Hubble's back, and spying on wailing baby stars

By Phil Plait | November 5, 2009 10:03 am

Ever since the Hubble upgrade a few months ago I’ve been waiting to see the results of it getting back to routine science observations… especially for the new Wide Field Camera 3, which promised to return gorgeous imagery.

Well, the wait’s over. The first image is out, and it’s a nice one: star formation in the spiral arm nurseries of the nearby galaxy M83:


[You know the deal: click it to embiggen, or go here to grab a delicious 15 Mb 3900×3900 pixel version.]

M83 is about 15 million light years away, making it practically a next door neighbor for the Milky Way, as well as a tempting target for telescopes. Proximity = clarity in most cases, and with M83 we have a great view of its lovely spiral arms. This new image from Hubble’s WFC3 shows unprecedented detail, too. There are star clusters everywhere, factories cranking out baby stars by the millions. There are also something like 60 supernova remnants, the expanding gaseous debris from exploded stars, five times the number previously seen in this galaxy.

The colors are interesting. This picture is not quite true color. Sure, blue is blue, green is green, and red is red, but they also added a second version of red coming from the light of warm hydrogen gas (called Hα in astronomical parlance) as well as a fifth color: cyan (turquoise) coming from the light of warm, tenuous oxygen. That light is typically emitted from gas clouds making stars as well as the gas emitted from stars when they die (in fact, my PhD thesis was based on observations of this oxygen-light glowing from a ring of gas around an exploded star). You can see that this teal-like glow pervades the entire image: oxygen is everywhere! But it’s so thin it’s more like a hard laboratory vacuum than anything you could breathe.

wf3_m83_detailAlso, if you look closely at the pockets of red clumpy gas, you can some that are edge-brightened, like a soap bubble. These are where stars are being born in vast numbers. Their mighty winds expand outwards, carving huge cavities in the gas. My favorite is the one in the middle left of the image, zoomed in here for your viewing awesomeness. The stars are so closely packed they blur together, and each that you can see here would dwarf the Sun in mass, size, and brightness. You can also see that the rim of the bubble is more pronounced below the star cluster, which means that the surrounding gas in the environment of the cluster is thicker there, and has piled up more as the expanding winds have snowplowed it.

And everywhere in this picture are the dark ribbons and filaments of dust, dust, dust. These are long molecules (usually with lots of carbon) which are created by new stars and dying stars. They litter galaxies like M83 as well as our own. And while they make life difficult for optical astronomers who struggle to penetrate the thick veil and see what lies beneath, the dust is interesting all by itself… and adds a certain depth and grace to images like this one.

And, on the right of the big image, is the white glow of the galaxy’s nucleus. You can see detail of the dust, stars, and gas all the way down to the very center. It’s an amazing image, and I’m sure will keep astronomers busy for a long, long time.

What a great start to the return of the Hubble! And, as always, I can’t wait to see what’s next.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Astronomy, Pretty pictures

Comments (28)

  1. Shawn R. Hill

    That is truly awesome and awe inspiring.

  2. It’s quite humbling to think that the light we’re looking at in that picture was produced during the Middle Miocene Epoch.

  3. MarsFlight

    I agree toasterhead. And to think that there are thousands of galexies with millions are stars in each of them. And we’re just on out of countless others.

  4. Aerimus

    Off topic and I’m sure soeone has probably said something already – but I just saw an add for The Fourth Kind on here. Ironic…

  5. DG Seaton

    Phil, your writing style about these topics is eloquent and visceral. I enjoy reading your commentary almost as much as I enjoy perusing the images. And that’s high praise!

  6. “Nearby Galaxy” always blows my mind. The universe is a big frakkin’ place.

    Beautiful shot.

  7. Megan
  8. Gavin Flower

    “my PhD thesis”

    Phil, and I always thought you were a medical doctor dabbling in Astronomy… :-)

  9. Hubble Humbled

    Hello, I understand that the repaired Hubble is to be better than before. Are there before/after images of the same area of space that could be compared? I realized that I could look for an old Hubble image of a galaxy, but I would not know if similar color-assignment had been performed on the _consumer_ versions we see.

  10. Harvi

    er, this isn’t the first image from WF3 (though it is lovely – been admiring it for some time here). There were several images out at the beginning of September. Just making sure you didn’t miss them. :)

    (Stephan’s Quintet, Butterfly Nebula, Omega Cen, Carina Nebula among those early release observations in September)

  11. StevoR

    Awesome image! Love it. 😀

    And everywhere in this picture are the dark ribbons and filaments of dust, dust, dust. These are long molecules (usually with lots of carbon) which are created by new stars and dying stars. They litter galaxies like M83 as well as our own.

    But the ones we’re seeing here are all in M83 rather than in our own Galactic foreground right?

