Science & Technology

Globular cluster ‘cosmic blue bauble’ spotted by Hubble telescope

A spectacular 8-billion-year-old globular cluster containing half a million stars has been imaged by the Hubble telescope. Named Messier 3, it is one of the largest and brightest globular clusters ever discovered.
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A spectacular 8-billion-year-old globular cluster containing half a million stars has been imaged by the Hubble telescope. Named Messier 3, it is one of the largest and brightest globular clusters ever discovered.

Messier 3: Containing an incredible half-million stars, this 8-billion-year-old cosmic bauble is one of the largest and brightest globular clusters ever discovered. ( ESA/Hubble & NASA, G. Piotto et al.)

Messier 3: Containing an incredible half-million stars, this 8-billion-year-old cosmic bauble is one of the largest and brightest globular clusters ever discovered. ( ESA/Hubble & NASA, G. Piotto et al.)

A globular cluster is an inherently beautiful object, as you’ll see from the gallery at the foot of this article, but the subject of this NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope image — Messier 3 —  is commonly acknowledged by astronomers to be one of the most beautiful of them all.

The 8-billion-year-old ‘cosmic bauble’ is one of the largest and brightest globular clusters ever discovered — containing half a million stars. 

What makes Messier 3 so extraordinary, though, is an unusually large population of variable stars — stars that fluctuate in brightness over time. 

New variable stars are being discovered in this sparkling stellar nest but so far we know of 274, the highest number found in any globular cluster to date. Astronomers believe these globular clusters are extremely old and they are generally found orbiting around galactic centres. 

At least 170 of these are of a special variety called RR Lyrae variables, which pulse with a period directly related to their intrinsic brightness. If astronomers know how bright a star truly is based on its mass and classification, and they know how bright it appears to be from our viewpoint here on Earth, they can thus work out its distance from us. 

For this reason, astronomers refer to RR Lyrae stars as standard candles — objects of known luminosity whose distance and position can be used to measure vast celestial distances and the scale of the cosmos.

Also visible in this stunning new image is Messier 3’s relatively high number of so-called blue stragglers — blue main sequence stars that appear to be young because they are bluer and more luminous than other stars in the cluster. 

As all stars in globular clusters are believed to have formed together and thus to be roughly the same age, only a difference in mass can give these stars a different colour. A red, old star can appear bluer when it acquires more mass, for instance by stripping it from a nearby star. 

The extra mass changes it into a bluer star, which makes us think it is younger than it really is.

More space news

Hubble’s incredible Messier image catalogue

NASA's Hubble Space Telescope has revisited the famous Pillars of Creation, revealing a sharper and wider view of the structures in this visible-light image. Astronomers combined several Hubble exposures to assemble the wider view. The towering pillars are about 5 light-years tall. The dark, finger-like feature at bottom right may be a smaller version of the giant pillars. The new image was taken with Hubble's versatile and sharp-eyed Wide Field Camera 3. The pillars are bathed in the blistering ultraviolet light from a grouping of young, massive stars located off the top of the image. Streamers of gas can be seen bleeding off the pillars as the intense radiation heats and evaporates it into space. Denser regions of the pillars are shadowing material beneath them from the powerful radiation. Stars are being born deep inside the pillars, which are made of cold hydrogen gas laced with dust. The pillars are part of a small region of the Eagle Nebula, a vast star-forming region 6,500 light-years from Earth. The colors in the image highlight emission from several chemical elements. Oxygen emission is blue, sulfur is orange, and hydrogen and nitrogen are green. Object Names: M16, Eagle Nebula, NGC 6611 Image Type: Astronomical  Credit: NASA, ESA, and the Hubble Heritage Team (STScI/AURA)
M16 or the Pillars of Creation, The pillars are bathed in the blistering ultraviolet light from a grouping of young, massive stars located off the top of the image. Streamers of gas can be seen bleeding off the pillars as the intense radiation heats and evaporates it into space. Denser regions of the pillars are shadowing material beneath them from the powerful radiation. (NASA, ESA, and the Hubble Heritage Team (STScI/AURA))

Messier 3 is featured in Hubble’s Messier catalogue, which includes some of the most fascinating objects that can be observed from Earth’s Northern Hemisphere.

Part of Hubble's Messier catalogue - Messier 1 (The Crab Nebula) has a rapidly spinning pulsar at its core. Bright wisps are moving outward from the pulsar at half the speed of light to form an expanding ring. These wisps form along magnetic field lines in a gas of extremely energetic particles driven into space by the highly magnetized, rapidly rotating neutron star. (NASA, ESA, J. Hester and A. Loll (Arizona State University))
Part of Hubble’s Messier catalogue - Messier 1 (The Crab Nebula) has a rapidly spinning pulsar at its core. Bright wisps are moving outward from the pulsar at half the speed of light to form an expanding ring. These wisps form along magnetic field lines in a gas of extremely energetic particles driven into space by the highly magnetized, rapidly rotating neutron star. (NASA, ESA, J. Hester and A. Loll (Arizona State University))



Among them are deep-sky objects that can be viewed in stunning detail using larger telescopes but are also bright enough to be seen through a small telescope. This characteristic makes Messier objects extremely popular targets for amateur astronomers possessing all levels of experience and equipment. 

M106 - one of its most striking features - its extra pair of arms. Most spiral galaxies only have one pair of arms, but M106 has an extra set, seen here as red wisps of gas. Unlike the other arms, these two extra arms are made up of hot gas rather than stars. Astronomers attribute these ghostly arms to the supermassive black hole at the galaxy's centre. The extra arms appear to be an indirect result of the violent churning of matter around the black hole. ( NASA, ESA, the Hubble Heritage Team (STScI/AURA) and R. Gendler (for the Hubble Heritage Team); Acknowledgment: J. GaBany)
M106 - one of its most striking features - its extra pair of arms. Most spiral galaxies only have one pair of arms, but M106 has an extra set, seen here as red wisps of gas. Unlike the other arms, these two extra arms are made up of hot gas rather than stars. Astronomers attribute these ghostly arms to the supermassive black hole at the galaxy’s centre. The extra arms appear to be an indirect result of the violent churning of matter around the black hole. ( NASA, ESA, the Hubble Heritage Team (STScI/AURA) and R. Gendler (for the Hubble Heritage Team); Acknowledgment: J. GaBany)

They are so popular, in fact, that they have inspired a special award from the Astronomical League (an organization for amateur astronomers) given to observers who are able to spot each of these objects.

You can visit the catalogue of stunning images here: https://www.nasa.gov/content/goddard/hubble-s-messier-catalog




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