Friday, February 8, 2013
An Amazing Picture of an Active Galaxy by the Hubble and an Amateur Astronomer
This past week, the scientists at the Space Telescope Science Institute released a remarkable picture, which combines Hubble images with those taken by advanced amateur astronomers on Earth, and I'm glad to be able to share it with you. (Click on the picture to make it bigger.)
In the image, we're seeing the central part of an "active" or disturbed galaxy about 25 million light years away, with the catalog number M106. You can see the yellow center of the galaxy, crowded with stars whose light blends together. You can also see its great spiral arms of stars, gently curving away from that center. They are outlined with blue stars and regions where gas is being heated by stars and glowing red. Those arms go much further out than the boundaries of this picture.
But what is especially interesting is that there are also great jets of glowing red gas, which are not part of the flat spiral structure of the galaxy. Instead, they are at odd angles to the galaxy's disk. What we are seeing there are great clouds of glowing hydrogen -- the most common element in all galaxies. But what makes them glow so intensely? Astronomers have good evidence that they are energized by radiation (not visible to the human eye) coming from a super-giant black hole at the center of the galaxy.
Neither the black hole (somewhere in the middle of the yellow center) or its rays of energy are visible here. But when those rays hit the gas that is the "raw material" of such galaxies, they make it glow with a fierce intensity.
This beautiful photograph was assembled by an amateur astronomer, Robert Gendler, a doctor living on the East Coast, who has made astronomical photography his hobby and his passion. It's quite a coup to have his photograph used and released by the Hubble scientists. For more of Dr. Gendler's photos, see his web site at: http://www.robgendlerastropics.com/
If you want to learn some basic information about black holes, you can check out a little video of a 6-minute talk I gave about them at the SETI Institute: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7DX_cc-IjpY
Amateur astrophotographer R. Jay Gabany also contributed to the image. You can see his image (with less detail) but showing the whole galaxy and really emphasizing the gas excited by the black hole at: