Washington, Feb 27: NASA's Swift satellite has captured images of a nearby galaxy 2.9 million light years from Earth, which is ablaze with star formation.
Swift's Ultraviolet/Optical Telescope (UVOT) took the images of the galaxy known as the "Triangulum Galaxy" or "M33", through three separate ultraviolet filters from December 23, 2007 to January 4, 2008. "This is the most detailed ultraviolet image of an entire galaxy ever taken," said Stefan Immler of NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland. M33 is a member of our Local Group, the small cluster of galaxies that includes our Milky Way Galaxy and the Andromeda Galaxy (M31). Despite sharing our Milky Way's spiral shape, M33 has only about one-tenth the mass. M33's visible disk is about 50,000 light-years across, half the diameter of our galaxy.
What the NASA astronomers did was to combine 39 individual frames taken over 11 hours of exposure time, to create an ultraviolet mosaic of the nearby Triangulum Galaxy.
The mosaic showcases individual star clusters and star-forming gas clouds in the crowded nucleus of the galaxy. The image also includes Milky Way foreground stars and much more distant galaxies shining through M33.
Young, hot stars are prodigious producers of ultraviolet light, which heat up the surrounding gas clouds to such high temperatures that they radiate brightly in ultraviolet light. he image shows the giant star-forming region NGC 604 as a bright spot to the lower left of the galaxy's nucleus. With a diameter of 1,500 light-years (40 times that of the Orion Nebula), NGC 604 is the largest stellar nursery in the Local Group.
"The entire galaxy is ablaze with starbirth," said Immler. "Despite M33's small size, it has a much higher star-formation rate than either the Milky Way or Andromeda. All of this starbirth lights up the galaxy in the ultraviolet," he added.
"The ultraviolet colors of star clusters tell us their ages and compositions," said Swift team member Stephen Holland of NASA Goddard.
"With Swift's high spatial resolution, we can zero in on the clusters themselves and separate out nearby stars and gas clouds. This will enable us to trace the star-forming history of the entire galaxy," he added.