The Sciences

Battleground Galactica

New tools and techniques reveal space oddities that eclipse everything we've seen.


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Photo Credits: All gallery text by Stephen Ornes and Amber Fields Image courtesy of the European Organisation for Astronomical Research in the Southern Hemisphere (ESO).

The deeper that astronomers peer into the universe, the stranger and more extreme it seems. New instruments and techniques have recently uncovered a whole new set of cosmic superlatives: objects whose size, age, or behavior go beyond anything seen before. Here is a sampling of the latest record holders.

Fastest Fugitive: This artist's rendering shows star HE 0437-5439, which is hurtling away from the Milky Way at 1.6 million miles per hour.

Photo Credits: Afterglow of GRB 080319B imaged by the Swift satellite's X-ray telescope (left) and optical/ultraviolet Telescope (right). Image: NASA/Swift/Stefan Immler, et al.

As bright as 10 million galaxies, a long-duration gamma ray burst named GRB 080319B was visible to the naked eye this past March even though it was a staggering 7.5 billion light-years away.

Photo Credits: Image: Bill Saxton, NRAO/AUI/NSF

Smith's cloud is expected to collide with the Milky Way in 20 to 40 million years resulting in one spectacular light show--the cloud is 28,000,000 light-years long.

Photo Credits: Image: Courtesy of Gil-Estel via Wikimedia Commons. This file is licensed under Creative Commons Attribution 2.5 License

Last October, Comet 17P/Holmes released a cloud of dust and gas that expanded to almost twice the diameter of the sun.

Photo Credits: Image: NASA/CXC/A. Hobar

Using the quasi-periodic oscillation (QPO) method, astronomers discovered the smallest black hole to date (with a mere mass of 3.8 suns) nestled in the Milky Way binary system XTE J1650-500.

Photo Credits: Image: NASA/JPL/Space Science Institute

Hundreds of lakes on Saturn's moon Titan each hold more than all the oil and natural gas reserves on Earth, based on new findings from the Cassini radar team.

Photo Credits: Image: SDSS, R. Quimby/McDonald Obs./UT-Austin

At 100 billion times the brightness of the sun, Supernova 2005ap is 300 times brighter than the average supernova. Don't worry, it's 4.7 billion light-years away.

Photo Credits: Image: NASA/CXC/M. Weiss

In the binary galaxy 3C321, an enormous black hole pummels a neighboring galaxy with a high-energy jet (illustrated here) brimming with X-rays and gamma rays. If any Earth-like planets lie nearby, their atmospheres will probably be destroyed by the blast.

Photo Credits: Image: NASA/ESA/L. Bradley/R. Bouwens/H. Ford/G. Illingworth

This 13-billion-year-old galaxy (circled in this image from Hubble) formed 700 million years after the Big Bang, but its light is just now reaching us. As a result, we can see the bright, star-forming days of its youth.

Photo Credits: Image: Lynette Cook/W.M. Keck Observatory/NASA

Charcoal-black world HD 149026b (illustrated here) absorbs most of the radiation it gets from its very nearby star, pushing temperatures to 3700 degrees Fahrenheit, above the boiling point of lead.

Photo Credits: Image: NASA/JPL-Caltech

They may not look a day over a billion, but asteroids 234 Barbara, 387 Aquitania, and 980 Anacostia (much like the asteroids drawn below) have mineral signatures putting them back 4.55 billion years.

Photo Credits: Image: JPL-Caltech

Massive galaxies like ours usually form when smaller galaxies collide. NASA's Spitzer Space Telescope captured a collision of four galaxies within a cluster called CL0958+4702. The result of this merger will be 10 times the size of the Milky Way.

Photo Credits: Artist's representation of a supermassive black hole. Image: Alfred Kamajian/NASA

There's a new record holder for biggest black hole: OJ287 is about 18 billion times the mass of the sun.

Photo Credits: Image: NASA, Holland Ford (Johns Hopkins University), Garth Illingworth (UC Santa Cruz/LO), Mark Clampin (Space Telescope Science Institute), George Hartig (STScI), the ACS Science Team, and ESA

Caltech and Penn State astronomers have found an explosive burst of gamma rays that seem to come from nowhere. Gamma rays usually follow the death of a massive star but these bursts were 88,000 light-years from the nearest galaxy.

Photo Credits: Image: KASI (Korea Astronomy and Space Science Institute), CBNU (Chungbuk National University), ARCSEC (Astrophysical Research Center for the Structure and Evolution of the Cosmos)

Using a technique called microlensing, astronomers discovered a solar system 5,000 light-years away that contains smaller versions of our Jupiter and Saturn. This finding suggests that the Milky Way may have many analogs of our solar system.

Photo Credits: Image: G. Byrd, R. Buta, (University of Alabama, Tuscaloosa), T. Freeman (Bevill State College), NASA

Most galaxies rotate in the opposite direction that their "arms" are pointing, but pictures from the Hubble Space Telescope show that spiral galaxy NGC 4622 is spinning clockwise--the same direction as its arms.

Photo Credits: Visible-light, left (from Hubble Space Telescope) and infrared, right (from Spitzer Telescope). Image: Wang et al., STScI, Spitzer, NASA, NRAO/AUI/NSF

Forming 4,000 stars per year and putting our own galaxy to shame (the Milky Way makes about 4 each year), GOODS 850-5 is reshaping astronomers' ideas about the rate of galaxy formation in the early Universe

Photo Credits: Image: Artist's rendition of a brown dwarf (in the near ground) courtesy of NASA.

Astronomers in France and Canada have discovered the coldest brown dwarf star to date. It's 350 degrees Celsius and will only get colder over the course of its lifetime.

Photo Credits: Image: Wikimedia Commons

Although dark matter is believed to be necessary for galaxy formation, Galaxy NGC 4736 has astronomers scratching their heads: There is little to no dark matter around.

Photo Credits: Image: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Chinese astronomers have discovered two quasars that are discharging energy and matter along their polar axes instead of across their equators, as is usually the case, and emitting a higher than expected number of X-rays in the process.

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