If confirmed, this discovery would represent the widest reach ever seen for a black hole acting as a stellar kick-starter — enhancing star formation more than one million light-years away. (One light year is equal to 6 trillion miles.)
A black hole is an extremely dense object from which no light can escape. The black hole’s immense gravity pulls in surrounding gas and dust. Sometimes, black holes hinder star birth. Sometimes — like perhaps in this case — they increase star birth.
Garden-variety stars like the Sun live fairly placid lives in their galactic neighborhoods, casually churning out heat and light for billions of years. When these stars reach retirement age, however, they transform into unique and often psychedelic works of art. This Hubble Space Telescope image of the Saturn Nebula shows the result, called a planetary nebula. While it looks like a piece of wrapped cosmic candy, what we see is actually the outer layers of a dying star.
Stars are powered by nuclear fusion, but each one comes with a limited supply of fuel. When a medium-mass star exhausts its nuclear fuel, it will swell up and shrug off its outer layers until only a small, hot core remains. The leftover core, called a white dwarf, is a lot like a hot coal that glows after a barbecue — eventually it will fade out. Until then, the gaseous debris fluoresces as it expands out into the cosmos, possibly destined to be recycled into later generations of stars and planets.
Using Hubble’s observations, scientists have characterized the nebula’s composition, structure, temperature and the way it interacts with surrounding material. Studying planetary nebulas is particularly interesting since our Sun will experience a similar fate around five billion years down the road.
We launched our Spitzer Space Telescope into orbit around the Sunday on Aug. 25, 2003. Since then, the observatory has been lifting the veil on the wonders of the cosmos, from our own solar system to faraway galaxies, using infrared light.
Thanks to Spitzer, scientists were able to confirm the presence of seven rocky, Earth-size planets in the TRAPPIST-1 system. The telescope has also provided weather maps of hot, gaseous exoplanets and revealed a hidden ring around Saturn. It has illuminated hidden collections of dust in a wide variety of locations, including cosmic nebulas (clouds of gas and dust in space), where young stars form, and swirling galaxies. Spitzer has additionally investigated some of the universe’s oldest galaxies and stared at the black hole at the center of the Milky Way.
In honor of Spitzer’s Sweet 16 in space, here are 16 amazing images from the mission.
Giant Star Makes Waves
This Spitzer image shows the giant star Zeta Ophiuchi and the bow shock, or shock wave, in front of it. Visible only in infrared light, the bow shock is created by winds that flow from the star, making ripples in the surrounding dust.
The Seven Sisters Pose for Spitzer
The Pleiades star cluster, also known as the Seven Sisters, is a frequent target for night sky observers. This image from Spitzer zooms in on a few members of the sisterhood. The filaments surrounding the stars are dust, and the three colors represent different wavelengths of infrared light.
Young Stars in Their Baby Blanket of Dust
Newborn stars peek out from beneath their blanket of dust in this image of the Rho Ophiuchi nebula. Called “Rho Oph” by astronomers and located about 400 light-years from Earth, it’s one of the closest star-forming regions to our own solar system.
The youngest stars in this image are surrounded by dusty disks of material from which the stars — and their potential planetary systems — are forming. More evolved stars, which have shed their natal material, are blue.
The Infrared Helix
Located about 700 light-years from Earth, the eye-like Helix nebula is a planetary nebula, or the remains of a Sun-like star. When these stars run out of their internal fuel supply, their outer layers puff up to create the nebula. Our Sun will blossom into a planetary nebula when it dies in about 5 billion years.
The Tortured Clouds of Eta Carinae
The bright star at the center of this image is Eta Carinae, one of the most massive stars in the Milky Way galaxy. With around 100 times the mass of the Sun and at least 1 million times the brightness, Eta Carinae releases a tremendous outflow of energy that has eroded the surrounding nebula.
Spitzer Spies Spectacular Sombrero
Located 28 million light-years from Earth, Messier 104 — also called the Sombrero galaxy or M104 — is notable for its nearly edge-on orientation as seen from our planet. Spitzer observations were the first to reveal the smooth, bright ring of dust (seen in red) circling the galaxy.
Spiral Galaxy Messier 81
This infrared image of the galaxy Messier 81, or M81, reveals lanes of dust illuminated by active star formation throughout the galaxy’s spiral arms. Located in the northern constellation of Ursa Major (which includes the Big Dipper), M81 is also about 12 million light-years from Earth.
