Space photo of the week: Hubble captures one of our galaxy’s oldest objects

What exactly is it? NGC 6652 is a globular cluster containing some of our galaxy’s oldest stars.

Space photo of the week: Hubble captures one of our galaxy's oldest objects
Space photo of the week: Hubble captures one of our galaxy’s oldest objects

What is its location? In the constellation Sagittarius, 30,000 light-years distant.

What makes it so unique? This Hubble Space Telescope view shows NGC 6652, a star-studded globular cluster located about 6,500 light-years from the center of our Milky Way galaxy. According to a 2020 study published in the journal Research in Astronomy and Astrophysics, it is one of the Milky Way’s oldest objects, dating back 13.6 billion years.

Globular clusters are dense groups of tens of thousands to millions of ancient stars aged 10 billion to 13 billion years. (By comparison, the universe’s age is estimated to be 13.8 billion years old.) So far, approximately 150 of these clusters have been discovered in the Milky Way’s halo. Astronomers can learn more about the early phases of the galaxy and the universe by studying them.

According to a study published in the journal Astronomy and Astrophysics in May, globular clusters may have evolved a few hundred million years after the Big Bang around supermassive stars that barely lasted for a couple of million years.

The view of NGC 6652 taken by Hubble displays several pastel blue stars, with redder stars in the foreground. NGC 6652’s stars, like all globular clusters, are closely packed in a spherical core due to powerful gravitational attraction.
The stunning new image is the result of two teams of scientists integrating data from separate Hubble cameras — the Advanced Camera for Surveys and the Wide Field Camera 3. One team was investigating the ages of globular clusters in the Milky Way, while the other was attempting to quantify the amount of carbon, nitrogen, and oxygen in globular clusters such as NGC 6652 in order to better understand the makeup of the stars housed there.

How can it be seen in the night sky?

Globular clusters are best seen from the Southern Hemisphere, or in the Northern Hemisphere during June and July, when the center of the Milky Way is visible from north of the equator. They’re a lovely sight via a tiny telescope, but they rarely rise high enough above the horizon to be visible from north of the equator.

This is also true for NGC 6652, which is located between the Sagittarius star Kaus Australis and the M70 globular cluster. The Great Hercules Cluster — or M13 — in the constellation Hercules, which looks a lot like NGC 6652 — is by far the easiest globular cluster to spot during summer from the Northern Hemisphere.

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