Saturday, June 4, 2016

Nicola Davis - Stunning Hubble Bubble Nebula image marks telescope's 26th birthday

The space telescope celebrates its anniversary on 24 April; this spectacular image of a cloud of gas and dust 8,000 light years away celebrates the occasion.

It looks like a giant, glistening, soap bubble blown into the night sky. In reality, it’s a cloud of gas and dust 10 light-years across that exists around 8,000 light-years away in our Milky Way galaxy. Known as the Bubble Nebula, the wispy-looking shell surrounds an off-centred star whose mass is more than ten times that of our sun. The plasma thrown out by this star, its so-called stellar wind, is responsible for forming the “bubble”, while its intense radiation causes the gas to glow.
The Bubble Nebula, also known as NGC 7653, captured by the Hubble Telescope.
The Bubble Nebula, also known as NGC 7653, captured by the Hubble 
Telescope. Photograph: Nasa/ Esa/ Hubble Heritage Team
The bubble itself is composed of interstellar material as well as gas and dust from the nearby giant molecular cloud, that can be seen to the top, left of the image - also glowing from the star’s radiation. While the bubble is currently expanding at the astounding pace of 100,000 km an hour, this giant molecular cloud will eventually put the brakes on its growth. “The cloud gets denser and denser as you get to closer to its centre, so at some point the cloud will be too dense for the weaker and weaker solar wind to push even further,” explained Mathias Jäger of the European Space Agency.

Composed of four images captured by the Hubble Space Telescope earlier this year, the picture has been released to celebrate the 26th anniversary of the instrument’s launch on 24 April. While the Hubble has previously captured the Bubble Nebula, this is the first time a full picture has been created from its images. “If you compare [the new picture] to the earlier images you would see some very, very small changes,” said Jäger. “Nothing spectacular for the lay eye, but for astronomers it is enough to see how the gas behaves inside the bubble.”