Skip to comments.Astronomy Picture of the Day 04-23-04
Posted on 04/23/2004 7:46:17 AM PDT by petuniasevan
Discover the cosmos! Each day a different image or photograph of our fascinating universe is featured, along with a brief explanation written by a professional astronomer.
2004 April 23
Explanation: Inbound from the distant solar system, comet C/2001 Q4 will soon pass just inside planet Earth's orbit and should be one of two bright, naked-eye comets visible in southern skies in May. First picked up nearly three years ago by the Near Earth Asteroid Tracking (NEAT) project Q4 appears in both of these stunning telescopic views recorded only a few days ago, on April 18th (left) and 19th, from a site near Alcohuaz, Chile. Remarkable changes in the structure of the long, graceful tail can be seen by comparing the two photos, including the dramatic kink seen near the tail's midpoint on April 19th. The apparent motion of the comet sweeping across the sky is evident when you compare the position of the tail relative to background galaxy NGC 1313, visible as a smudge near the top of each image. Q4's closest approach to the Sun will be on May 15th while its closest encounter with planet Earth will be arround May 7th (see animation by L. Koehn).
Image Credit: NASA, ESA, and The Hubble Heritage Team (AURA/STScI)
Download a larger version here
The sparkling blue ring is 150,000 light-years in diameter, making it larger than our entire home galaxy, the Milky Way. The galaxy, cataloged as AM 0644-741, is a member of the class of so- called "ring galaxies." It lies 300 million light-years away in the direction of the southern constellation Dorado.
Ring galaxies are an especially striking example of how collisions between galaxies can dramatically change their structure, while also triggering the formation of new stars. They arise from a particular type of collision, in which one galaxy (the "intruder") plunges directly through the disk of another one (the "target"). In the case of AM 0644-741, the galaxy that pierced through the ring galaxy is out of the image but visible in larger-field images. The soft spiral galaxy that is visible to the left of the ring galaxy in the image is a coincidental background galaxy that is not interacting with the ring.
The resulting gravitational shock imparted due to the collision drastically changes the orbits of stars and gas in the target galaxy's disk, causing them to rush outward, somewhat like ripples in a pond after a large rock has been thrown in. As the ring plows outward into its surroundings, gas clouds collide and are compressed. The clouds can then contract under their own gravity, collapse, and form an abundance of new stars.
The rampant star formation explains why the ring is so blue: It is continuously forming massive, young, hot stars, which are blue in color. Another sign of robust star formation is the pink regions along the ring. These are rarefied clouds of glowing hydrogen gas, fluorescing because of the strong ultraviolet light from the newly formed massive stars.
Anyone who lives on planets embedded in the ring would be treated to a view of a brilliant band of blue stars arching across the heavens. The view would be relatively short-lived because theoretical studies indicate that the blue ring will not continue to expand forever. After about 300 million years, it will reach a maximum radius, and then begin to disintegrate.
The Hubble Heritage Team used the Hubble Advanced Camera for Surveys to take this image in January 2004. The team used a combination of four separate filters that isolate blue, green, red, and near-infrared light to create the color image.
The Space Telescope Science Institute (STScI) is operated by the Association of Universities for Research in Astronomy, Inc. (AURA), for NASA, under contract with the Goddard Space Flight Center, Greenbelt, MD. The Hubble Space Telescope is a project of international cooperation between NASA and the European Space Agency (ESA).
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