36. What is the fastest object we can see? 1% lightspeed is about as fast as I’ve heard anything going.

  37. Owen

    What never ceases to blow me away about these images is as much the background as the main image itself — the fact that you can hardly see the darkness for all the galaxies in your way. Obviously this is because it’s a cluster, but still, the scale is… dizzying. (Edit: Aaaaaaand someone already wrote exactly that… sheesh. I should read to the end.)

    But you mention that the ram pressure is causing the galaxies’ own gas to be blown behind it, and then you mention the dark areas as “dust.” Just curious, are they actually the same thing? Or is the dust something else? If so, it’s obviously not the fabric-human-skin-and-dust-mites kind of dust… what would it be made up of?

  38. Rick

    What freaks me out are all the galaxies behind the one in the picture!

  39. The Fast One

    It’s humbling experience to observe other planets/galaxies that have unique characteristics that extend beyond our perception of physical science. On the lighter side; it appears to me to look like a half-disintegrated Alka-Selzer tablet in a glass of water with the bubbles ascending from each side (NGC 4522).

  40. “Billions of Suns in this picture‚Ķ which means trillions of planets. Chances of us being alone = slim to none.”

    Yeah, but will they start selling those telescopes at Costco that automatically find each of them in the sky for you? That would be cool employment, just logging those algorithms, jamming to music…

  41. Dont worry, you wont have to put up with crap like those pictures any more.

    Bush decided itd be cool if got NASA to cut the funding for Hubble.

  42. Yeebok Shu'in

    @XMark – yes, most things have the NGC and M names. If you blot out a patch of sky as large as your pinky you will cover an area many many times larger than is visible in the Hubble Deep Field pic. Many of them look very similar.
    The “M” objects, were listed by a man named Charles Messier as things that “were not comets” – generally these are visible to the naked eye. Rather than giving them funky names, he just numbered them. He wrote the coordinates along with the number he’d catalogued it under. Over time people started to refer to things by their Messier number, as opposed to “the smaller smudge in the Southern Cross” (yes, I’m Aussie..). Messier’s objects include many types of things, from clusters to galaxies.
    Other setups have done the same thing, but only shown one type of object – I may be wrong but I have NGC as for ‘new galactic catalogue’ – as a result the only things you’ll find in it are galaxies. They’re also numbered.. and yes, there’s thousands.
    There are other catalogues and so on – generally astronomical people learn about the messier catalogue, and then NGC.
    The galaxies and so forth do have ‘pretty names’ such as ‘the butterfly nebula’ – but there’s no guarantee that someone from a different cultural background would have the same name for the same object.
    As a result for those slightly in the know the M numbers are most familiar, then the NGCs and so forth, so these types of names are what are used instead.
    Jeez. That was gonna be short. Sorry man.

  43. Blaidd Drwg

    Dr. Plait, a question: In the 4522 image, at the extreme lower right of the picture, there appears to be a galaxy that is distorted. Immediatley to the right of this galaxy is a star. Is this a case of gravitational lensing, or something else (like the coffee hasn’t kicked in yet)?

  44. #30 Yeebok, #14 XMark:
    NGC stands for New General Catalogue. It’s a catalogue compiled by J. L. E. Dreyer in the late 19th Century; it contains 7780 objects. And not only galaxies, though the majority are; it also contains gaseous and planetary nebulae, and star clusters. There are also another few thousand objects with “IC” numbers; this means Index Catalogue, which was a later supplement to the NGC.
    As for the M numbers, Yeebok is quite right. Charles Messier was a comet hunter, and he compiled his list of “fuzzy” objects, which could be mistaken for comets, just so he wouldn’t mistake them! ( He observed with a small telescope in the 18th Century, so it was easy to “mistake” things which we never would today, with modern telescopes. ) Ironically, while he did discover 13 comets, he’s remembered for his list of objects in which he wasn’t interested!

  45. angel

    Just thought and wonder of how many planets out in those distant galaxies have life, God is great indeed.

  46. Keith Haley

    Just simply amazed … even more amazed of the very distant galaxies that are barely visable in the photographs… just was wondering how far away are they…

    Only one thing to say is Awesome ….

  47. Gods sperm, this is the evidence we have all been awaiting

  48. Absolutely stunning images! Jaw on floor and awe factor off the scale. Every time I see images from Hubble I am amazed at how big out there is and how small in here is….

  49. Wendy

    Wow, wow, wow!!!

  50. BakerFox

    I say we take the Hubble telescope and mount it on the ISS!

  51. bigpopa_pump69

    fine women and distant galaxys are to things to be admired with fine conac

  52. Ad Hominid

    Wow indeed. This connected with one of my earliest coherent memories, myself as a little boy standing in a Texas pasture back in the early 50s, looking up at the iridescent summer sky and asking “What are they? What is out there?”
    It makes me joyously happy to have lived long enough to see this, and all the other wonders the men and women of science have brought us in this age of miracles.

  53. David H.

    These objects surely do have many pretty names, from millions of different civilizations scatterred throughout the multiverse.

  54. Charles J. Slavis, Jr.

    Twice the fun! Hershel has arrived!

  55. Charles J. Slavis, Jr.

    Is the speed from a massive black hole?

  56. Guy Gordon

    I wish to file a complaint. Having searched for “awesome stunners” and “jaw dropping pair” imagine my shock at arriving here. This sort of thing should be banned from the internet.

  57. StuartB

    Awesome shots, and also +100 kudos points for coining ‚Äúto brobdingnangate‚ÄĚ. Definitely my new favourite word.

  58. Taylor

    There should be extr improvement in-order to save the nation.


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