Hubble's spectacular view of gravity defying
Scientists at Cambridge University say the spectacular images will help them to unravel a 30-year-old space mystery.
They are the first-ever detailed images of 'filaments' - delicate threads of gas that emerge from the centre of a distant elliptical galaxy called NGC 1275.
These images from Hubble have allowed researchers to observe the filamentary structure in unprecedented detail
Each thread has around one million times the mass of our own Sun. The structures are only 200 light-years wide, often surprisingly straight, and extend for up to 20,000 light-years.
Astronomers have long puzzled over how these fragile, 100-million-year-old structures have survived the rigours of space, but were unable to see them clearly enough to carry out effective research.
Dr Carolin Crawford, one of the authors of a report published in Nature today, said: ‘The images we got from the ground were always clouded by the Earth's atmosphere.
‘The new ones from the Hubble are crystal clear, and we've been able to take accurate measurements and study the composition of the filaments.
For years astronomers have puzzled over how these beautiful structures have survived
‘If something is very thin then they are inherently very fragile. What we are now learning is exactly how fragile, and how strong a magnetic force is required to support them.’
The filaments reach out from their home galaxy into the Perseus Cluster - described as a 'hostile, high-energy environment with a strong, tidal pull of gravity at its core'.
These combined forces should have ripped apart the filaments in a very short period of time, causing them to collapse into stars. Instead, they have withstood their inhospitable climes for more than 100 million years.
Using the new data, the Cambridge research team has been able to demonstrate that the strong magnetic fields in the region give the filaments a skeletal structure which is strong enough to prevent them from collapsing or evaporating into the surrounding hot gas.
'We're really excited by the new images, and they're just the beginning - there's lots more we can learn from the data,' Dr Crawford said.
The study also provides important clues about how black holes affect their surrounding environment.
The filaments are a by-product of a super-massive black hole at the core of the galaxy interacting with gases in the Perseus Cluster.
This immense black hole blows out bubbles of radio-wave emitting material into the Perseus Cluster.
In the wake of these bubbles, cold gas from the heart of the galaxy is also dragged out into long streams to form the filaments.
The observations were made by a team led by Professor Andy Fabian, from the Institute of Astronomy at the University of Cambridge using the Hubble Space Telescope Advanced Camera for Surveys.
The study will enable the team to interpret observations of similar networks of filaments in other, even more remote central cluster galaxies that cannot be observed in anything like the same detail as NGC 1275.
The Hubble telescope is due for its final refit this autumn, when its batteries and camera will be replaced by a team of astronauts from the Space Shuttle.
The new camera is said to be 90 times more powerful than the present one.