Hubble Space Telescope

Hubble finds methane on an exoplanet

The Hubble Space Telescope has recently found the organic molecule methane on the extrasolar planet HD 189733b. Here’s a section of the ESA press release below.

“Under the right circumstances methane can play a key role in prebiotic chemistry – the chemical reactions considered necessary to form life as we know it. Although methane has been detected on most of the planets in our Solar System, this is the first time any organic molecule has been detected on a world orbiting another star”

With an atmospheric temperature of around 900 degrees there certainly isn’t going to be life (at least as we know it) on HD 189733b. The importance of this observation is more that it is “proof that spectroscopy can eventually be done on a cooler and potentially habitable Earth-sized planet orbiting a dimmer red dwarf-type star” says Mark Swain who led the team that made the discovery at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL).

I saw this exciting news come in when I was working with the Hubble group in Germany and I began scripting a Hubblecast to cover the result. To see the finished piece visit the ESA Hubblecast no.14 page here.

Above: An artist’s impression of HD 189733b around its parent star.
Credit: Credit: ESA, NASA and G. Tinetti (University College London, UK & ESA)

Lecture reminder

Just a reminder to those of you in the south-west UK that on Thursday evening ( 20.03.08 ) I will be giving a lecture to the Torbay Astronomical Society. The title of the talk is “Not just pretty pictures – the science behind Hubble’s greatest images”.

All are welcome and the talk starts at around 7:30pm at Torquay Boys’ Grammar School. For information on how to get there and visitor fees see the TAS website.

Hubble finds a COSMOS of gravitational lenses

Hubble Space Telescope scientists have recently announced that they have discovered 67 gravitational lenses lurking in images taken for a survey of galaxies. Hubble has spotted the gravitational lenses as part of the COSMOS survey into large scale structure of the Universe. The scientists have found some really cool lenses like the ‘Einstein Ring’ on the left. The results show that if the number of lenses seen by Hubble in this survey is typical of large sections of the sky then there could be hundreds of thousands of this type of gravitational lens across the whole night-sky!

This is one of the press releases that I worked on whilst in Germany last year. If you want to read the full story check it out on the ESA Hubble website here. As an aside it’s great to see Atlantis landed safely. Columbus is now installed on the International Space Station which is now looking incredible. The Columbus module is the one jutting out to the right hand side of the line of vertical modules in that image.

Above: This incredible ‘Einstein Ring’ captured by the Hubble Space Telescope is the product of a rare line-of-sight alignment of massive lensing galaxy, background galaxy and Hubble itself.

Credit: NASA, ESA, C. Faure (Zentrum für Astronomie, University of Heidelberg) and J.P. Kneib (Laboratoire d’Astrophysique de Marseille)

Galaxy eating monster reveals its secrets

A monster so huge it is capable of slowly devouring whole galaxies at a time. Sounds incredible doesn’t it? But that is what astronomers working on the Hubble Space Telescope think that the giant elliptical galaxy NGC 1132 is – a cosmic cannibal if you will. In this stunning new image from the NASA/ESA Hubble mission astronomers are seeing the vast hulk of a galaxy, 320 million light years distant, whose past is much darker than it might at first seem. That’s because whilst the stunning elliptical in Hubble’s new image looks serene and peaceful, it is in fact the aftermath of gravitational dance which saw the death of many smaller galaxies; and it all clinches on how astronomers think galaxies form.

One of the most popular current theories is that giant galaxies like NGC 1132 are made from the merger and assimilation of lots of smaller galaxies. Over time these vast elliptical giants like NGC 1132 emerge as enormous conglomerations of stars. Sounds all very vicious but in fact this galactic cannibalism is probably quite commonplace in the Universe if our theories of galaxy evolution are correct. Indeed Hubble scientists believe that our own Milky Way may have been partial to devouring the odd dwarf galaxy which strayed too close to it.

Yet the one question that we are bound to ask is how do we know? Well the answer comes from two main lines of evidence. The first is globular clusters. Galaxies like the Milky Way are home to globular clusters which reside above and below the disc of the galaxy. These are extremely ancient (and fairly compact) balls of stars and are useful tools for studying the evolution of stars. If you know where to look you can spot them through a small telescope on a clear night.

When Hubble scientists looked at NGC 1132 they noticed something interesting. A vast collection of globular clusters around the massive galaxy. They believe that what they are seeing are the globular clusters of NGC 1132’s victims – whole globular clusters that have been cast away as NGC 1132 merges with their parent galaxies. Since the stars in globulars are packed much more densely than the normal stars in the unfortunate galaxies their collective gravity holds the globular together. This means they can survive the huge gravitational disruptions involved in the merger and breakup of their parent galaxy.

