Astronomers have used the NASA Hubble Space Telescope to produce an infrared "photo essay" of spiral galaxies. By penetrating the dust clouds swirling around the centers of these galaxies, the telescope's infrared vision is offering fresh views of star birth.
These six images, taken with the Near Infrared Camera and Multi-Object Spectrometer, showcase different views of spiral galaxies, from a face-on image of an entire galaxy to a close-up of a core. The top row shows spirals at diverse angles, from face-on, (left); to slightly tilted, (center); to edge-on, (right). The bottom row shows close-ups of the hubs of three galaxies.
In these images, red corresponds to glowing hydrogen, the raw material for star birth. The red knots outlining the curving spiral arms in NGC 5653 and NGC 3593, for example, pinpoint rich star-forming regions where the surrounding hydrogen gas is heated by intense ultraviolet radiation from young, massive stars. In visible light, many of these regions can be hidden from view by the clouds of gas and dust in which they were born.
The glowing hydrogen found inside the cores of these galaxies, as in NGC 6946, may be due to star birth; radiation from active galactic nuclei (AGN), which are powered by massive black holes; or a combination of both. White is light from middle-age stars. Clusters of stars appear as white dots, as in NGC 2903. The galaxy cores are mostly white because of their dense concentration of stars. The dark material seen in these images is dust.
These galaxies are part of a Hubble census of about 100 spiral galaxies. Astronomers at Space Telescope Science Institute took these images to fill gaps in the scheduling of a campaign using the NICMOS-3 camera. The data were non-proprietary, and were made available to the entire astronomical community.
Filters: Three filters were used: red, blue, and green. Red represents emission at the Paschen Alpha line (light from glowing hydrogen) at a wavelength of 1.87 microns. Blue shows the galaxies in near-infrared light, measured between 1.4 and 1.8 microns (H-band emission). Green is a mixture of the two.
Distance of galaxies from Earth: NGC 5653 - 161 million light-years; NGC 3593 - 28 million light-years; NGC 891 - 24 million light-years; NGC 4826 - 19 million light-years; NGC 2903 - 25 million light-years; and NGC 6946 - 20 million light-years.