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Sci-Tech

Hubble spots stellar nurseries in swirling spiral galaxy

Hubble has captured a new image of barred spiral galaxy NGC 986, located in the heart of the constellation Fornax.

ngc986.jpg
ESA/NASA

The constellation Fornax (Latin for Furnace) is the location of quite a few galaxies, but the special thing about Fornax is the attention it gets: it's the focal point for research into the farthest reaches of the universe, as well as the location of the Hubble Ultra Deep Field.

Given that so much attention is given to such a tiny patch of sky, you'd expect it to contain some pretty spectacular space imagery, and the Hubble space telescope continues to deliver. Its latest released image, published this month, captured by the Wide Field and Planetary Camera 2 (WFPC2), shows barred spiral galaxy NGC 986 in gorgeous detail.

The name "barred spiral galaxy" refers to their structure. Rather than the pinwheel-like structure of a plain spiral galaxy, barred spiral galaxies have a central bar composed of stars that run through their hearts, with the spiral arms extending from the ends of the bars. They're not uncommon; around two thirds of all spiral galaxies discovered to date have bars.

NGC 986, discovered in 1828 by Scottish astronomer James Dunlop, is classified SBb according to Edwin Hubble's galaxy classification system: SBa refers to barred spiral galaxies with tightly bound arms, while SBc refers to barred spiral galaxies with a loose spiral. SBb galaxies fall in the middle. The bars, astronomers hypothesise, are stellar nurseries, and indeed in the image above, you can see young stars in bright blue scattered along the galaxy's arms.

Although the image above was only released this month, it was taken some years ago: the WFPC2 was decommissioned in 2009 to make way for the WFPC3.