The second piece of evidence comes from material we can’t see in this image – dark matter. Observations have shown that NGC 1132 is surrounded by a truly enormous cloud of dark matter. The dark matter cloud is thought to hold quantities of dark matter that are normally found residing in whole galaxy clusters of between ten and a few hundred galaxies – not one galaxy as seen with NGC 1132! NASA’s Chandra X-ray observatory was able to show that the galaxy is also surrounded by a glow from X-rays emitted from hot gas – about 120,000 light years in diameter – roughly the size of a galaxy cluster, giving yet more support to the idea that NGC 1132 is the result of the merging of one entire galaxy cluster.

If you want to find about more about this fascinating new result visit the Hubble website and whilst you’re there check out the latest Hubblecast.

Above: NGC 1132 from the HST
Image credit: NASA, ESA and the Hubble Heritage (STScI/AURA)-ESA/Hubble Collaboration. Acknowledgment: M. West (ESO, Chile)

Book news (part I)

I achieved a milestone today in that I have finally got all the necessary image permissions for my book. The images are really cool and I can’t wait to submit my manuscript later in the year. Now I just have to finish the text…so it’s back to the word processor for me! In the mean time check out this incredible new image from Hubble and if you want to find out more about what’s going on in the image download the Hubblecast!

“Hazy red sunset on extrasolar planet”

Here is the latest release from the ESA/Hubble office that I have been working on. Hubble astronomers have used the orbiting space observatory to study the atmosphere of the extrasolar planet HD189733b (a number I can’t seem to get out of my head having written it so many times over the past few weeks). This world had previously been observed by the Spitzer Infrared Space Telescope but now Hubble has shown that it actually has a layer of hazes in its upper atmosphere made up of tiny grains of (probably) silicates, iron and aluminum oxide. To read the full press release visit the ESA/Hubble website and of course there is the latest episode of the Hubblecast out where Dr J talks to the head of the ESA/Hubble group Dr Bob Fosbury about this amazing world.

Image credit: ESA, NASA and Frédéric Pont (Geneva University Observatory)

Behind the scenes at Hubble

The latest Hubblecast is out! Episode number 10 explores behind the scenes of the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope.

“We live in a Universe of unimaginable scale and almost incomprehensible beauty. How is the light from the Universe transformed into the images that have inspired generations by making the Universe come to life?”

If you have ever wondered how the incredible images from Hubble are made then this Hubblecast is for you!

Image credit: NASA, ESA, and the Hubble Heritage Team STScI/AURA)-ESA/Hubble Collaboration. Acknowledgement: B. Whitmore ( Space Telescope Science Institute) and James Long (ESA/Hubble).

“Hubble shows ‘baby’ galaxy is not so young after all”

The latest news release from the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope is out now on the ESA Hubble website – It’s the story of how a galaxy we thought (for quite a long time as it happens) was really young is in fact very old.

“The NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope has found out the true nature of a dwarf galaxy that astronomers had for a long time identified as one of the youngest galaxies in the Universe. Astronomers using the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope have made observations of the galaxy I Zwicky 18 which seem to indicate that it is in fact much older and much farther away than previously thought.”

Image credit: NASA, ESA and A. Aloisi (ESA/STScI)

NGC3603 – An extreme star cluster bursting into life!

Finally it’s here! – News from the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope “NGC3603 – An extreme star cluster bursting into life!”

This is the release & Hubblecast I have been working on for the last few weeks. It is now online and you can read the full amazing story here. Also why not view the latest Hubblecast (no.9) here.

Image credit: NASA, ESA and the Hubble Heritage (STScI/AURA)-ESA/Hubble Collaboration

Hubblecast filming


On Tuesday morning a small team from the ESA/Hubble office here traveled to a studio to film the next episode of the Hubblecast (no.9). The studio is located about 70km south of ESO headquarters, in the foothills of the Alps on the shore of Tegernsee a perfect place for the creative juices to flow!

We began work at about 9am with the shooting of Dr J’s introduction scenes as well as some more regular pieces to camera. In this episode we have pushed the boat out with some of the graphic effects too, the results of which you will see soon! After a couple of hours work the filming was complete and it was back to the office where the video could be added to the images and animations made by the graphic designer.

Image credit: Will Gater

I’ve just watched a preliminary cut of one scene and it is looking really very cool! Hopefully this will be one of the best Hubblecasts yet!