Spitzer Reveals Stellar Smoke
Messier 82 — also known as the Cigar galaxy or M82 — is a hotbed of young, massive stars. In visible light, it appears as a diffuse bar of blue light, but in this infrared image, scientists can see huge red clouds of dust blown out into space by winds and radiation from those stars.
A Pinwheel Galaxy Rainbow
This image of Messier 101, also known as the Pinwheel Galaxy or M101, combines data in the infrared, visible, ultraviolet and X-rays from Spitzer and three other NASA space telescopes: Hubble, the Galaxy Evolution Explorer’s Far Ultraviolet detector (GALEX) and the Chandra X-Ray Observatory. The galaxy is about 70% larger than our own Milky Way, with a diameter of about 170,000 light-years, and sits at a distance of 21 million light-years from Earth. Read more about its colors here.
The first ripple appears as a bright blue outer ring around the larger object, radiating ultraviolet light visible to GALEX. The clumps of pink along the outer blue ring are X-ray (observed by Chandra) and ultraviolet radiation.
Spitzer and Hubble Create Colorful Masterpiece
Located 1,500 light-years from Earth, the Orion nebula is the brightest spot in the sword of the constellation Orion. Four massive stars, collectively called the Trapezium, appear as a yellow smudge near the image center. Visible and ultraviolet data from Hubble appear as swirls of green that indicate the presence of gas heated by intense ultraviolet radiation from the Trapezium’s stars. Less-embedded stars appear as specks of green, and foreground stars as blue spots. Meanwhile, Spitzer’s infrared view exposes carbon-rich molecules called polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, shown here as wisps of red and orange. Orange-yellow dots are infant stars deeply embedded in cocoons of dust and gas.
A Space Spider Watches Over Young Stars
Located about 10,000 light-years from Earth in the constellation Auriga, the Spider nebula resides in the outer part of the Milky Way. Combining data from Spitzer and the Two Micron All Sky Survey (2MASS), the image shows green clouds of dust illuminated by star formation in the region.
North America Nebula in Different Lights
This view of the North America nebula combines visible light collected by the Digitized Sky Survey with infrared light from NASA’s Spitzer Space Telescope. Blue hues represent visible light, while infrared is displayed as red and green. Clusters of young stars (about 1 million years old) can be found throughout the image.
Spitzer Captures Our Galaxy’s Bustling Center
This infrared mosaic offers a stunning view of the Milky Way galaxy’s busy center. The pictured region, located in the Sagittarius constellation, is 900 light-years agross and shows hundreds of thousands of mostly old stars amid clouds of glowing dust lit up by younger, more massive stars. Our Sun is located 26,000 light-years away in a more peaceful, spacious neighborhood, out in the galactic suburbs.
The Eternal Life of Stardust
The Large Magellanic Cloud, a dwarf galaxy located about 160,000 light-years from Earth, looks like a choppy sea of dust in this infrared portrait. The blue color, seen most prominently in the central bar, represents starlight from older stars. The chaotic, bright regions outside this bar are filled with hot, massive stars buried in thick blankets of dust.
A Stellar Family Portrait
In this large celestial mosaic from Spitzer, there’s a lot to see, including multiple clusters of stars born from the same dense clumps of gas and dust. The grand green-and-orange delta filling most of the image is a faraway nebula. The bright white region at its tip is illuminated by massive stars, and dust that has been heated by the stars’ radiation creates the surrounding red glow.
Managed by our Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, Spitzer’s primary mission lasted five-and-a-half years and ended when it ran out of the liquid helium coolant necessary to operate two of its three instruments. But, its passive-cooling design has allowed part of its third instrument to continue operating for more than 10 additional years. The mission is scheduled to end on Jan. 30, 2020.
Our Hubble Space Telescope spotted this planetary nebula in the constellation of Orion. It’s really a vast orb of gas in space, with its aging star in the center… but what does it look like to you? 🤔
When stars like the Sun grow advanced in age, they expand and glow red. These so-called red giants then begin to lose their outer layers of material into space. More than half of such a star’s mass can be shed in this manner, forming a shell of surrounding gas. At the same time, the star’s core shrinks and grows hotter, emitting ultraviolet light that causes the expelled gases to glow.
The first confirmation of a planet orbiting a star outside our solar system happened in 1995. We now know that these worlds – also known as exoplanets – are abundant. So far, we’ve confirmed more than 4000. Even though these planets are far, far away, we can still study them using ground-based and space-based telescopes.
