Skip to main content

Hubble captures a serene-looking galaxy with a monster at its heart

This week’s image from the Hubble Space Telescope shows the galaxy M91, a barred spiral galaxy in the constellation of Coma Berenices. It is relatively nearby to us, at 55 million light-years away, and it is part of our local supercluster. The M in its name stands for Messier, after the French astronomer Charles Messier who is famous for his catalog of astronomical objects he produced in the 1770s and 1780s. The designations of the objects he cataloged, from M1 to M110, are still used by astronomers today.

While it is undeniably a handsome galaxy and shows the classic bar or bright region of dust and gas at its center where stars are formed, this particular galaxy was observed by Hubble in order to learn about the monstrous black hole at its center. Like almost all galaxies, including the Milky Way, M91 has a supermassive black hole at its heart. The mass of M91’s supermassive black hole was calculated using Hubble data in 2009 and found to be enormous, at between 9.6 and 38 million times the mass of our Sun.

The spiral galaxy M91 fills the frame of this Wide Field Camera 3 observation from the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope.
The spiral galaxy M91 fills the frame of this Wide Field Camera 3 observation from the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope. M91 lies approximately 55 million light-years from Earth in the constellation Coma Berenices and – as is evident in this image – is a barred spiral galaxy. While M91’s prominent bar makes for a spectacular galactic portrait, it also hides an astronomical monstrosity. Like our own galaxy, M91 contains a supermassive black hole at its center. A 2009 study using archival Hubble data found that this central black hole weighs somewhere between 9.6 and 38 million times as much as the Sun. ESA/Hubble & NASA, J. Lee and the PHANGS-HST Team

“While archival Hubble data allowed astronomers to weigh M91’s central black hole, more recent observations have had other scientific aims,” Hubble scientists write. “This observation is part of an effort to build a treasure trove of astronomical data exploring the connections between young stars and the clouds of cold gas in which they form. To do this, astronomers used Hubble to obtain ultraviolet and visible observations of galaxies already seen at radio wavelengths by the ground-based Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array.”

This image was collected as part of the Physics at High Angular resolution in Nearby GalaxieS with the Hubble Space Telescope, or PHANGS-HST project. Previous Hubble images collected for this project include the spiral galaxy NGC 2835 and the spiral galaxy NGC 4571.

Editors' Recommendations

Georgina Torbet
Georgina is the Digital Trends space writer, covering human space exploration, planetary science, and cosmology. She…
This beautiful nebula holds a starry mystery at its heart
This image, taken with the VLT Survey Telescope hosted at ESO’s Paranal Observatory, shows the beautiful nebula NGC 6164/6165, also known as the Dragon’s Egg. The nebula is a cloud of gas and dust surrounding a pair of stars called HD 148937.

A gorgeous nebula turns out to hold a surprise at its center: a pair of stars that don't match as they should. Researchers looking at the beautiful NGC 6164/6165 nebula were surprised to learn that one of the pair of stars it hosts appears to be much older than the other, giving clues to the dramatic situation in which the nebula was born.

Pairs of stars aren't unusual in nebulae, but they are typically very similar. Normally, you would expect a pair to be similar in terms of age and mass, as they would have formed around the same time. But in this nebula, located 3,800 light-years away, one member of the pair is 1.5 million years older than the other, and the younger star is also magnetic, unlike its older counterpart.

Read more
Hubble captures the dramatic jets of a baby star
FS Tau is a multi-star system made up of FS Tau A, the bright star-like object near the middle of the image, and FS Tau B (Haro 6-5B), the bright object to the far right that is partially obscured by a dark, vertical lane of dust. The young objects are surrounded by softly illuminated gas and dust of this stellar nursery. The system is only about 2.8 million years old, very young for a star system. Our Sun, by contrast, is about 4.6 billion years old.

A new image from the Hubble Space Telescope shows the drama that unfolds as a new star is born. Within a swirling cloud of dust and gas, a newly formed star is giving off powerful jets that blast away material and cut through the nearby dust of the surrounding nebula to create this stunning vista.

The image shows a system called FS Tau, located 450 light-years away in a region called Taurus-Auriga. Within this region are many stellar nurseries with new stars forming, making it a favorite target for astronomers studying star formation. But this particular system stands out for the dramatic nature of its newborn star, which has formed an epic structure called a Herbig-Haro object.

Read more
Hubble images the spooky Spider Galaxy
This image from the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope shows the irregular galaxy UGC 5829.

This week's image from the Hubble Space Telescope shows an irregular galaxy, the spindly arms and clawed shape of which has led to it being named the Spider Galaxy. Located 30 million light-years away, the galaxy also known as UGC 5829 is an irregular galaxy that lacks the clear, orderly arms seen in spiral galaxies like the Milky Way.

This image from the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope shows the irregular galaxy UGC 5829. ESA/Hubble & NASA, R. Tully, M. Messa

Read more