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Click to enlargeHubble NGC 3310 Photo

January 11, 2001
Photo No: H2001-04a
Hubble's Ultraviolet Views of Nearby Galaxies Yield Clues to Early Universe

Astronomers are using three NASA Hubble Space Telescope images to help tackle the question of why distant galaxies have such odd shapes, appearing markedly different from the typical elliptical and spiral galaxies seen in the nearby universe.

Do faraway galaxies look weird because they are truly weird? Or, are they actually normal galaxies that look like oddballs, because astronomers are getting an incomplete picture of them, seeing only the brightest pieces? Light from these galaxies travels great distances (billions of light-years) to reach Earth. During its journey, the light is "stretched" due to the expansion of space. As a result, the light is no longer visible, but has been shifted to the infrared where present instruments are less sensitive. About the only light astronomers can see comes from regions where hot, young stars reside. These stars emit mostly ultraviolet light. But this light is stretched, appearing as visible light by the time it reaches Earth. Studying these distant galaxies is like trying to put together a puzzle with some of the pieces missing.

What, then, do distant galaxies really look like? Astronomers studied 37 nearby galaxies to find out. By viewing these galaxies in ultraviolet light, astronomers can compare their shapes with those of their distant relatives. These three Hubble telescope pictures, taken with the Wide Field and Planetary Camera 2, represent a sampling from that survey. Astronomers observed the galaxies in ultraviolet and visible light to study all the stars that make up these "cities of stars." The results of their survey support the idea that astronomers are detecting the "tip of the iceberg" of very distant galaxies. Based on these Hubble ultraviolet images, not all the faraway galaxies necessarily possess intrinsically odd shapes. The results are being presented today at the 197th meeting of the American Astronomical Society in San Diego, CA.

The central region of this "star-burst" spiral galaxy, NGC 3310, shows young and old stars evenly distributed. If this were the case with most galaxies, astronomers would be able to recognize faraway galaxies fairly easily. In most galaxies, however, the stars are segregated by age, making classifying the distant ones more difficult. NGC 3310 is 46 million light-years from Earth in the constellation Ursa Major. The image was taken Sept. 12-13, 2000.

Photo credits: NASA, Rogier Windhorst (Arizona State University, Tempe, AZ), and the Hubble mid-UV team.

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