Spectacular Hubble Survey Unveils Thousands Of Globular Clusters 300 Million Light-Years Away

The remarkable thing about these ancient star clusters is that they were found stranded in between galaxies.

A mosaic of a portion of the immense Coma Cluster, created from data gathered by the Hubble Space Telescope.
NASA / ESA, / J. Mack (STScI) / J. Madrid (Australian Telescope National Facility)

The remarkable thing about these ancient star clusters is that they were found stranded in between galaxies.

An exciting new survey based on data from the Hubble Space Telescope has revealed more than 20,000 globular star clusters in a distant bundle of galaxies, NASA announced earlier today.

Located around 300 million light-years from Earth in the constellation Coma Berenices (“Berenices’ Hair”), these galaxies are part of the Coma Cluster — one of the richest galaxy clusters known to date, notes Earth Sky. The immense galaxy cluster stretches some 20 million light-years across and is home to nearly 10,000 galaxies. The newly released survey presents a stunning mosaic of more than 1,000 of these galaxies and was pieced together from Hubble images taken across several observational campaigns.

Thanks to telescope’s sharp eyes, astronomers have been able to detect a whopping 22,426 globular star clusters with this portion of the Coma Cluster. Detailed in a paper published this month in the Astrophysical Journal, this is one of the most comprehensive surveys of globular clusters in this part of the sky to date.

As the Inquisitr previously reported, globular clusters are spherical clumps of stars held together by gravity and date back to the early days of the universe. The Milky Way has about 150 globular clusters — all of which have been around since the formation of the galaxy.

View of the Coma Cluster, imaged by Hubble's Advanced Camera for Surveys in 2008.
View of the Coma Cluster, imaged by Hubble’s Advanced Camera for Surveys in 2008. NASA, ESA, and the Hubble Heritage Team (STScI/AURA) / Wikimedia Commons/Resized

“Among the earliest homesteaders of the universe, globular star clusters are snow-globe-shaped islands of several hundred thousand ancient stars,” explains NASA.

While globular clusters typically exist within a galaxy, the ones unveiled by Hubble survey are actually free-floating through space and have been found stranded in between the galaxies of the Coma Cluster.

“The survey found the globular clusters scattered in the space between the galaxies. They have been orphaned from their home galaxy due to galaxy near-collisions inside the traffic-jammed cluster.”

The interesting thing about these globular clusters is that they seem to be concentrated in three main areas of the Coma Cluster, which correspond to some of its brightest galaxies — NGC 4889, NGC 4874, and IC 4051. While IC 4051 is an elliptical galaxy about the size of the Milky Way, NGC 4889 and NGC 4874 are giant ellipticals at least two to three times larger than our own galaxy.

A mosaic of 1,000 galaxies in the Coma Cluster, created from data gathered by the Hubble Space Telescope.
Hubble mosaic of the Coma Cluster with NGC 4889 (left) and NGC 4874 (right) visible in the center. NASA, ESA, J. Mack (STScI) and J. Madrid (Australian Telescope National Facility)

The survey uncovered that “the highest surface density of globular clusters in Coma is spatially coincidental with NGC 4889,” whereas “the most extended overdensity of globular clusters is associated with NGC 4874,” the authors wrote in their paper.

In addition, the Hubble observations also revealed that some of the globular clusters in this part of the Coma bundle tend to “line up along bridge-like patterns,” forming “clear bridges between Coma galaxies.”

“This is telltale evidence for interactions between galaxies where they gravitationally tug on each other like pulling taffy,” stated NASA officials.

According to the space agency, the new Hubble survey — which continues the work of the Coma Cluster Treasury Survey cut short in 2006 after a malfunction of the telescope’s powerful Advanced Camera for Surveys instrument — will help astronomers map matter and dark matter in the Coma Custer and figure out how they are distributed within this vast collection of galaxies. As NASA points out, the Coma Cluster was one of the first places in the universe where scientists first detected “gravitational anomalies [that] were considered to be indicative of a lot of unseen mass in the universe — later to be called ‘dark matter.'”

While Hubble was only able to image 10 percent of the galaxies within the Coma Cluster, glancing at small swaths of the sky at a time, future space telescopes — such as NASA’s Wide Field Infrared Survey Telescope — could be able to spy on the entire cluster at once.