Our upcoming James Webb Space Telescope will study the atmospheres of the worlds in our solar system and those of exoplanets far beyond. Could any of these places support life? What Webb finds out about the chemical elements in these exoplanet atmospheres might help us learn the answer.
How do we know what’s in the atmosphere of an exoplanet?
Most known exoplanets have been discovered because they partially block the light of their suns. This celestial photo-bombing is called a transit.
During a transit, some of the star’s light travels through the planet’s atmosphere and gets absorbed.
The light that survives carries information about the planet across light-years of space, where it reaches our telescopes.
(However, the planet is VERY small relative to the star, and VERY far away, so it is still very difficult to detect, which is why we need a BIG telescope to be sure to capture this tiny bit of light.)
So how do we use a telescope to read light?
Stars emit light at many wavelengths. Like a prism making a rainbow, we can separate light into its separate wavelengths. This is called a spectrum. Learn more about how telescopes break down light here.
Visible light appears to our eyes as the colors of the rainbow, but beyond visible light there are many wavelengths we cannot see.
Now back to the transiting planet…
As light is traveling through the planet’s atmosphere, some wavelengths get absorbed.
Which wavelengths get absorbed depends on which molecules are in the planet’s atmosphere. For example, carbon monoxide molecules will capture different wavelengths than water vapor molecules.
So, when we look at that planet in front of the star, some of the wavelengths of the starlight will be missing, depending on which molecules are in the atmosphere of the planet.
Learning about the atmospheres of other worlds is how we identify those that could potentially support life…
…bringing us another step closer to answering one of humanity’s oldest questions: Are we alone?
Watch the full video where this method of hunting for distant planets is explained:
About 45 million light-years away, in another corner of the cosmos, lies spiral galaxy NGC 1097. Though this Hubble Space Telescope image zooms in toward the core, the galaxy’s vast spiral arms span over 100,000 light-years as they silently sweep through space. At the heart of this galaxy lurks a black hole that is about 100 million times as massive as the Sun.
The supermassive black hole is voraciously eating up surrounding matter, which forms a doughnut-shaped ring around it. Matter that’s pulled into the black hole releases powerful radiation, making the star-filled center of the galaxy even brighter. Hubble’s observations have led to the discovery that while the material that is drawn toward NGC 1097’s black hole may be doomed to die, new stars are bursting into life in the ring around it.
This sparkling spiral galaxy is especially interesting to both professional scientists and amateur astronomers. It is a popular target for supernova hunters ever since the galaxy experienced three supernovas in relatively rapid succession — just over a decade, between 1992 and 2003. Scientists are intrigued by the galaxy’s satellites — smaller “dwarf” galaxies that orbit NGC 1097 like moons. Studying this set of galaxies could reveal new information about how galaxies interact with each other and co-evolve.
In 2001 and 2002, our Hubble Space Telescope looked at the Helix Nebula and it looked right back! This planetary nebula is right in our cosmic neighborhood, only about 650 light-years away. Gigantic for this type of cosmic object, the Helix Nebula stretches across 2 to 3 light-years.
With no actual connection to planets, planetary nebulas like this one are produced when a medium-mass star dies and sloughs off its outer layers. These gaseous layers are expelled into space at astonishing speeds where they light up like fireworks. The Helix Nebula is one of the closest planetary nebulas to Earth, giving scientists an up-close view of its strange affairs.
Through Hubble’s observations, scientists have learned that the Helix Nebula isn’t doughnut-shaped as it appears. Instead it consists of two disks that are nearly perpendicular to each other — the nebula looks like an eye and bulges out like one too!
Hubble has also imaged comet-like tendrils that form a pattern around the central star like the spokes on a wagon wheel, likely resulting from a collision between gases. The dying star spews hot gas from its surface, which crashes into the cooler gas that it ejected 10,000 years before. Eventually the knots will dissipate into the cold blackness of interstellar space.
No, this red beam in space isn’t a light saber! It’s a galaxy, far, far away — 44 million light-years away, to be exact.
We often imagine galaxies as having massive spiral arms or thick disks of dust, but not all galaxies are oriented face-on as viewed from Earth. From our viewpoint, our Spitzer Space Telescope can detect this galaxy’s infrared light but can only view the entire galaxy on its side where we can’t see its spiral features. We know it has a diameter of roughly 60,000 light-years — a little more than half the diameter of our own Milky Way galaxy.