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A Swift Tour of the Nearest Galaxies in UV Light

Astronomers at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md., and the Pennsylvania State University in University Park, Pa., have used NASA’s Swift satellite to create the most detailed surveys of the Large and Small Magellanic Clouds, the two closest major galaxies, in ultraviolet light.


Thousands of images were assembled into seamless portraits of the main body of each galaxy to produce the highest-resolution surveys of the Magellanic Clouds at ultraviolet wavelengths. The project was proposed by Stefan Immler, an astronomer at Goddard.

The Large and Small Magellanic Clouds, or LMC and SMC for short, lie about 163,000 and 200,000 light-years away, respectively, and orbit each other as well as our own Milky Way galaxy.

Compared to the Milky Way, the LMC has about one-tenth its physical size and only 1 percent of its mass. The SMC is only half the size of the LMC and contains about two-thirds of its mass.
The new images reveal about a million ultraviolet sources within the LMC and about 250,000 in the SMC.

Viewing in the ultraviolet allows astronomers to suppress the light of normal stars like the sun, which are not very bright at these higher energies, and provide a clearer picture of the hottest stars and star-formation regions.

Only Swift’s Ultraviolet/Optical Telescope, or UVOT, is capable of producing such high-resolution wide-field multi-color surveys in the ultraviolet. The LMC and SMC images range from 1,600 to 3,300 angstroms, UV wavelengths largely blocked by Earth’s atmosphere.

The Large and Small Magellanic Clouds are readily visible from the Southern Hemisphere as faint, glowing patches in the night sky. The galaxies are named after Ferdinand Magellan, the Portuguese explorer who in 1519 led an expedition to sail around the world. He and his crew were among the first Europeans to sight the objects. All visible light imagery provided by Axel Mellinger, Central Michigan University.