    Do they have these dark dust lanes in M83 & other galaxies numbered and listed like Barnard’s dark nebulae catalogue in our own Milky Way?

  12. DrFlimmer

    Just saved two files: the emgiggened pic and your paper!

    Great article, as usual. You always speak with the heart of a child and that is exactly what is needed in such a case! Way to go, Phil!

  13. @Hubble Humbled:

    “Are there before/after (Hubble repair) images of the same area of space that could be compared?”

    I’ve been keeping careful track of every image of a Messier or NGC object that Hubble has released to the public since the beginning of its mission. According to my records, this is the first public release of an M83 image.

    A search of the archive of Hubble data (click on my name for the link) reveals that M83 (or portions thereof) have been imaged many times over Hubble’s 19 year mission. But to turn those data into a pretty picture for comparison with the latest release would require a bit of work. Anyone feeling up to it?

  14. kevbo

    …you wrote a thesis?

  15. Gebraden Kip

    You wrote a thesis?!

  16. FC

    Seriously, that’s what you got from this article?

  17. Bouch

    Amazing pic. I’ve been poking around this afternoon to see if its possible to see this galaxy with the 4.5″ newtonian that I got not too long ago. I’m in Massachusetts. Is this visible now, or ever, from up here? If so, tell me where to look! Thanx!

  18. Hubble’s back, and spying on wailing baby stars

    The world’s most expensive Baby Monitor?


  19. bassmanpete

    Bouch @ 17

    M83 is in the constellation Hydra. Check your star chart for visibility from your location.

  20. Gord Leslie

    If we are looking at the M83 galaxy as it was a zillion (or some part thereof) years ago, why do we speak of it in the present tense. Or am I just sooooo confoooosed?



  21. Crudely Wrott

    It’s full of stars planets places.

    Lots of them. Some human sized.

    We could live in them. (nudge, wink)

    We will probably go one day.

    That’ll be something, won’t it?

  22. Hi Bouch,

    M83 is pretty close to the sun these days. Look low on the south horizon before dawn starting in late December.

    Bruce Berger

  23. Phil:
    Bob O’Connell, who chaired the WFC3 SOC (Scientific Oversight Committee) gave us a nice talk about the instrument at the VAAS conference I hosted at NRAO in September on the day after he got back from the big DC press conference. He had some really nice images to show us, since the embargo was just lifted. What a treat!

  24. >>…Amazing pic. I’ve been poking around this afternoon to see if its possible to see this galaxy with the 4.5″ newtonian that I got not too long ago. I’m in Massachusetts. Is this visible now, or ever, from up here? If so, tell me where to look! Thanx!

    Try looking at night! :) Just kidding.

    Actually M83 is rather low on the horizon (but can be seen at the proper time) for us up in Massachusetts. It is essentially between Virgo and Centaurus. Even then, this time of year it is effectively in the direction of the Sun. So a no-go.

    In your 4.5″ newt, you can certainly see some galaxies. Stick to the Messier (Mxx) galaxies for a treat. At this time of year, shoot for Andromeda/M31. Very big and very bright (and close) as far as galaxies are concerned. For galaxies it is important to have clear, transparent skies with as little light pollution as possible. Light pollution is the bane of galaxy viewing. Those darn elusive faint fuzzies. The Whirlpool/M51 is another beauty. it is circumpolar so potentially visible most of the year. If you have the horizon for it. The higher in the sky it is (at the apex), the better. The closer to the horizon, the worse (more atmosphere you are looking through).

    Have fun!

  25. IW

    Absolutely beautiful stunning detailed pictures!

    In my younger days, I was big into astronomy, telescopes, and astrophysics, and I would salivate over pictures like these. I still do, without a doubt. How can anyone not be awe-inspired by them? What an immense and awesome universe this is! But in my older, more diseased state, I have these strange creeping thoughts.

    I remember once when I had my wisdom teeth taken out. The oral surgeon gave me intravenous valium, and it knocked me out completely. I remember him saying, “Count backwards from 99”. Well, I got to about 93 and then he said, “We’re done! It took two hours, but I bet you’re thinking: when I did I take ’em out, aren’t you?”. Well, yes I certainly did think that. It was as if no time had passed at all. An utterly dreamless sleep. I began to believe that is what death would be like. But if death is like that, than however long the universe lasts – even hundreds of quintillions of years, it would pass in an instant, wouldn’t it? It would be as if the universe had never existed at all. So… how can consciousness not be important, physically? Of course, that assumes that the age of the universe is finite. I cannot even begin to speculate what would happen, if time was infinite.

    Don’t get me wrong. For all practical purposes, I’m an fervent atheist geek who longs for warp drive and a Tardis of his own. But…humbly asked: what’s really going on here?


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