Category: Letters

Polar Ring “t”

The Hubble Heritage Team (AURA/STScI/NASA)

An extraordinary polar ring “t” shows the bizarre variety of interacting galaxies in this NASA Hubble Space Telescope image of NGC 4650A.

Explore the image of NGC 4650A. From the bright galactic core, follow the ring of gas, dust and stars that surround the bright galaxy at a right angle. The central galaxy has a smooth reddish-yellow glow. with little dust. Astronomers think this is an older galaxy. Dark dust lanes are prominent in the center disk of the galaxy that make the upright bar of the our “t.” At the fringes of this galaxy, spanning about 60,000 light-years, we can find blue clumps of new stars. This galaxy clearly has no central core, no spiral structure and the edges are warped. Astronomers believe that this galactic interaction began more than a billion years ago when two galaxies collided. That collision resulted in the bright galaxy at the center. Later, another smaller galaxy ventured too close to the larger galaxy. Stars, gas and dust were stripped off to form the new ring. Astronomers call this kind of galaxy a ‘polar-ring galaxy.’ Only 100 are known to exist.

NGC 4650A is located about 130 million light-years away toward the constellation of Centaurus, the Centaur.

Spectacular Spiral “S”

Credit: NASA and The Hubble Heritage Team (STScI/AURA)

Star clouds sweep around a spectacular spiral “S” in this NASA Hubble Space Telescope image of the heart of M51, the Whirlpool Galaxy.

This image is one of the sharpest views of our near neighbor galaxy M51, also known as NGC 5194. The distinct spiral arms are likely triggered by gravity’s pull of a companion galaxy NGC 5195 (not seen in this image). Explore the spiral arms as they arc away from the bright core. Bright clusters glow in the clouds of reddish hydrogen gas that gave them birth. The interaction with the companion helps give birth to new stars in the galaxy. Dark dust lanes along the spiral arms may one day brighten as new stars form in these areas. Look for dust “spurs” spiking out from the dust lanes. These puzzling features are causing astronomers to rethink how spiral galaxies form. Astronomers believe there may be a huge black hole churning away at the center of the galaxy.

M51 is found toward the constellation Canes Venatici, the hunting dogs of Bootes the hunter. The light from this face-on spiral galaxy has been traveling 31 million years to reach our eyes on Earth. A light-year is the distance light travels in a year; nearly 6 trillion miles.

Glowing R-shaped Keyhole

NASA and The Hubble Heritage Team (STScI)

A glowing R-shaped keyhole beckons in this star-forming region of the galaxy toward the constellation Orion. NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope shows the foggy light of the reflection nebula NGC 1999.

Explore the nebula. Reflection nebulae do shine with light of their own. NGC 1999 reflect the light of a bright, recently formed star. The star called V380 Orionis glows just left of center in the image. NGC 1999 is the cloud from which the star originally formed. Because the star is still enshrouded in this cloud, astronomers believe that V380 Orionis is still very young. It’s white light indicates the star is hot; about twice as hot as our Sun at 10,000 degrees Centigrade. V380 Orionis also is about 3.5 times more massive than the Sun.

The keyhole itself is not a hole at all but an example of inky, dark star clouds called Bok globules. These cold, dense clouds of dust and gas are named after their discoverer, American astronomer Bart Bok. These clouds are so dense that they block all light behind it. Similarly on Earth, dark storm clouds block the Sun on a summer day allowing the edges to glow brightly. Astronomers believe that the globules are contracting due to their own gravity. One day, new stars may form inside these globules.

Sir William Herschel and his sister Caroline discovered NGC 1999 in the late 1700s. The nebula lies about 1,500 light-years from Earth. You can find it in night skies just below the Great Nebula in Orion, M42.

Quasar-like “Q”

Credit: NASA, ESA, the Hubble Heritage Team (STScI/AURA)-ESA/Hubble Collaboration and A. Evans (University of Virginia, Charlottesville/NRAO/Stony Brook University)

NGC 1614’s bright center glows with a quasar-like brightness in this image from NASA‘s Hubble Space Telescope. And with its faint tail, the interacting galaxy resembles the letter “Q” as our starry alphabet hunt continues.

Explore NGC 1614. Two, nearly symmetrical spiral arms extend from the bright center of this galaxy. While the core of NGC 1614 shines with a quasar-like brightness, astronomers don’t see much evidence for an active center. Dark dust lanes weave through the shimmering cloud of new, blue stars that form the inner spiral arms. Follow the tail to the right. This long, arching arm of stars was pulled away from the main galaxy. This tail, full of older yellow and red stars, curves back and around to the far side of the galaxy. Bright blue clusters of new stars are scattered throughout the arm. The most eye-catching thing about this galaxy is the straight arm of stars that forms the bar of the “Q.” This tail, speckled with patches of new stars, seems to shoot out of the core of the galaxy and fades into deep space. Dozens of distant and faint background galaxies dot the landscape of this galaxy merger.

NGC 1614 can be found in the meandering constellation Eridanus, the River about 200 million light-years from Earth.

P-Shapes in Phoenix

Credit: NASA, ESA, the Hubble Heritage (STScI/AURA)-ESA/Hubble Collaboration, and M. Stiavelli (STScI)

An older, redder elliptical galaxy and a gas-rich, irregular, blue galaxy merge to form a rough “P”-shape in this image of NGC 454 from NASA‘s Hubble Space Telescope.

Explore the image. Knots of young star clusters shine in the galaxy on the right. Three bright blue clumps of stars to the center-right of the image may be part of the blue galaxy. Although astronomers believe that the galaxies that make up NGC 454 are in the early stages of merging, we can already see warping and bending of the galaxies. We can also see some far-off background galaxies in the image. Look for faint dust lanes in the reddish, elliptical galaxy. As the galaxies interact more and gas and dust become more concentrated where the galaxies meet, astronomers expect a burst of new star birth.

NGC 454 is found about 164 million light-years away toward the small southern constellation of Phoenix.


The ancient peoples saw pictures in the sky. From those patterns in the heavens, ancient storytellers created legends about heroes, maidens, dragons, bears, centaurs, dogs and mythical creatures...
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