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New space photos from UCL’s observatory

Oli Usher29 April 2015

Messier 51, from the University of London Observatory. Credit: UCL/ULO/Ian Howarth

Messier 51, from the University of London Observatory. Credit: UCL/ULO/Ian Howarth

The University of London Observatory – UCL’s astronomical observatory in Mill Hill, North London – has to deal with England’s murky skies and London’s bright lights, but it can still make some impressive images. Messier 51, seen in the picture above, is actually not one galaxy but two – a large spiral galaxy (Messier 51a) interacting with a smaller dwarf galaxy (NGC 5195). Over the next few hundred million years, they will merge together into one larger galaxy.

Such mergers are quite common. Large spiral galaxies can absorb dwarf galaxies without major disruption to their shapes, though the (rarer) mergers between similarly-sized galaxies tend to destroy all structure, leaving a largely featureless elliptical galaxy. This will be the fate of the Milky Way when it merges with the Andromeda Galaxy in a few billion years time.

The Messier 51 pair are a popular target for amateur astronomers – on a dark night, even relatively basic telescopes can pick out the very faint comma-shape of the galaxy pair, visible near one end of the Plough (Ursa Major).

The picture is one of several newly processed images just published by UCL’s observatory, based on data gathered by astronomy students. The observatory now routinely archives all the digital data gathered with its Celestron telescopes, which are used intensively for undergraduate teaching. This growing archive of data means that multiple observations can be easily combined into a single image, improving contrast and revealing faint details that would otherwise be invisible.

A selection of several dozen of these images from the observatory, with multiple observations processed and combined to form colour composites, is available online to the public. They are free to reuse and reproduce.

Asteroid’s close encounter with Earth – the UCL view

Oli Usher2 February 2015

2004 BL86

Last week, asteroid 2004 BL86 passed near Earth. The ball of rock, a little over 300 metres across, passed 3.1 lunar distances from Earth.

This is far enough not to be of any serious concern – but it is closer than any other known asteroid will come to us until 2027. If an asteroid like 2004 BL86 were to hit Earth, we could expect widespread destruction – the famous Barringer Crater in Arizona was gouged out by an object just 50 metres across.

During its close approach, UCL’s observatory spotted the asteroid and snapped the picture above: a series of 30 second exposures separated by 9 second gaps. The asteroid can be seen moving rapidly against the background stars as the telescope was programmed to track the movement of the stars.

Reprogramming the telescope to hold the asteroid in its sights creates the image below – with the stars appearing as streaks instead.

2004 BL86

This video, featuring a series of observations of the asteroid made at the observatory over the night of 26-27 January, shows both types of observation, including a long shot tracking the asteroid across the sky.

Images by Steve Fossey, Theo Schlichter and Ian Howarth.

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High resolution image